Heart Strong Ateneo Makes UAAP Volleyball History

UAAP Season 76 Women’s Volleyball Finals

Heart Strong Ateneo Makes UAAP Volleyball History

By Joseph W Buduan

Everybody loves a Cinderella story, and in the Season 76 Women’s Volleyball Tournament the crowd darling Ateneo Lady Eagles cemented their legacy as the team everybody loves, pulling off the near-impossible as they dethroned the mighty La Salle Lady Spikers

SMOA Arena, 15 March 2014 – “I’ve got two words for you: Heart and Strong,” yelled an ecstatic older alumni over the din of the loudest crowd in UAAP volleyball history. In front of over 21,000 paying fans, the Ateneo Lady Eagles completed what is arguably the single most difficult title run in league history, shocking erstwhile champion La Salle in three straight sets 25-23, 26-24, 25-21.

It was the first-ever UAAP volleyball title for the Lady Eagles, and to have done it in this fashion, against odds this tall, only made it sweeter. “Parang ayoko na tuloy manuod ng men’s basketball,” quipped an Ateneo High School instructor who is also a long-time photography hobbyist covering the UAAP. “Grabe dinaanan ng mga babae natin. This is really a story for the ages,” he added.

Adding to the burgeoning Lady Eagles legend is how everybody and his sister was already saying that this team would not really make it this far. They lost five seniors to graduation, four of whom were starters last season. They ended the eliminations with a respectable 10-4 win-loss record and were seeded third in the stepladder semifinals. After beating Adamson University they had to beat National University twice to return to the Finals. And of course in this Finals La Salle had what seemed to be an insurmountable thrice-to-beat edge having swept all 14 games in the eliminations.

“Final 4 lang naman talaga habol naming, kasi nga parang rebuilding year naming ito,” explained Season and Finals MVP Alyssa Valdez, the Ateneo Captain. “Pero sabi nga parati ni Coach Tai (Anusorn Bundit) if you play happy you will win,” she added. Win they certainly did.

In Set 1 it was as tight as it could get, with the Ateneo taking the early 4-2 lead. La Salle kept within striking distance though. That spread of two and three points just stayed there for a while. Midway through though the Ateneo suddenly had a 17-13 cushion thanks to the efforts at the net of Ella “Elevator” De Jesus and rookie sensation Michelle Morente. La Salle however kept their championship poise, and retook the advantage at 17-18 behind a huge kill by their captain, the love-her-or-hate-her Abby Marano.

Bundit sued for time and Morente promptly went back to work, smacking the ball into a side-out off a Mika Reyes block that knotted the count at 20-all. De Jesus had another powerful return at the net to restore the lead to the Ateneo at 21-20. Valdez wrapped up the set scoring the final two points.

Set 2 looked like it would become the Green Vengeance, with the Lady Spikers racing to a 1-7 spread mostly on the serving and returning efforts of Cyd Demegillo. De Jesus and the Lady Eagles came screeching back though, as the diminutive net player pulled the Blue and White side abreast at 9-all. But the Green and White were all pumped up and determined not to let this set get away this time. Marano, Demegillo and Ara Galang went on a new tear to power La Salle to a 10-17 lead. It seemed Bundit and his girls had run out of steam in this set.

Aeriel Patnongon and the rest of the Ateneo defense however held strong while Valdez, De Jesus and Morente somehow brought the Ateneo back within 21-24. A return error by Mika Esperanza made it 24-all. That was all the Ateneo needed. Valdez slammed home the go-ahead kill. Amy Ahomiro, this season’s most improved player, wrapped up the set with a block score.

At this point it seemed the world and all the planets in the known galaxy had weighed down La Salle. All the swagger had left them after the Ateneo salvaged Set 2 in style. When the two teams were switching sides of the court the slumped shoulders and glassy eyes of the Lady Spikers were evident. At the start of Set 3 it was a close game for a while up to 10-all. Then the Lady Eagles just went nuts.

Valdez hammered home a service ace to give the Ateneo its largest lead of the game at 19-10. La Salle still had a bit of fight left though, rallying to within 17-21. Bundit just reminded his girls to settle down, focus on the game and execute. When the Ateneo had championship point at 21-24, it seemed time and space had come to a halt. Valdez got a perfect set-up, smashed in the kill, and three different La Salle players failed to prevent the point, with Galang diving to the floor and barely nicking the ball.

Then the balloons flew and the confetti fell.

All of the players on the floor either fell to their knees or had their face in their hands.

Bundit was right in the middle of his signature jogging dance as he was mobbed by fans and media.

Valdez was helped to her feet by teammate Denden Lazaro, the do-or-die, crush-ng-bayan libero who anchored the reception and digging that bolstered the new and improved Ateneo defense.

“Sulit lahat ng pinaghirapan namin,” beamed Valdez during the floor interview, clutching both the championship trophy and her Finals MVP award, along with a beautiful bouquet of flowers.

The Ateneo not only won its first title, but also snapped the three-decade-long carousel among only three schools for the volleyball crown, La Salle, Santo Tomas University and Far Eastern University.

Bundit mouthed “heart strong” that started as a cliché. Now it has become a battle cry. This could the beginning of a new dynasty.