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Ateneo Lady Eagles back to happy, smiling, dominant selves

MANILA, Philippines – Tai Bundit firmly clasped the outside of the 4 fingers of his right hand with the palm of his left, bent his knees to a crouch, and explosively swung his arms upward to receive a modest spike from Alyssa Valdez.

After the UAAP MVP used her right hand to spike the ball back to her mentor and bent to a receiving stance, he reciprocated by using his right foot, instantly changing the warm-up game to some playful football and catching his star player off guard.

Valdez gave her coach an unserious annoyed look, as if to say, “Hay nako.” Bundit, a die-hard fan of Liverpool Football Club, just laughed it off and proceeded to do the same with the other lined up Ateneo Lady Eagles during warm-ups prior to facing the NU Lady Bulldogs.

Even with a volleyball in one hand, Bundit kicked the incoming balls to surprise his girls, each one just laughing their coach’s jolly silliness away.

It was playful fun more than anything. The Lady Eagles are good - two-time league champions, in fact - but even they can’t dig and receive volleyballs kicked rather than spiked their way. The point of the exercise was simple: have fun. Be loose. Enjoy the game. Be yourselves again.

After all, heartstrong is just a saying without the necessary mindset to make it happen. So during Ateneo’s dominant 3-set sweep over NU, that’s what they did. 

Valdez was unsurprisingly extraordinary, leaving fans wearing blue-and-white at the Mall of Asia Arena on Wednesday speechless with her unmatched athleticism on the way to 20 points - 14 on spikes, 5 on service aces, and a block. Jaja Santiago and NU tried, time and time again, to find an answer, but Valdez kept coming, pushing, attacking, silencing the Lady Bulldogs crowd in the process.

But it wasn’t just the Valdez show, as it was during those two Ateneo losses to La Salle and UP where they looked more like a team crumbling under the pressure of being defending champions rather than playing blissfully. 

Jhoana Maraguinot played Robin to Valdez’s Batman with 12 points. Kassandra Gequilana and Madeleine Madayag combined for 17. Jia Morado was terrific anew, recording 33 excellent sets.

Prior to this game, the Lady Eagles were in unfamiliar territory. It had been nearly two years before Ateneo dropped a match. 24 games before they finally felt defeat and was the second team to single the school’s alma mater hymn after the game. Suddenly, the pitchforks were out:

Their defense isn’t good enough.

There are way too many errors.

Valdez doesn’t have enough help scoring-wise. 

Other teams have figured out how to beat Ateneo, finally.

All arguments do hold merit. Coming into the game against NU, the Lady Eagles ranked last in digging. They were third in receiving, but the numbers weren’t inspiring. There are still questions about how they can contain errors. La Salle and UP seemed to figure them out.

But the sky wasn’t falling. It won’t any time soon. Does that mean the Lady Eagles have figured out how to completely eradicate their lapses? Probably not.

Although they’re back to doing what makes them so dangerous and, for many of the team’s most loyal fans, so adorable.

They’re happy.

Does it sound like a cliche? Kind of, but sports is full of cliches. And in this case, it works wonders for Ateneo.

The Ateneo Lady Eagles went from seeming unbeatable to needing to re-learn how to win. File photo by Josh Abelda/Rappler

The Ateneo Lady Eagles went from seeming unbeatable to needing to re-learn how to win.

File photo by Josh Abelda/Rappler

“We’re just really thankful,” a clearly more excited Valdez told the media after the win against NU. “I think the team really struggled (in the losses). Skills, mentally, physically, [everyone struggles], so I hope, we hope as a team, this is really the start na we’re really going to play as one team.

“We hope we really learned from all the [losses and wins], and, we’re just really thankful. We have to really go back to our mindset [of] one game at a time. We’re on to the next game.”

Watch just one set of Ateneo’s win over NU and the team clearly resembled the one that went a perfect 16-0 last season and 6-0 before dropping to La Salle at the conclusion of the first round. They celebrated every made point emphatically, but not to the point of arrogance. Every time a player not named Valdez scored, the team captain went to encourage her teammate to take joy in the made kill. Whenever she put a point on the board, she and her teammates joined to cheer together in jubilee.

“For sure, [Heartstrong doesn’t go away,]” said the two-time champion. “It’s just that it’s different if we’re doing it… it’s really a formula. You really can’t have that strongest heart if you don’t play happy, if you don’t play as a team.”

To make it more simple: “We really need to be happy inside the court so that naturally [our strongest heart will show] as a team and as [individuals].”

Bundit’s message to the team was simple, and his action during the pre-game warm-ups spoke even louder. Have fun. Be happy. Enjoy the game. Love it. As Morado explained after the surprisingly one-sided match, the Lady Eagles don’t play the game for the money or just to win; it’s because each and every one of them loves playing volleyball. That mindset has translated to the undisputed success they've experienced since winning the championship in 2014.

LIVE on #Periscope : Post game interview with Jia Morado — Naveen Ganglani (@naveenganglani) March 9, 2016

“We want to play happy and bring back that happy team and [the] players with strong hearts,” said Valdez, as she took pauses to laugh about something annoying her nose and to make jokes with members of the media.

“[We didn’t really do anything special], aside from smiling. I think that’s the most special thing we need to do as a team. We have to smile and be consistent smiling even if we get so much errors, so much mistakes.”

National U entered the MOA Arena with a world of confidence. Sure, it ended the first round horribly, but the team’s 3-set destruction of the Adamson Lady Falcons, paired with the seemingly free fall of the Lady Eagles, set an environment for another Ateneo upset. The thing is, it was more of a trap.

After Valdez wrapped up her post-game press conference by mentioning some more required tinkering on defense, she raised both arms in the air in coltish fashion, saying “yay!” to provide some more laughs. It also gave a nice screenshot and short video tidbit to appease the many Lady Eagle fans on social media. 

Ateneo still has its issues, make no mistake about it. La Salle, UP, and even FEU are on its heels. But with their smiling and happy mindset back and in display, the Lady Eagles’ recent slump may turn out as a short setback before another storybook ending. –