At Palarong Pambansa, it’s win or go home

Ryan Songalia

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At Palarong Pambansa, it’s win or go home
The thrill of victory is as intense as the agony of defeat at Palarong Pambansa, as one victorious basketball squad and one defeated volleyball team have discovered

LAGUNA, Philippines – As 17-year-old Shaira Hermano sat Indian style on the second floor of the multipurpose gym, she dabbed her crimson-tinted eyes with her green-and-yellow volleyball jersey, tears mixing with sweat to create a saline compound. 

While burdened with the thought of her Eastern Visayas secondary team’s quarterfinals loss to Davao just moments earlier, she solemnly folded her jersey and stuffed it into her backpack. 

She knew it’d be the last time she would don those colors at Palarong Pambansa.

“It’s a big disappointment because for most of us this is our last year at Palaro Pambansa,” said the Tacloban City native, who’s also the team’s captain, on Thursday, May 8. “And it could’ve been better, but we just let up. Pinabayaan.”

On the 6th month anniversary of Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan), which devastated most of the Visayas region and left many friends and family members of the Eastern Visayas team dead or displaced, the team members were determined to upset the odds against the taller, better prepared Davao team.

Early on it appeared that Eastern Visayas’ Cinderella story would continue before they dropped the first set 25-23. By the second set, the young girls’ hearts looked defeated, their will to overcome deflated. The taller, better coordinated Davao squad would simply not accept no for an answer, blowing out Eastern Visayas 25-14.

With the win, Davao earned a semifinals showdown with Central Luzon on Thursday. The Eastern Visayas secondary squad, on the other hand, will have to watch the rest of the Games from the sidelines.

The Eastern Visayas volleyball squad cheers up and flashes a smile after the Davao game. Shaira Hermano is at the far left. Photo by Ryan Songalia/Rappler

“More heart to win and cooperation with my teammates,” said Hermano, when asked what the team could’ve done differently.

“It’s more of the one who wanted to have the less errors,” said Kar Chan, the team’s volunteer coach. “In our case we had a good bracket but I emphasized with the team that if we have less errors, we could definitely overcome Davao. We did that in the first set but in the second set we did a lot of errors in the second set.”

Meanwhile, just 20 yards away, the Calabarzon secondary boys basketball team was locked in their own battle for survival against Central Luzon. The host Calabarzon squad – anchored primarily by the five-peating NCAA champion San Beda Red Cubs – was faced with the possibility of disappointing their family and friends in the stands after a sluggish beginning that saw them down by three points at halftime.

“They were a step slow, but I know deep inside them they can win,” said Calabarzon coach JB Sison. “They already know it’s not their game when they’re slacking off.” 

In playoff time, winning teams step up, and with their team up just 3 points with 4 minutes left in the second half, the Calabarzon squad stepped up. The team ran off a 14-0 run, creating turnovers that led to fast break layups and wide-open threes.

With 3 minutes left, a Central Luzon starting forward went down clutching his knee after colliding with a rival player and had to be dragged off to the sidelines. Moments later, a teammate rushed to save a ball heading out of bounds when he landed on the downed player, leaving two players thriving in pain.

The initially injured forward refused to have the last memories of his senior Palaro be spent on the sidelines, however, and bravely reentered the game with a minute left. Barely able to walk, he desperately tried to guard his opponent, hoping to extend his Palaro career for one more game.

“Our press, they gave up on the fourth quarter. They threw so many turnovers,” said Sison. “Off of their turnovers, it was just easy baskets, layups.”

Sison’s boys held on to win 92-80, eliminating Central Luzon from the tournament and earning a semifinals showdown with Western Visayas, who eliminated Eastern Visayas, 77-51.

More than a game

The beauty of sport is that, at least in most events, there is always a clear winner. The ugly part is that someone’s efforts will go for naught and have to lose. In sport, matters are more clear-cut, leaving less room for gray area and interpretation.  

The winners will reap the spoils, the glory, but what becomes of the losers? 

Most players have no surnames on the backs of their jerseys, and the defeated leave the Games nameless and forgotten. But the players who compete don’t forget, and they never will. To them, all of the work and sacrifice that they’ve put into just making it to Laguna will remain as a tremendous accomplishment in their lives.

GO HARD OR GO HOME. A Calabarzon player makes his move to the hoop against Central Luzon defenders. Photo by Mark Cristino/Rappler

Palaro is a proving ground for tomorrow’s sports stars. Inevitably, the best players will become the Alyssa Valdezes and Jaja Santiagos of the UAAP volleyball tournaments, or the Mark Barrocas and June Mar Fajardos of the PBA. 

But not all are destined for stardom.

Hermano concedes that she may have played her final competitive volleyball game. Standing just 5-foot-4, she’s too short to attract the UAAP or NCAA athletic scholarships she dreams.

“I want to play volleyball in college but my height is not tall. I want to help my family because we are a broken family,” said Hermano.

Colleges, like Adamson, Arellano and National University, are looking at her teammates however, particularly third-year setter Alina Bicar. Who knows: should she have an impressive showing at next year’s games, we may see her on one of the major UAAP title contenders in the near future.

Niko Abatayo, Calabarzon’s San Beda-enrolled center who led his team to victory on Thursday, is almost assured of being a future star in the collegiate ranks. Standing about 6-foot-1, the 18-year-old Abatayo is playing at his last Palaro while thinking of the next step of his career in the back of his mind. 

“Pangarap ko maglaro sa college. Kung may kukuha sa akin na big teams a UAAP or NCAA ok na po ako,” said Abatayo. 

(I also dream of playing in college. If any big teams from the UAAP or the NCAA will recruit me, that would be great.)

Win or lose, being able to compete in front of a hometown crowd against the best players in the country has been a priceless experience for Abatayo.

“You feel overwhelmed kasi mga kakampi po namin nagchi-cheer po sa amin tsaka sobrang proud po kami na nagchi-cheer sila sa amin and sobrang thankful po kami,” said Abatayo.

(It’s overwhelming because our [regional] teammates cheer for us. We’re proud that they are here to cheer for us, we’re also very thankful.)

The bags that the Eastern Visayas team carries around read the inspirational quote “Yolanda is not the last word,” a reminder of the duty of survivors to carry on strong and rebuild the spirit and morale of their region.

It’s a reminder too that the players have overcome far greater obstacles and survived. This disappointment will soon pass for them, just as the storm clouds that brought destruction and heartbreak 6 months ago eventually gave way to blue skies.

“Considering with the short time of preparation we’re really proud of what the girls achieved. We reached the top 8 so it’s a big achievement on our part. We would’ve hoped that it’d be better if we could reach the top four but since we’re not blessed with that one, so we’re really thankful and content,” said Chan. –

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