UAAP Season 76 Women’s Volleyball Finals
Lazaro Wills It
By Joseph W Buduan
Injured and hobbling on one foot in Game 2, the Ateneo libero literally manned up, took some pain killers and played through pain to ensure the Ateneo would not be denied the women’s volleyball title this time around
SMOA Arena, 15 March 2014 – As in every power sport where the stud athletes are the ones who get noticed, in the game of volleyball, the libero is usually just seen as “that player wearing the different color uniform” by the ordinary fan.
The libero is normally the player doing all of unglamorous things for the team, i.e. receiving the tough serves and kills, digging, going after long hits, responsible for a greater floor area, chasing after loose balls as she is not responsible for attacking, essentially anchoring the floor defense for the team. Liberos are not limited by the stringent rotation rules of volleyball, although she usually rotates to the middle blocker position when they rotate to the back row, without however rotating to the front row.
Front row players like Alyssa Valdez, Amy Ahomiro, Michelle Morente and Ella De Jesus normally get all of the attention with their power kills and blocking at the net. Valdez has fans even in remote rural areas of the country. Everyone loves the way she just kills that ball with such grace and power. Liberos are hardly noticed.
Such is not the case however for the unbelievably tough Denden Lazaro.
Lazaro had to be helped off the court in Game 2 of the Season 76 Finals. She was chasing down a loose ball when she slipped at the end line area and her ankle got twisted brutally as she crashed foot first into one of the advertisement barriers. TV replays showed how badly her ankle got twisted, going at what looked like a 90-degree angle.
She gallantly returned to the floor, but she was hobbling on one foot, receiving wave after wave of La Salle service attacks, then hopping on her one good foot while gingerly tiptoeing on the injured foot, trying to keep the weight off it. Without her to anchor their much-improved defense, the Ateneo lost Game 2, and it looked like the ghost of lost finals past would once again come back to haunt the Lady Eagles. “Anlaking nawala sa depensa natin when Denden went down,” noted TV analyst Mozzy Ravena after the Game 2 loss.
When Game 3 rolled around the Ateneo gallery was waiting with bated breath. Would Lazaro be in uniform? If she was, would she be able to play? If she did, would it matter? Turns out the Blue and White faithful had nothing to worry about. In the payoff Set 5, with La Salle ahead 8-12 and the Green and White gallery prematurely chanting “4-Peat”, Lazaro chased down every loose ball and anchored the rally that would become the pivotal point in ending a dynasty. The Ateneo eventually won 25-21, 25-23, 18-25, 16-25 and 17-15 to force a winner-take-all Game 4. You know the rest of that story by now. Lazaro had her “Willis Reed Moment” in Game 3 and the Lady Eagles completed their date with destiny.
Few know how apt the Willis Reed comparison really is. Reed’s appearance, hobbling and all, in the Finals against the powerful Wilt Chamberlain is part of worldwide sports lore. Reed willed it to make that appearance and inspire his New York Knicks to the title. Lazaro willed this one in the exact same way. “I had to take pain killers. On a scale of one to ten, ten being the most painful, it was an eight,” Lazaro revealed after they finally wrapped up the title in Game 4. “Last game na ito, do or die na ito,” she added.
Although the Ateneo wrapped up the game and the title in three straight sets in Game 4, there was still a slight but noticeable way Lazaro was trying to keep pressure off her injured ankle. Whenever she dove for a ball recovery, or received a long serve, she was hobbling ever so slightly on her good foot. There was, as she already said, pain. But there was also will, her will, and she proved which one was stronger.
When Valdez hammered home the championship point it seemed all the pain was worth it. She helped a stunned Valdez to her feet, hugged rival Abby Marano, then joined in the raucous celebration of the most improbable title run in UAAP volleyball history. “Ang iniisip lang namin pinaghirapan namin ito. It was all worth it. Ito na ‘yung reward namin,” she said with a big smile.
She has one more year of eligibility left, but medical school might be beckoning already for the BS Biology major. As a Lady Eagles fan I am devastated by the thought. Finding a libero of Lazaro’s caliber would be nearly impossible. She is after all the Season 76 best Receiver and Best Digger.
As an Atenean though, I can’t stop beaming with pride. I don’t know any other player from any other school who even has plans beyond eligibility, much less to be a doctor. Dr Lazaro. It does have a ring to it, doesn’t it?