‘Heart Strong’ Strikes Back!!!

Improbable, incredible, unbelievable, call it what you will. For the nth time, the Ateneo Lady Eagles stared death in the face and for the nth time, they clawed back to survive! Ateneo nipped the defending champs La Salle in an epic 5-set thriller that went on extension in the final set 25-21, 25-23, 18-25, 16-25, 17-15, to force a winner-take-all, do-or-die duel on Saturday for this year’s UAAP Women’s Volleyball Championship!

Ateneo rejoicing a win with Coach Tai. (Courtesy of http://www.ph.sports.yahoo.com)

The outcome of the gut-wrenching, spine-tingling drama would not be clear until the last point, and until the last referee’s whistle. Ateneo would come from behind in the deciding set at 8-12, with the fans in green already chanting ‘4-peat’. As Ateneo painstakingly crawled back from the grave to take the lead at 14-13, La Salle’s equally fired-up Lady Spikers refused to wilt and regained the lead at 15-14, before 18,000 screaming, stomping, shell-shocked fans.

But as La Salle served for match, game and championship-point, the fickle volleyball gods would once again favor the girls in blue. Ateneo would miraculously find 3 reasons to ‘be happy’: a boom from the veteran Alyssa Valdez, a bang from the rookie Michelle Morente, and a boo-booh slapped on La Salle’s Kim Fajardo.

Aly delivers. (Courtesy of Lasallian.com)
Aly delivers. (Courtesy of Lasallian.com)

La Salle would dispute the last call; but in the end, the blue had bested the green in this drama-filled seesaw marathon that took almost 3 hours to decide.

Ateneo. That never-say-die team exorcised with a ‘heart strong’ and ‘play happy’ attitude by a language-impaired, yet enchantingly animated Thai coach, Tai Bundit.

The animated Thai wunder-coach, Tai Bundit. (Courtesy of www.pinoyexchange.com)
The animated Thai wunder-coach, Tai Bundit. (Courtesy of http://www.pinoyexchange.com)

Against La Salle. Systematic, ruthless, business-like. Steered by a coach who’s been there a zillion times, Ramil De Jesus.

Coach Ramil De Jesus is all-business in his approach to the game. (Courtesy of www.ph.sports.yahoo.com)
Coach Ramil De Jesus is all-business in his approach to the game. (Courtesy of http://www.ph.sports.yahoo.com)

Ateneo. The classic underdog team that was supposed to be still on a rebuilding program, who surprised everyone by taking centerstage as a David thrust against the Goliaths of UAAP volleyball. Tested in a knockout face-off against Adamson. Survivor in a series against a twice-to-beat NU side. And now on the cusp of making history with 2 surprising wins over an erstwhile formidable DLSU squad.

La Salle. Three-time and defending champion, unbeaten in the elimination round. Molded through the years, impeccably trained. Experienced, skilled, and armed with an attitude.

Ateneo. Overachievers who were tested and roughhoused  on the long road to the finals. Led by current league MVP, the alluring Alyssa ‘Baldo’ Valdez, she with her ready smile and easy ways. Ateneo got ample support from veterans Ella De Jesus, Jhie Tejada and Amy ‘Kiwi’ Ahomiro, defense specialist Denden Lazaro, plus Michelle Morente, setter Julia Morado and other rookies who were not expected to shine this early in their careers.

Alluring Alyssa (Courtesy of www.interaksyon.com)
Alluring Alyssa (Courtesy of http://www.interaksyon.com)

La Salle. A finesse team with a great winning tradition. Well-rested, with nary a scratch from the elimination round. Led by team captain, former MVP, and  spiritual leader, Aby Marano, she with the intense game-face. La Salle’s star-studded line-up included elite gunslingers Mika Reyes, Ara Galang and Cyd Demicillo, plus setter Kim Fajardo, Desiree Cheng and a bevy of players who could easily make the first team in other UAAP squads.

Ablazed Aby (Courtesy of www.twitter.com)
Aby ablaze! (Courtesy of http://www.twitter.com)

For the life of me, I couldn’t understand how Ateneo could be on the winning side despite being on the short end of practically all the statistics, from unforced errors to blocks to spikes to digs to aces. You name it, the greenies were winning the statistical race in all fronts. There must be something besides statistics that run this sport. For how does one measure heart? How does one count desire? Do we count prayers or chart the decibel levels of the cheers and jeers from the sidelines?

But the volleyball gods have spoken. The blues have it… for now.

Come Saturday, expect the MOA to be filled to the rafters. This match is a now-or-never glory ride for all the marbles. A sea of green is expected to fill the stands with prayers for a 4-peat. They will be matched by a torrent of blue, equally prayerful, and eager to witness an upset. No, not just an upset, but the upset of the decade.

Who will the gods favor? The blue or the green? (Courtesy of www.solarsportsdesk.ph)
Who will the gods favor? The blue or the green? (Courtesy of http://www.solarsportsdesk.ph)

This is not for the faint of heart. This is not for mere flowers and candies.  This, folks, is for bragging rights and more. This, folks, is for everything including the kitchen sink! Be there!!!

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