As I have outlined in my story on Philippine Sport, elsewhere in this website, my sports fix, such as it was, since I arrived in the Philippines, had been limited to a diet of Basketball, Boxing and then more Basketball. Trust me - Basketball is a national obsession here. It dominates the free-to-air sports programming in this country, like no other.
Anyway, to address the burning question I posed at the start of this blog: Why Volleyball?
The easiest answer to this question is possibly the most obvious. What is it about pretty, young girls, in cute uniforms, performing serious acrobatic manoeuvres on a volleyball court, in a sporting contest, that is so appealing? Now, of course, I'm not going to deny this attraction of the game for a second...I may be getting on in years, but I'm not dead yet! No red-blooded male could fail to be stirred by the sheer athleticism, artistry and commitment of these modern day amazons.
These Volleyball stars, it seems to me, epitomize what sport has always supposed to have been about: Two teams or individuals who give their all in a sporting endeavour, no quarter asked, and no quarter given. Yet at the end of the contest, irrespective of the result, they resume their genuine friendships with each other. On the court, they give everything they have in the pursuit of victory, but off the court, they are humble and self-effacing, regardless of whether they tasted victory or defeat.
In this age of ruthlessly professional sport, often mired in ego, arrogance, claims of corruption and bad behaviour off and on the court, these young ladies have brought a breath of fresh air with their demeanour and attitudes. This I believe, more than anything is why they have captured the hearts and minds of so many average Filipinos. They bring their own special charm to the gladiatorial contest that is sport in the 21st Century...and like millions of my fellow countrymen...I adore them.
When I saw my first game of Volleyball in December 2012; from the very first I was hooked. The game is fast-paced and exciting. The positions, the tactics, even why one player wore a different coloured jersey from the others were all a mystery to me then, but I knew instantly that this game was going to capture my heart and my attention for many years to come.
The UAAP volleyball season runs from December to early March, breaking for Christmas, so for three months I had a steady, regular fix of two games a day, three days a week. My Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays became organised around the two games that would be played that day. The TV was mine...no arguments please...from 2pm to 6pm on those days. I won't lie; I wallowed in this constant diet of a new and exciting sporting contest to revel in. I became an expert in tactics, in team structure and in player knowledge. I even found out why the Libero wore a different coloured jersey. For three months I was in sporting nirvana...and I LOVED it.
One of the most exciting things about the College scene is that students have just five years to make their mark in the top flight. For some, like Ara Galang or Bernadette Pons they become stars in their freshman year, but for others it takes a little longer. Take Carmina Aganon for example. For four years she served dutifully as a bit-player for the National University team. She got court-time for sure, especially when the team was well ahead in the game, but she rarely, if ever got a starting berth. This last season, her final, was her time to shine. She started almost every game and she developed into a vital cog of the up and coming NU team. In fact she obviously impressed the owners of the professional league teams so much that she was picked up in the first ever draft last month and is now playing for the Petron Blaze Spikers.
This constant turnover of players in the UAAP and the NCAA is one of the features that make these competitions so special. Each year the coaches are faced with new teams and the loss of old stars. The questions of how will Ateneo cope without the "Fab 5" or how can UST recover from the loss of Dimaculangan, Ortiz and Banaticla, dominate pre-season discussions. It makes for an exciting new season each year.
But, now it was all over. What was I to do for my Volleyball fix? Woe and betide poor me! Would I really have to wait until December to experience the thrill again of the Adamson Soaring Falcons, the UP Fighting Maroons, or the UST Golden Tigresses? Indeed it was sad times for little, old me. I was experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms and took to the internet reading everything I could find about volleyball in this Country.
It seemed that Volleyball was the flavour of the month as everyone in the media thronged to cover it. Quite by chance I discovered another competing competition on TV5. This was the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) and included a host of Colleges I'd never seen before; San Beda, Arellano, St Benilde, Jose Rizal and others. I was in seventh heaven, with Volleyball coming out of my ears.
The V-League also ran a second conference later in the year, which was called an Open Conference and gave an opportunity for older players - stars of the UAAP from yesteryear to strut their stuff and show they still had what it takes to excite and thrill and audience. I was introduced to players who had been stars at College long before I arrived here and still had the goods. I rejoiced in the dynamism of yesterdays heroes; names like: Aiza Maiso, Susan Roces, Ruby de Leon, Joy Cases, Melissa Gohing, Cha Cruz...the list goes on and on. I couldn't have been happier!
Now, don't get me wrong...I'm not anti-professional, but I have seen, as we all have, some of the evil, nasty consequences that can come from professional sports. Even as I write this, my home country of New Zealand is experiencing the gut-wrenching, devastating news that some of their greatest heroes growing up, in the sport of Cricket, have been involved in match-fixing. Professionalism brings money into a sport and where money goes, sadly greed and avarice will inevitably follow.
This new professional league is young, exciting and unfortunately, for now anyway, restricted to Pay-TV. My hope is that the exemplary attitude of the girls that represent their Colleges, on the court, will carry over to their professional careers. This is a wonderful opportunity for the current darlings of the Philippine sporting environment to cement themselves forever in the tapestry of Philippine culture. I wish the league all the success in the future.
Similarly the men have gained a foothold in the UAAP coverage with a "game of the week" being replayed on a Friday afternoon. The games have thrown up a new set of heroes, just male this time. I have truly admired the power and determination of Peter Torres, Mark Alfafara and Reuben Inaudito, among others. Men's volleyball differs from Women's Volleyball in much the same way that Men's Tennis differs from Women's Tennis. Each brings its own special characteristics to the table and each is exciting in its own right. The men are all about power, all about that decisive spike. Their rallies tend to be short and sharp. There aren't many liberos, anywhere around, who can hope to return a perfectly hit Peter Torres spike. When these guys hit the ball...it stays hit. Their power and athleticism are a joy to observe and marvel at.
The women hit the ball pretty damn hard too, but often being shorter than the men, and less powerfully built there is more likelihood of a spike being returned. The rallies can be very long at times and it is the scrambling, do anything to recover that ball defence that brings crowds to its feet. That evokes the involuntary "wow!" or the screams of disbelief from the audience. The women bring a grace and beauty to their athleticism that, as a fan, is hard to deny.
Given a choice, I'd probably watch the women play over the men, but I'd happily watch the men play if that was all that was on to watch. Volleyball is in my soul now and I don't ever expect it to leave.
The game soared to even greater heights this last March as the UAAP Season 76 season drew to a close. The finals series of this tournament was a microcosm of what sport is all about. It had everything going for it: David versus Goliath; the crushingly dominant De La Salle Lady Spikers, vying for their fourth consecutive title, against the rebuilding Ateneo Blue Eagles; the De La Salle coach Ramon de Jesus, with something like 17 titles under his belt against the new coach for Ateneo, Tai Bundit...who had little or no Tagalog and whose English appeared to be limited to just a few words, "fun, heart and defence".
It truly was a series that redefined the sport in this Country. It was the type of final series that sports fans live to see. It had all the ingredients of high drama that makes for such compelling viewing...in fact...it deserves a story all of its own!
WATCH THIS SPACE!
"Volleyball - The Game That Has Stolen a Nation's Heart"