Finding inspiration in Season 74 superstar Cha Cruz
MANILA, Philippines - Around 24 hours after winning her fourth championship, De La Salle University superstar, Cha Cruz was… in class.
Without any break whatsoever, the charming captain - who anchored the Lady Spikers’ run to the 74th UAAP women’s volleyball tournament crown - was in school again, attending her Principles of Teaching class and trying to finish more requirements for her MA in Special Education program.
“I really want to teach kids with special needs,” Cruz told Rappler.com in an exclusive interview. “When I became captain, I enjoyed and learned how to understand people around me.”
Cruz's natural patience held her realize her dream: to provide equal education to children with special needs.
Four titles in five seasons
But few know Cruz as an aspiring teacher.
To most, she is a volleyball star.
The 23-year-old is likely to go down as one of the most successful spikers ever to grace the UAAP, with four titles and one runner-up finish in a career spanning five seasons and seven years after she made her debut as a rookie in 2005.
And the 2012 championship might not have been completed as Cruz contemplated not playing out her fifth year of eligibility.
Then again, after much prodding from Coach Ramil de Jesus and the La Salle management, the Obando, Bulacan native and self-confessed “nomad” decided to come back and lead her team in their drive for a back-to-back.
“I have no regrets,” Cruz said of the big decision that kept thousands of the Lady Spikers’ fans on their toes during the off-season. “After all these years, God has a plan for everything and I never knew that it was gonna be this year.”
The BS Psychology graduate calls her career colorful, sharing that she experienced several ups and downs since she decided to don the green and white.
“I’m at a loss of words,” she added. “There was a time na hindi ako nakapaglaro (I wasn't able to play) due to academics. But I realized that it was all well-planned by God. Everything fell into place at the right time, at the right place.”
In her swan song, Cruz averaged 12.3 points per game highlighted by 9.9 kills and 1.6 aces an outing as La Salle kept an immaculate 14-0 record in the elimination round only to be stunned by archrival Ateneo de Manila University in Game 1 of the finals.
That loss - a four-setter where they were drubbed in the fourth frame clincher - served as an eye-opener for the Lady Spikers, according to Cruz.
“Parang wake up call siya sa amin, kung nasaan kami ngayon (It was a waking call for us to bring us to where we are now),” she explained. “Kasi diba, super nasa winning streak kami nun (We were at a super winning streak at that point) and then this.”
The defeat did more good than harm to La Salle as they bounced back mightily in the last two games to clinch the crown and give De Jesus his seventh title as the squad’s coach.
“It (the loss) pushed us further,” Cruz said. “Before, we had a tendency to relax after winning the first set. After Game 1, never kaming naging complacent.”
On the other hand, nerves seemed to get the better of the Lady Eagles, especially in Game 2, when they had the chance to take a 2-1 set advantage but collapsed after holding set point at 24-22.
Cruz had a hand in that series-turning moment, delivering the final blow as the Lady Spikers clinched it, 26-24, after their six-foot rookie Mika Reyes catalyzed the run with back-to-back aces.
In the third game, it was an all-La Salle show as the Taft-based crew came into the game like a pack of hungry wolves waiting to prey on a shellshocked Ateneo side.
A couple of nights before, Cruz told this reporter that she was ready to go “all out, all heart” in securing the championship for La Salle, even though it is bittersweet for her as it could be her last game in the UAAP.
“Last game ko na, might as well do everything for it,” she said, adding that she was very excited but at the same time, feeling slightly bad since she was sure to miss everything that had framed her life for the past seven years.
If she was jittery, that didn’t show on Game 3.
Cruz led her team with 12 points - including the kill that sent the game into match point, and the service that set up a reception error for the Lady Eagles that won them the crown.
Of course, a competitor like Cruz wasn’t satisfied with her performance.
“Masyado akong nag-isip na last (game) na (I thought too hard about it being my last game),” she rued. “Di ko nabigay yung best ko. Yun bang parang pinnacle na ng career mo (I wasn't able to give my best. It was like the pinnacel of my career).”
Cruz might not have gone out with a 30-point game in three sets but her efforts and leadership were enough to earn her the nod of UAAP officials and hand her the Finals Most Valuable Player plum.
End of the road
But the end of it all didn’t sink into her head until she went to her team's training two days after her final game, only to realize that she was technically no longer a part of the team.
“When I arrived, they were done already,” Cruz said. “But the moment I saw them, na-miss ko sila agad. And na-miss din daw nila ako. Di daw sila sanay na wala ako sa training (I missed them instantly. And they missed me too. They said they weren't used to not having me at training).”
They had, at that point, only been apart for one day.
The night the Lady Spikers won the championship, calls for the retirement of Cruz’s jersey sprang up on Facebook, with a page “We Want #11 CHA CRUZ jersey retired” dedicated to the cause.
The page has 593 “likes” as of posting time and is bound to grow, with four pages on Cha Cruz totaling more than 20,000 “fans.”
Cruz, however, said that she’s not sure if she deserves the honor bestowed only once to a female in La Salle history - to former teammate Manilla Santos in 2007.
“Of course, I would be honored,” Cruz said. “But I don't want to campaign for it.”
Santos won four UAAP titles in a six-year career from 2003 – 2009, winning the MVP award and the Best Receiver title once while Cruz has copped the Finals MVP trophy twice.
The comely spiker believes that she would never have gone this far if not for her mother, who reared her and has served as her best friend ever since.
“Alam niya yung struggles ko, alam ko din yung struggles niya (She knows my struggles, and I know her struggles too),” Cruz shares. “Alam niya lahat ng pinagdaanan ko (She knows everything I've been through).”
She adds that her mom, Aileen Ramos, has been there as Cruz went through four different schools in high school (one in Bulacan, another in San Diego, California, one in Quezon City before finishing it off in Valenzuela) - and struggled early in her college volleyball career.
“I dedicate this championship to her,” Cruz said, saying that after she gets her Master’s degree, she might join her mom, who currently resides in the United States.
Cruz quipped that she also drew inspiration from the fans - some of them from the provinces - who come out and offer her support during games.
“Sa totoo lang, I just want to hug them one by one,” she shared. “Super feeling ko, ang daming nagmamahal sa akin, ang daming sumusuporta (I feel that a lot of people love me, a lot of people support me).”
Cruz said that given the chance, she would love to have her picture taken with everyone who lines up at the back entrance of the Fil Oil Flying V Arena after every game.
“I hope they understand kung hindi ko sila nalalapitan lahat (if I'm unable to approach each of them one by one),” Cruz added. “Gusto ko talaga (But I really want to).”
Cruz also shared that she gets a rush whenever she proves her doubters wrong, and for that, Cruz expresses her gratitude to everyone who booed her and her teammates during matches.
“Thanks for pushing me. Nakaka-challenge talaga,” she said. “Because of you, we’re more eager to bring out our best.”
With La Salle up big, 23-13, sophomore setter Mika Esperanza looked for Cruz, who delivered a spike that Ateneo’s blockers returned.
This time, Esperanza set the ball high enough for Cruz to reach and as the ball touched the latter’s wrist, it sped like a bullet and eluded the Lady Eagles defenders for match point, 24-13.
Moments later, the Lady Spikers were UAAP champions once more.
And as the squad rushed to the court in jubilation, Cruz looked up the sky and said a word of prayer.
Mission accomplished. - Rappler.com
Editor's Note: This article was first published on March 5, 2012 after Cruz led her team to its fourth championship last UAAP Season 74.