Here’s a snappy salute to the Ateneo Lady Eagles for giving us the latest Cinderella story to inspire our world! Ateneo stunned the Saturday record-crowd of 21,314 screaming fans at the Mall of Asia (MOA) Arena with a masterful 25-23, 26-24, 25-21 straight-sets victory over erstwhile heavy favorite La Salle Lady Spikers to win this year’s UAAP Women’s Volleyball crown.
Ateneo was the unexpected finalist which had to go through the proverbial eye of the needle enroute to clinching the win. First, they had to eke out a thrilling 26-24, 25-23, 25-21 character win in a knockout game against Adamson last Feb 22 for the right to meet second-seed National University. The match could’ve gone either way, but somehow, Coach Tai Bundit’s constant cajoling for a ‘heart-strong’ and a ‘play happy’ attitude would make the Ateneans step up their games.
Advancing to the semifinals, they needed to beat NU twice. And despite the presence of the celebrated twin towers of women’s volleyball, Dindin and Jaja Santiago, the Lady Eagles would prevail again. The last encounter was a 25-17, 12-25, 31-29, 28-26 cliffhanger that would further hone the character of the team. The gutsy extension wins in the 3rd and 4th sets of the game would clearly help in the maturing process the ladies had to undergo. Now, the team was definitely on a roll. Now, they were starting to believe in themselves. Now, they were buying in to Coach Tai’s ‘heart-strong’ philosophy. And just in time too, as Ateneo was now moving up to center-stage.
The league-leading Lady Spikers of La Salle were definitely the Goliaths of the tournament. Armed with a 30-game winning streak that dated back to the previous season, they were not the 3-time defending champs for nothing. And they had a goal of their own: to collect a record 4th straight title that no team had ever achieved before. On top of that, the fact that La Salle had breezed through the elimination round without a single loss had farther made it harder for their would-be opponent. This would up the ante for the Ateneans who – under the UAAP rules – now needed to beat them not just once or twice, but thrice in order to win the crown.
Yet the blue belles refused to be intimidated. And they continued to trudge forward. By taking it one game at a time. First, they surprised everyone by annexing Game 1 with that ‘nothing-to-lose, play-happy’ attitude inculcated on them by Coach Tai. Suddenly, it was the battle-tested blue blur that took the measure of the green juggernaut 17-25, 25-23, 25-13, 25-20! And finally, the Ateneans had broken the myth of invincibility that La Salle had tried to project all season. In the process, they now realized two things: 1) that La Salle’s defense was not impregnable after all; and 2) that their defense was equally good, and could stop whatever offense La Salle threw at them. The finals had now been reduced to a simple best-of-three affair.
But the green Goliath was now fully awake and seething mad. In Game 2, the greenies displayed their murderous form once again, stopping Ateneo’s aerial attacks with their net defense, and producing a symphony of booming spikes from gunners Mika Reyes, Ara Galang, Cyd Demicillo and their fiery skipper, Aby Marano. In winning Game 2, 25-14, 25-20, 19-25, 26-24, the Greenies once again took the driver’s seat in the road to the championship. Now, all they needed was one more game, and the green and white balloons would go tumbling down the rafters.
Game 3 was a gruelling contest that saw momentum shift from one end to the other. But as the smoke of battle cleared at the end of almost three hours of merciless slams and miracle saves, Ateneo would come out the last-gasp victor, 25-21, 25-23, 18-25, 16-25, 17-15. Once again, Tai’s animated talk and crazy dance would do wonders on his wards as they rallied from a seemingly insurmountable 8-12 deficit in the last set, to 13-14 (with the green crowd now chanting ‘4-peat’), before finally clinching it at 17-15! Talk about grit, talk about nerves of steel, talk about iron will. Ateneo’s blue bangers simply refused to die!
And so it came to pass that the two teams would finally meet for the final time this season. The Lady Eagles raced to take the first set, nipping the Lady Spikers 25-23, to the ooohs and aaahs of an electrified blue and green sell-out crowd at the MOA. The Spikers were set to turn the tables in the second set, leading 21-17 and 24-21 at the homestretch. But things were simply not meant to be, as the Eagles dug deep once again to score an incredible 5 straight points to prevail, 26-24.
I believe it was at the end of this fateful 2nd set when the Spikers finally realized that the volleyball gods were no longer cheering for the green and white. For as the 3rd set progressed, gone was the championship form that clicked with precision in the elimination round. Gone too were the champion swagger and the confidence. Nothing seemed to work anymore as the Lady Eagles raced to a 19-10 lead. Credit La Salle for giving it one last try, as they closed in at 21-23. But that was as far as they could go. Ateneo – exorcised into believing in their own invincibility – could do no wrong.
Take a bow, Alyssa Valdez! You and your co-conspirators in this human drama have made converts of thousands of new volleyball fanatics. Take a bow, Denden Lazaro, Ella De Jesus, Amy Ahomiro. You provided your rookies the guidance and the opportunity to grow. You too, Michelle Morente, Jhia Morado, for stepping up way ahead of your time. Ditto to Aerieal Patnungon, Jie Tejada and the rest of the gang, your presence provided the unseen power that lifted the team. Finally, to Coach Tai Bundit and his able staff, for orchestrating this one big magical mystery tour.
To the equally-talented La Salle Lady Spikers, lift your heads up high. You have nothing to be ashamed of. You gave it a good fight, and there’s always another day, another chance at victory. My salute goes to you all as well!!! Thank you, ladies, for the dream match-up of the year.