Like many other people last Sunday I was glued to my seat to watch the rematch of last season's epic Grand Final series, as the Ateneo Lady Eagles (the current champions) took on the De La Salle Lady Spikers. Even though this was just the first round of the elimination series, such was the anticipation for this game that over 18,000 people packed the Mall of Asia Arena, with no doubt millions more watching the live coverage on Channel 23.
After struggling against UP in their first game back, the previous Sunday, they were faced with back to back games on the Saturday and Sunday, to catch up. Fortunately the Saturday game was against perennial easy-beats University of the East, and proved to be nothing more strenuous than a solid, practice workout. So come Sunday, they were ready and primed for their epic match against De La Salle, with the Lady Eagles seeking confirmation of their dominance and the Lady Spikers seeking redemption for last season's final's humiliation.
It was, as promised, an epic encounter with the fortunes swinging first one way and then the other. The game went to the almost mandatory five sets between these two great rivals, and although the score was secondary in many ways, the result was not. Like last year's final, The Ateneo Lady Eagles fought through the tiredness, fought through the difficulties and fought through their opposition, to claim the fifth set and the victory 15-9.
After the game it occurred to me that this Ateneo team really is something special. They have something that all sports teams strive for...that never say die attitude. So what is it that makes this Ateneo team so special - far greater, as a team, than the much vaunted years of "the fab five"?
The sight of the girls sitting down at a timeout in last year's final, with their eyes closed; meditating, was frankly amazing - and yet it worked. Tai Bundit has caught the imagination of the Volleyball faithful. with his victory dances up and down the sidelines and his constant imploring the girls to be happy and to smile on the court. He is a breath of fresh air in the UAAP and clearly a big influence on the team - long may he continue to coach here. He is inspirational!
Without a doubt, Alyssa Valdez encapsulates everything that is special and exciting about the UAAP Women's Volleyball. She is an out and out superstar and when she finally graduates the league will be the lesser for it. It is one of the endearing beauties of the UAAP that every year teams have to find new players to replace their graduating players, but part of me just wishes that Alyssa never has to graduate.
There have been other players in the past that have captured the public's imagination; one can think of Rachel Daquis, who was the poster girl of the league for both her beauty and her ability; Jennylyn Reyes whose heroics as a Libero sent many spectators gasping in awe; and Abby Marano whose swagger and abilities endeared her to the public. But I would suggest that none of these great players can approach Alyssa Valdez for sheer charisma, ability and star-power. The woman is a true phenomenon who defines the sport she plays and yet she never comes across as anything other than humble, sweet and "the girl next door". Millions of boys would love to date her, and millions of girls would love to be her.
She carries the weight of Ateneo's expectations on her shoulders, but she rarely, if ever fails to deliver. Oh, she is human - she does make mistakes (occasionally), but when you see her on the court, playing through yet another pain barrier, you know that when Ateneo gets desperate, they can always go to Alyssa, and she will deliver - and they invariably do.
She is the reason many love this UAAP game and she is responsible for so much of Ateneo's success.
I often think the sign of a Libero's value to the team is not how many digs or receptions they make in a game, but actually how often the Libero is left on court when it is their team's service. Most coaches switch out the Libero when their team is serving, but if you look closely you will see Denden is often left on the court whether the team is serving or receiving. To me this is a sign of her importance and leadership within this team. She is responsible for saving points in what often seem hopeless situations.
The instant Jia Morado came into this team last season, she looked like she belonged. She plays with a confidence that belies her tender experience. I will confidently predict that this season she will rise from number two setter to number one in the league. She is only getting better and better and like the rest of the team she admirably displays the mantra of Coach Tai in "Happy Happy", always looking like she is thoroughly enjoying herself on court. With three more years of eligibility after this, Ateneo will be well served in this role for some time.
Bea de Leon is slowly developing the confidence to use her impressive 6'1" height to her and her team's advantage. As a sophomore she has much to still add to this team over the next few years.
Next in line is one of my favorite players, Mich Morente. Every team needs a character, someone to make them laugh, someone whose enthusiasm is infectious and for Ateneo it seems Mich fills that role admirably. When she is playing well she can be a devastating player, but she brings much more than her play to the court. She brings the joy and excitement that makes high-level sport so enthralling. Even when she or some other team member makes a mistake, Mich is always there to console, to gee up the team and to give them the focus for the next point. She is, in my opinion, one of the key reasons why Ateneo keep defying the odds and winning. She just infuses her team with her bubbly personality.
One final player who sums up the guts and courage of this Ateneo de Manila squad is Ella de Jesus. They call her "the elevator" - for good reason. I have no idea how tall she is, but I suspect about 5' 4" and yet this young lady who you would think should only be a Libero or at best a setter, is in fact one of Ateneo's most deadly spikers. Somehow she gets more height and more hang-time than players much taller then herself. On court she has a look of total determination and she gives everything she has in every game she plays. Nobody could ever accuse "the elevator" of giving less than 100%. She is an inspiration to watch, especially for those of us who are vertically challenged.
Sure, when Alyssa and Denden have gone, things will never quite be the same, but somewhere out there in the High School volleyball programs around this country is the next Alyssa Valdez and the next Denden Lazaro, just waiting to be discovered and plucked from obscurity to become true superstars on the UAAP stage.
This is why I love this game and this is why I love this competition.
Roll on Wednesday and the second round of the elimination series. I can't wait!