Nothing to lose, everything to win for Ateneo Lady Eagles

Jane Bracher
The Ateneo de Manila University Lady Eagles have overachieved all season long. Will they achieve the ultimate UAAP volleyball accomplishment and upset the La Salle Lady Spikers once more?

UNDERDOGS RUNNING THE PACK. Alyssa Valdez of Ateneo is overcome with joy after the Lady Eagles defeated La Salle in Game 3. Photo by Josh Albelda/Rappler

MANILA, Philippines – Perhaps the biggest thing going for them is the undeniable fact that they’re playing with nothing to lose and everything to gain. That, followed by an unbelievable surge of momentum coming off the eliminations and drawing first blood in the Finals.

Had the Ateneo de Manila University Lady Eagles lost Game 1 against rivals De La Salle University Lady Spikers, who knows how big a dent it could have left in the Lady Eagles’ confidence.

But they didn’t lose. They won. 

Then they lost Game 2 in a near reversal of fortunes from Game 1, putting Ateneo in yet another do-or-die situation in Game 3 as they fought to stay alive against the thrice-to-beat Lady Spikers, who only needed two wins to get their hands on their fourth straight UAAP Volleyball title.

Para talaga silang pader, wala pa silang lamat (They’re like a wall, they have no imperfection.),” said newly minted Most Valuable Player (MVP) Alyssa Valdez of their Finals opponents La Salle, who exhibited pure dominance all season long and came into the Finals armed with an elimination round sweep and a two-year, 30-game win streak. 

Sobrang challenging yun for us,” she said. (That was very challenging for us.)

The third seed Lady Eagles have been all about challenges for Season 76. They survived 3 straight do-or-die games prior to the Finals – defeating fourth seed Adamson Lady Falcons and overturning the second seed and twice-to-beat NU Lady Bulldogs.

And they survived yet another do-or-die game on Wednesday, March 12 in Game 3 of the Finals, with La Salle playing for the championship already.

Siguro we took it as… hindi naman ‘light’,” Valdez explained. “Kasi para sa amin, na-achieve na namin yung goal namin (Final Four). So pag pumapasok kami every game naglalaro lang talaga kami. We’re happy na nakaabot kami this far.” (We took it as… not ‘light,’ but for us, we already achieved our goal. So when we come into every game we just play. We’re happy we’ve come this far.)

Ateneo did a lot of things to La Salle that the latter had never experienced all season long.

They broke the mean 30-game win streak of the girls from Taft – in 4 sets no less. Even after La Salle went back to winning again, Ateneo grabbed La Salle from their lofty perch in Game 3 to be on equal footing with the powerhouse squad.

La Salle gave up a set to the FEU Lady Tamaraws some time in the eliminations. But that seems like a whole different era in these times where the 3-time defending champions actually look like they are beatable.

Though it wasn’t rainbows and butterflies for Ateneo either as they had to weather a La Salle storm in the third and fourth sets of Game 3, wherein Ateneo could do nothing against the powerful kills of Ara Galang or get through the tall wall built at the net by Mika Reyes and captain Aby Marano.

“Over-relaxed,” Valdez described what happened to her team after they held a 2-0 set advantage over La Salle only to lose the next two and play a fifth and deciding set. 

Playing too relaxed, however, had nothing to do with the meditations they do during the game, which Valdez says helps them to focus and concentrate as well as shut out distractions.

Siguro kasi champion team na-two sets namin. So siguro nag-doubt din kami na kaya ba talaga namin? Tsaka given na La Salle yan, lalaban at lalaban yan. Never magpapa-api ang La Salle.” (Maybe because we led two sets to none against a champion team. Maybe we doubted ourselves, can we do it? And given that it’s La Salle, they will fight. La Salle will not be pushed around.)

‘Heart strong’ and playing happy

By the fifth set, the crowd clad in green and blue rocked the Mall of Asia Arena. Those in green were beginning to taste championship number 4 as their team held a 12-8 lead in the fifth frame. They were 3 points away from glory, while Ateneo’s season was looking dimmer by the minute.

LADY EAGLE FLIES HIGH. Alyssa Valdez spikes past La Salle's Kim Fajardo during Game 3. Photo by Josh Albelda/Rappler

Ateneo head coach Tai Bundit called a timeout but, according to Valdez, did not call a play.

Sabi niya lang ‘believe you can win.’ Sasabihin niya lang, ‘smile, (be) happy.’ Kahit ano mangyari sa loob ng court kahit lumamang yung La Salle, sasabihin niya lang ‘happy.’ (He just said ‘believe you can win.’ He’ll just tell us to ‘smile, (be) happy.’ Whatever happens on the court even if La Salle takes the lead, he’ll just tell us ‘happy.'”)

At that point, with everything they worked for on the line, Valdez said their only game plan and mindset was to embody ‘heart strong’ and ‘play happy.’

The Thai coach has been instilling in his girls the ‘heart strong’ mantra that propelled them throughout the season. That mantra was on full display at the critical juncture as Ateneo rallied back and came to matchpoint 14-13 before La Salle forced the deuce. The Lady Eagles eventually completed another emotional victory 3 points later, 17-15.

Siguro lagi nagma-mark sa mind namin na heart strong and wala kami ikakatalo,” said Valdez. “Nung hindi pa natatapos yung game, sabi ni coach Tai heart strong, so kami lumaban lang.” (Perhaps heart strong always leaves a mark on our minds and we have nothing to lose. When the game was not yet over, coach Tai just said heart strong, so we fought.)

The 5-foot-8 open spiker also credited their comeback and triumph to ‘playing happy.’

More on composed kami. Siguro mas naa-apply namin and nagagawa namin yung mga ginagawa namin during training,” she explained what playing happy entailed.

More on teamwork siguro yung pagiging happy kasi pag happy or nagsa-smile kami, nakakalimutan namin na nakaka-point yung kalaban. Hindi naman sa nakakalimutan pero more on nagde-dwell kami sa “‘next point, bumawi tayo.'”

(It’s more on being composed. We are able to apply and do the things we’ve been doing during training. Being happy is also more on teamwork because if we’re happy or we smile, we pay no mind to when the opponent scores. We don’t forget about it but we dwell more on the next point and bouncing back.)

The fourth year AB Psychology major who finished with 22 points added: “Hindi kami mahihiya kung natalo man kami this game kasi we fought hard talaga. Feeling ko naman binigyan namin ng good fight yung La Salle.” (We won’t be ashamed if ever we lost this game because we fought hard. I feel we gave La Salle a good fight.)

Getting over the hump 

The Katipunan-based squad was not supposed to be in this position, with a prime opportunity to spoil the destiny that everyone – perhaps even the Lady Eagles themselves – thought was already claimed by the Lady Spikers from the very start of the season.

Ateneo is mostly a rookie team, with the Fab Five era all but nostlagia. They have one primary scorer in the 20-year old Valdez, who’s also relatively young to be leading a team to the Finals. Ella de Jesus and Denden Lazarao are the only other players with previous Finals experience.

Yet here they are.

Alyssa Valdez kills one past La Salle's Mika Reyes and Desiree Cheng. Photo by Josh Albelda/Rappler

But Game 3 will seem like nothing compared to the grandmother of all challenges for the Lady Eagles, which will not come until this Saturday when they attempt, for the third straight year, to get over the La Salle hump and grab their first UAAP Volleyball title.

Sa akin lang I’m happy na nakaabot kami ng ganito kalayo (For me I’m just happy we came this far),” said Valdez who, playing in her third year, has been going against La Salle in the Finals for those last 3 years. 

Asked if there’s any frustration on her part that her team couldn’t seem to overcome the Lady Spikers, Valdez showed no hint of bitterness or regret.

Wala na akong hinihingi pa kay God. For me, this year kahit anong mangyayari maglalaro lang kami and it’s God’s will.” (I’m not asking for anything more from God. For me, this year whatevery happens we’ll just play and it’s God’s will.)

Now, the Lady Eagles and Lady Spikers virtually stand at 0-0 in their step-ladder Finals series.

The argument posed by many is the Lady Eagles have overachieved already, they need not aspire for more. But is overachievement any reason to hold them back and say they’ve had enough? 

The Lady Spikers are also overachieving, gunning for their fourth consecutive championship trailed by a solid reign over the league in the past years.

The overachievement of both teams has led to a UAAP Volleyball Finals series not likely to be forgotten in many years to come, no matter who comes out on top. It’s overachievement that led both these resilient squads to what could be another historic milestone for local collegiate volleyball.

They’re already writing history. Why stop them from achieving some more? –

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