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The Last Flight of ‘Cam Rod’

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She’s arguably one of the most dangerous female strikers in the country, with a reputation that ripples far and wide in the local women’s football scene, amongst players young and old.

She’s been named best striker (UAAP Season 77); a member of the mythical eleven (UAAP Season 79, also Season 78 if not for accumulated cards); a national team player plucked from high school. But there is one slight aberration on her glowing resume – she has never won a championship title with the Ateneo de Manila University.

For Camille Rodriguez, it’s fine. It’s something that she can live with even after her five-year service.

“The results don’t show it but I’m glad to say our spirit never wavered. At least we didn’t give up and quit,” she said one quiet afternoon.

The 22-year-old booting Lady Eagle would brush it off, but she has been a central figure for most of her tenure in Ateneo. When she arrived, she was a multi-awarded high school prospect from Miriam College that people had high hopes for, only to end her first season miserably.

“I started out as a bad rookie. That season, zero goals. Imagine that,” she chuckled.

But it wasn’t too bad, because by season’s end, Ateneo had escaped bottom place for the first time ever. The following year she managed to score at least three, and Ateneo reached another milestone: third place.

As a junior, she outdid herself and much of the field with seven goal – a season-best that she shared with two others, eventually gaining the best striker recognition. Ateneo finished that season again in third.

In her fourth year, her output was trimmed down to five, but she was still part of the top three scorers for the season. Again, Ateneo ended up just outside of the top two.

In her fifth and final season this year, she exploded with eleven goals, including a hat-trick in one game. But two others were just as good—Charisa Lemoran of the University of Santo Tomas, and Kyra Dimaandal of the De La Salle University; the latter eventually won the annual accolade. Yet alas, Ateneo were still strapped to third.

“So we’re plateauing, trying to break out of third place. I guess that’s been our biggest challenge and we haven’t overcome it. It was either one goal, one win, or one draw that could’ve made the difference,” she recounted wistfully, calling the perennial outcome a ‘slump’.”

Teams have gone up and down around them, most notably La Salle, who were dead last in one of the blue-and-white’s best seasons but are now the reigning champions. In fact, the Ateneo women’s football team is the only squad that has not won a championship, let alone experienced a title match.

According to Rodriguez, who was appointed captain since becoming a senior, getting there has been a lot harder than it looked.

“The hardest part was to get everybody to want the same thing, but of course you have to take into consideration whatever they are feeling. So how do you get everyone on board and on the same page despite what they’re going through?”

She said that last year was the hardest to deal with. Morale had hit rock bottom, and teammates were on the verge of throwing in the towel. Luckily Rodriguez, along with Aina Martin, her co-captain at the time, were Psychology majors, and they were able to put their skills to use. Somehow they pulled the team together to finish Season 78 strong.

The problems didn’t end there, though. This year, it hasn’t been personal issues plaguing the team, but injuries.

“It’s like adversity, one after another, one that we’d have to conquer again and again,” she said.

Yet despite wave after wave of bad luck, the ladies picked themselves up, helped each other out, and miraculously finished third best.

“Definitely our greatest accomplishment as a team. At least we didn’t go down,” Rodriguez grinned proudly.

Two Sides to One Captain


Rodriguez Feature - supplementary 01 - captain
The Zamboanga native is big on character growth, hence why she considers her transformation from a goalless freshman striker to ending a collegiate career with a personal best as her best-ever achievement.

As captain, she’s known to be kind and caring, prioritizing her teammates’ well-being. Thus she’s thankful that the atmosphere within the Ateneo WFT has turned into a more nurturing one compared to when she had first arrived. After all, she is a big reason for the team’s philosophy change.

“To influence people to think more about their growth than the end goals of championships, medals, awards—that’s a big thing for me. I’m happy that I got to share it with the team and that they sort of understand now that what they do should be about theirs and the team’s growth.”

Don’t let the sweet demeanor fool you, though; she can be tough and stern when needed.

“Sometimes I snap at yung makukulit. For me training is training, we’re only given two hours and if you’re not super there that moment, you’re just wasting people’s time—yours, the coaches’ and your teammates.”

This mindset carried well into game time. Rodriguez insists on giving the game one’s full attention so that you respect your team and yourself as its player. The same intensity has been key to Rodriguez’s front as an intimidating striker.

“It’s a mind game. Naturally when you’re there, they have to feel threatened. But after the game, you don’t need to be a threat anymore,” she said with a glint in her eye.

Secret To Success


Rodriguez Feature - supplementary 06 - extra
Between 2016 and 2017, Rodriguez has racked up at least 23 goals in three different tournaments. How does she do it? Just what makes her so productive and so good at what she does?

“When Cathy [Cabrera, one of their reliable defenders] got injured, I was like, ‘If we can’t defend the goal well, I should at least help my team by scoring a lot,” she said at one point in a jovial tone.

Whether that was a serious reason or not, it may have been a factor that contributed to hyper-focus. It’s a concept that was introduced to her by Martin one season, which she has candidly thrown around when people marvel at a sensational goal she just pulled off.

“Throughout the years I’ve developed this routine wherein I pack all my stuff the night before, know which goes where. I also do visualizations where I picture all the possible scenarios in a game. Sometimes I’d go so far as watching videos before sleeping,” she explained.

It’s normal for athletes to have superstitions that will bolster their confidence; for Rodriguez, she has the hyper-focus routine, which helps her know that she is in control.

“While others chit-chat, use earphones or music on the way to a game, I just get quiet. It’s to zone in. It silences my thoughts.”

She may appear confident on the pitch, but Rodriguez is not one immune to frustration. Just like anybody else, she is prone to self-doubt, and has succumbed to emotional bouts of anxiety. Having her team – and especially family, friends and loved ones – around to talk has helped eased the pressure.

“At times, it got to my head like people expect so much of me that just in a way broke me down. It became like a big distraction. From Coach Jaypee (Merida of Ateneo) I learned that the pressure will always be there. But it’s all about directing where you want your focus to be.”

Strong Alone, Unbreakable Together


Rodriguez Feature - supplementary 02 - goal celebration
Out of sheer gratitude, she has dedicated her success to the people who always had her back. Those who have witnessed the countless times she has scored have seen how she does it. That unmistakable point towards the heavens, or the few instances where she blows kisses to the crowd.

“I wanted everyone to see that whatever I do, it’s not really because of me lang. It’s really borne out of constant guidance and care, and the support of my mom and my dad.”

She has spoken highly of her father, a constant mentor and cheerleader since she started football, and who is also the first one to offer comfort after painful losses or times of overwhelming pressure.

“He’d always commend me, put me back into focus whenever I get disheartened, especially after that first year in college where I got zero goals. Sabi niya talaga sa akin, ‘You know, just keep trying’.”

Rodriguez also made sure to give credit to coaches who have developed her striker’s mentality, some of them brought in by her dad. Often they’d put in extra sessions on top of the regular training.

Then there’s her mother, whose untimely passing when she was twelve must have caused unbearable sadness. Yet these days, Rodriguez prefers knowing that her mama now has a better view of her from above. So it should come as no surprise whenever she plays like a player possessed, as if she’s putting on a show for someone each time she laces up those boots.

“She is always with me, always the one guiding me. Even when she was still alive, she’d always be the supporter in everything I do. Doing that goal celebration is my way of paying tribute.”

Doubling Back and Counting Blessings


Rodriguez wasn’t always a footballer. She had a very active childhood where she dabbled in ballet, gymnastics, figure skating, and even swimming, where she won multiple awards. After that, she got so immersed in taekwondo, and almost stuck with it. Eventually, it was the beautiful game that swept her off her feet ,but ironically, the first encounter left an impression none too pleasing.

“Oh, when it was first introduced to me, I hated it,” she laughs, alluding to the times her father brought her to his games. After her brother made her jealous of a medal he’d won from the sport, football started to charm its way into her heart.

“I think iba din talaga na football’s a team sport. So I think that’s what changed also. Before that all of my sports were individual. Siguro na-enjoy ko yung sama-samang accomplishment.”

From a sprightly ten-year-old at the Ateneo Football Center to being a bonafide star of the Ateneo WFT, Rodriguez has really come a long way. And she wouldn’t change any of it. In fact, it changed her.

“If it wasn’t for AWFT, I would have been a cranky, burnt out lady you wouldn’t enjoy being around with. I’m the type who can be hard on their self but my teammates taught me to enjoy the experience.”

Like a driver who is revving up the engine, about to leave one place for another, Rodriguez has one last look at the rear-view mirror back at Ateneo, hopeful she has done enough to leave it in a better place.

“I hope they will remember me as someone who gave it their all knowing that it was never for me but that it was always for the team, all the time. One big fight. Never say die.”

Finding Inspiration


Rodriguez Feature - supplementary 03 - AWFT
Her feats may have earned her fans who leave behind simple messages to her on social media or who make shy requests to have their pictures taken with her – moving gestures that continue to surprise her –but Rodriguez also has people she looks up to, particularly teammates.

“Pia Villaflor, whose intense work ethic is inspiring. Aina Martin, from her I learned simple changes in mindset, to take the time to process how you see things. Gely Tiu, for the ‘whoa nagawa mo yun’ moments and her leadership. Cecille Dayrit and Maan Cadayona, underrated sila but were very important to AWFT. Nona Amoncio, we spend so much time together that I basically grew up with her.”

Rodriguez also saluted the determination of teammates who fell to season-ending injuries and are enduring tedious exercises day after day just to play and serve the team again.

Her fellow Ateneans are not the only ones who have merited her respect. She also thinks highly of opponents who have challenged her to raise her level.

“Hazel Lustan (UST), her touch and read of the game, how she’s deadly in the sense that she can score out of nothing. Dai Dolino (FEU/OutKast FC), her tenacity, skills and smarts. Since she’s a defender and I’m a striker, she’s like the final big boss like you know in video games. Once past her, okay na.”

As for fellow top strikers Dimaandal and Lemoran, Rodriguez refuses to think of them as rivals. “I actually feel happy for them when they score like, ‘Wow, galing mo!'”Rodriguez Feature - supplementary 04 - Palacios

Inna Palacios is also someone Rodriguez considers exceptional. Like her, the La Sallian goalkeeper is a larger-than-life persona in Philippine women’s football, and apparently the supposed rival is someone she already knew from way before. The two of them started out with football almost at the same time, and rose through the ranks together from RIFA (Rizal Football Association) to the national team. They became close friends, until circumstances like college pulled them apart.

(Interesting tidbit: Palacios nearly went to Ateneo due to their friendship)

Rodriguez said they became distant as a result, but have patched things up, especially now that their respective collegiate careers are over.

“It’s a pleasure seeing her grow from way back when to now. More than her skills it’s her consistency every year, every game. She’s one of the few who stood by the national team, always there unlike me who stopped. It’s really nice seeing her maximize her potential through becoming a champion.”

Rodriguez is also a certified fan of Argentina’s Lionel Messi, contrary to how she’s often been compared to Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo on initials and number of choice alone.

“I like how he’s unassuming, doesn’t do much tricks and instead goes back to the simple principles of football ethics. I know people call me ‘CR7’ but I want to be Messi.”

Looking Forward


So what’s next for the ruminative forward?

For now, she will focus on the other tournament her team is still competing in: the PFF Women’s League. Ateneo are now in sixth place and are looking to climb up the ladder before the season ends in the second round. Rodriguez has indicated that she hopes to finish the season with the AWFT if management will let her. If yes, the league will be Rodriguez’s last hurrah with the team she has been practically synonymous with. If not, club team Hiraya FC are waiting in the wings.

“Ni-recruit na ako. Kasi why not, I’ll be playing hanggang sa kaya.”

Rodriguez is also entertaining the idea of coaching or mentoring the next generation of young girls with their football, something she thinks she can do with Girls Got Game, a non-profit group that teaches sports to underprivileged girls. She wants to give back to football, for everything it has done for her.

“I have this opportunity to influence and I’d like to use that to inspire the growth of Philippine women’s football. Hopefully it’s a power to make good change.”

One that is definitely on the Ateneo stalwart’s plate is a return to the national team. Rodriguez has featured in every youth national team she was eligible for, debuted for the seniors in 2009 at the age of 14, scored her first international goal against Malaysia a year later, but stopped short in 2011.

“I think I came to a point where I decided that I wanted to live in a way. I wanted to experience college fully in the sense that I’ve been a student-varsity-national-athlete for the whole of high school and I felt like I just needed a break. Some people say na kaya naman but it’s really different, especially with Ateneo,” she explained.

People have wondered about her absence, as her talents no doubt would have made significant impact on any team. But with the rigors of a demanding academic life now over, Rodriguez has pledged to suit up for the blue, red and white again.

It’s a decision that comes at a crucial time when the Philippines is preparing for the Southeast Asian Games next month in Malaysia. The women’s team is riding on momentum that is as high as it has ever been, and it is only right that the nation’s best respond to the call to rise with it. More than the SEA Games, it is the AFC Women’s Asian Cup next year in Jordan among Asia’s elite that is most imperative, as it also serves as a stepping stone to the FIFA Women’s World Cup. Rodriguez sadly begged off the qualifiers earlier this year due to academics. Fortunately, this time around she’s fully committed.

“I’d like to say that at least now I get to concentrate on it more. Siyempre nakaka-miss din naman. Tapos iba rin talaga when you represent your country.”

No Regrets, Only Opportunities


Rodriguez Feature - supplementary 05 - national team
One cannot help but feel a tinge of melancholy when regarding Rodriguez’s case: all the accolades, the cult status, yet never found glory with the Ateneo Lady Eagles within the sphere of the UAAP games. Yet sympathizers can find comfort in the fact that she still did find some kind of glory in her own little way, absent of any regret.

After all, with her return to the national team and with the PFF Women’s League, whether she ends up in the AWFT or in Hiraya FC or in some other club, the door to sporting euphoria has not been completely shut.

“I’ll never really let go of football,” she said with a knowing smile.

And like what an old childhood friend told her towards the end of their collegiate careers, one who had a hand in convincing her back to the national team: Cam, Jordan ah.

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Mia's problem is she likes too many things. Sometimes she's an engineer, sometimes an athlete, sometimes an artist, sometimes a faux dog whisperer, sometimes an otaku, often a Kobe Bryant and Roger Federer fangirl but she most definitely is a sports enthusiast and a strong advocate of the women's game.

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Ateneo receives ECJ Gold Trophy

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The Ambassador Eduardo Cojuangco Jr. Gold Trophy is finally home

In a simple ceremony held at the Xavier Hall inside the Ateneo de Manila University campus Wednesday afternoon, the Ateneo Blue Eagles were formally awarded the Eduardo Cojuangco Jr. trophy that they earned after an epic three-game series during the finale of the UAAP Season 80 Men’s Basketball Tournament.

The trophy itself is made of 14-karat gold, with the shield of each member school of the UAAP wrapped around it. Its worth is said to be estimated at around PHP 2,700,000. It was made by topflight goldsmiths Suarez and Sons.

Receiving the trophy were Ateneo president Fr. Jett Villarin, SJ, and members of the team.

“It’s a pleasant surprise actually.

“Sometimes we use this word sportsmanship, but sometimes we don’t know what it means, but we can see that this thing, this act of La Salle to give the trophy not just to us but to any champion, for me I consider that a wonderful act of graciousness, really,” said Villarin. “I’m happy that this rivalry has not been bitter. Sometimes when you see the game they’re really clawing at each other but then in the end this rivalry is deeper than the physical. There’s this fellowship, kumbaga. There’s a fellowship of schools.”

According to Green Archers official Quinito Henson, the trophy represents every core value of each UAAP member school and the values promoted by sports.

“Mr. Cojuangco has been involved with sports for decades. He’s now in his 80’s but I think his idea of providing a symbol of excellence is very inspiring,” said Henson, who is a columnist for the Philippine Star.

“I think it sorts of summarizes the journey that every school makes in a UAAP season because it’s a journey of sacrifice and hard work and the team that ends up on top ultimately is the team that all the other teams look up to.”

As a sign of Cojuangco’s commitment, he is willing to donate this trophy to the next six to eight UAAP Men’s Basketball champions. Moreover, a perpetual trophy worth PHP 5,800,000 is waiting for the team who will win three straight crowns.

“This is his commitment to the UAAP board, and this has been approved, is that he will be giving a trophy every year to the champion team whoever that champion school maybe for six years,” Henson added.

“In fact the UAAP board was saying, ‘why not eight years because there are eight UAAP teams?’ He says, ‘well of course if I’m still alive I’ll continue to give.’”

Speaking for the rest of the league, Villarin wished that this gesture by the De La Salle University translates to every member school of the league to promote brotherhood despite the competition.

“I hope that the spirit continues, that it’s not lost. A rival gave this to another rival. There will be nothing of that bitterness. I hope that the spirit lives on –- the spirit of camaraderie and of fellowship.”

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SMART Sports’ Best of 2017: Despite all the politics, volleyball will find a way

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With two club leagues, two prominent collegiate leagues, a national team campaign, and a beach volleyball circuit to keep track of, Philippine volleyball fans never truly get a break.

It seemed that for every month of 2017, there was some talking point that lit up social media. Whether it was a championship, off-court drama, or dueling officials, volleyball never truly stopped. It simply was propelled from one thing to the next.

In the following, we take a look back at the best storylines that volleyball blessed us with in 2017.

La Salle then, La Salle now, La Salle forever (or until RDJ retires)

Years from now, Season 79 will most likely be remembered for the epic Finals clash between the Ateneo de Manila University and the De La Salle University.

Despite this being their sixth straight clash on the biggest stage in local volleyball, both the Lady Spikers and Lady Eagles were ushering in new eras. The Ramil De Jesus-led squad had to find new pieces to replace their old reliables Mika Reyes, Ara Galang, and Cyd Demecillo; while Tai Bundit’s program had just entered the first year of the post-Alyssa Valdez era.

Like a post-apocalyptic cyborg, La Salle found new pieces in Tin Tiamzon, Aduke Ogunsanya, and fresh-from-an-ACL-tear Des Cheng, and convinced setting maestro Kim Fajardo to play out her final year of eligibility. As always, the Lady Spikers were a picture of balance, working out their weaknesses as the season went along and finding their peak at the perfect time.

Ateneo, on the other hand, proved that there was still something phenomenal in them even without the Phenom. Leaning on their supreme length and athleticism, the Lady Eagles overpowered opponents left and right. While fresh-from-academic-exile Michelle Morente, Jho Maraguinot, and Bea De Leon all stepped up their scoring to account for the Valdez-sized hole in their lineup, it was captain Jia Morado who truly came out of her shell. After all, there is something to be said about anchoring the league’s best offense while working with a bottom-two reception line.

While the Finals didn’t last until the final game of the season, like their past meetings, Ateneo and La Salle still managed iconic moments. La Salle, in the end, proved more prudent with their errors and steadier in the endgame to come away with a back-to-back.

Still, Season 80 was built up to possibly the first season without an Ateneo-La Salle finale. The University of the Philippines certainly seemed like a contender, starting the season with a 4-0 record and  a win against La Salle. The National University made their case after winning both their elimination round meetings with Ateneo.

In the end, both those squads sputtered out, and veteran-laiden teams University of Santo Tomas and Far Eastern University ended up taking the last two Final Four spots right in the final week of the elimination round.

Perhaps it is in the aftermath of Season 79 where La Salle shone brightest. The fact that they have not made any headlines after Season 79 might be worrisome to the uninitiated. But the longtime La Salle fan knows that this is just par-for-the-course for a Ramil De Jesus off-season.

La Salle have been stable and quietly building up a roster of recruits that will shock the league once Season 81 rolls around. For now, De Jesus has a stable core of Dawn Macandili, Kianna Dy, Majoy Baron, Des Cheng and Tin Tiamzon to work with for their three-peat bid come Season 80.

Considering the whirlwind off-season every other UAAP team had, the Lady Spikers are settled as early favorites.

Ateneo lost both Morado and Morente seemingly out of the blue, and went through a controversial break-up with Tai Bundit before University President Fr. Jett Villarin stepped in and seemingly forced them to make amends. UP, FEU, and National U all have new head coaches. UST, who were already going to play without Ria Meneses, have to find someone to fill in for top scorer Ej Laure, who suffered a season-ending shoulder injury.

Season 80 will be De Jesus’ 20th season as mentor of the Lady Spikers. He’s gone up against the best players and coaches. Still, he remains on top of the UAAP.

Practice?

The perfect illustration of local volleyball’s volatility was last year’s National Team endeavors.

From the selection of the coaches down to the final match they played in the Southeast Asian Games, there was some measure of drama.

In the end, what the National Team lacked was consistency. Francis Vicente, the embattled coach who had his UAAP record slung at his face with every controversial statement he made, did his best but ultimately had his decisions nip him and the squad.

When the team was distilled from a pool of 25 down to the Final 14, there was considerable lack of Premier Volleyball League players and an abundance of Philippine Superliga talent. Perhaps the PSL does have a better overall pool of players, but there were certainly PVL players who could have helped the National Team, especially with their lack of open hitters.

The squad was also inconsistent with what they deemed acceptable. Even the routine practices became major talking points as, one day, only one player was notably missing preparations. The following month, 90 percent of the squad was absent due to club commitments.

Still, the Nationals provided us with a reason to be optimistic.

Although they finished just barely in the Top 8 of the Asian Senior Women’s Championship in Biñan, Laguna, they did cop a momentous win over Southeast Asian powerhouse Vietnam in the second group phase.

In the SEA Games, the women’s squad squeezed into the semifinals, but eventually fell to a determined Vietnam squad in the bronze medal match.

Dawn Macandili, the smallest player on the team, proved to be the biggest star after being named Asia’s Second Best Libero. Alyssa Valdez, Jaja Santiago, and Jovelyn Gonzaga all had standout performances as well on the international stage.

Considering all the off-court hoopla, 2017 was a much better National Team year than 2015. Not even looking at the squad’s finishes, the caliber of preparation was the best our National Team has had in decades.

The LVPI laid the groundwork in 2017. They need to keep grinding in 2018. There has been no news and assurance that Francis Vicente will be brought back as the head coach. If they are to name a new coach, they will most likely have another string tryouts to suit the system of the new head coach.

What volleyball needs is a Gilas-like program. It needs dedicated managers and coaches that have the National Team’s priorities first above anything else. It needs a pools of players for different age groups that will make the transition to the senior team much easier.

Gilas is not a perfect example, with its complicated relationship with the PBA and its stakeholders. But the Men’s National Basketball team has thrived over the past decade amidst all the controversy because of the bedrock that is Gilas.

In a volleyball utopia, the National Team would be in Ramil De Jesus’ hands with players always available due to cooperation of the club leagues with their scheduling.

We may never achieve utopia, but volleyball fans and supporters deserve to at least have very minimal politics in the sport we love.

Twice Thrice-Beaten

The most overlooked local league brought about another tension-filled season.

For the second straight year, the most compelling storyline was Grethcel Soltones’ chase for an indoor NCAA title. And for the second straight year, she led her San Sebastian College-Recoletos Lady Stags straight to the Finals with an unblemished elimination round record.

For the second straight year, the Lady Stags languished a thrice-to-beat advantage.

While San Sebastian had Grethcel Soltones, the NCAA’s best player for three straight years, the Arellano University Lady Chiefs had a more balanced lineup and divine motivation.

Led by Jovielyn Prado, Rialen Sante, and Regine Arocha — Season 92’s breakout star — the Lady Chiefs took three straight matches from the Lady Stags. More than winning their second title in three years, Arellano University wanted to bring home the championship for grieving head coach Obet Javier, who had just lost his wife.

With three NCAA MVP awards, Grethcel Soltones left Roger Gorayeb’s program as the first to never have won an indoor title.

Without Soltones, the NCAA also is left without an incredible singular talent. The Lady Chiefs look like runaway titlists. Teams like San Beda College and College of Saint Benilde have young talent and could contiue conteding for a championship. The Lady Stags, meanwhile, will reportedly have just eight girls on their roster.

What the NCAA lacks in superstars, they make up for with sheer intrigue.

PSL vs PVL

While competition can certainly breed talent, the battle between PSL and PVL brought about animosity rivaled only by the mishap in the PBA with Chito Narvasa and some PBA teams.

Both leagues certainly put up competitive conferences, but the way they dueled in public overshadowed the matches they showcased.

It began with the formation of the National Team, as one league seemingly had full control while the other barely had any representation in the tryouts and training.

Then it escalated when the PVL had trouble securing required documents for their imports to play in the Reinforced Conference and pinpointed PSL officials as conspirators against them.

Up to the Reinforced Conference semis, eventual champions Pocari Sweat had replacement import Krystal Rivers waiting until the very last minute, only to have her suit up in the Finals.

The rift between both leagues becomes intolerable when it affected the quality of volleyball, especially with the National Team. Both leagues and their officials bring something to the table when it comes to organizing volleyball leagues.

PSL, under the supervision of Tats Suzara, has constantly pushed the limits of innovation since they started four years ago. The league has brought in world-class players and officials.

Just this year, the league had three successful conferences in the Invitational Cup (where they brought in Japanese collegiate team Kobe Shinwa), the All-Filipino Cup, and the Chooks-to-Go Grand Prix.

The year eventually unfolded into a rivalry between juggenauts Petron and F2 Logistics. The deep Blaze Spikers got first blood in the AFC, but F2 Logistics ended the year with the league’s prized Grand Prix title.

The Final game of their season boasted unparalleled drama with F2 Logistics’ Venezuelan import Maria Jose Perez playing Game Three a day after her brother died of cancer. It also had the resurgence of Cha Cruz, who won the league’s first-ever Finals MVP plum.

The PVL, on the other hand, remained the steady institution it has always been since they started nearly 15 years ago. From its humble roots as the Shakey’s V-League, Ricky Palou’s tournaments have persisted even in the lowest, most dire of situations in Philippine volleyball.

With the country’s most prominent TV station showing their games, the PVL continues to flourish. 2017 saw the debut of Rebisco’s Creamline Cool Smashers, who showed they were serious contenders by signing top-caliber stars in Alyssa Valdez and Jia Morado.

At first, it seemed that Pocari Sweat had another double-crown in hand after a smashing triumph over the Bali Pure Water Defenders in the Reinforced Conference Finals.

The Lady Warriors were nearly booted in the Open Conference, if not for Heather Guino-O’s heroics in Game Two against Air Force, Pocari Sweat might as well have never made the Finals again.

Cherry Rondina is the queen of the sands

From a fringe sport, beach volleyball has grown to be the marquee place for where Filipinos can truly excel.

No one exemplifies this more than Sisi Rondina, who dominated the local sands in 2017. The UST Tigress started off with an unbeaten run in the PSL Challenge Cup with partner Bernadeth Pons of FEU. The Cebuana then lifted sophomore partner Caitlyn Viray to another unblemished conquest of the UAAP Season 80 Beach Volleyball tournament for her second straight collegiate title and third overall.

She and Pons also got a taste of international competition when they represented the country in the Southeast Asian Beach Volleyball Championship.

Standing at just five-feet-six-inches, Rondina overwhelms opponents with her ruthless quickness and uncanny leaping ability. No doubt she was this year’s Queen of the Sands, if there was one.

Perhaps, the most important development in 2017 for beach volleyball was continued persistence of Beach Volleyball Republic. BVR, which was established by passionate athletes Dzi Gervacio, Charo Soriano, and Bea Tan, continued with their nation-wide circuit and had another international level competition. They even established a Men’s circuit, which they had lacked in years prior.

Volleyball needs more determined people like those behind BVR, who continue to push boundries and move mountains just to keep alive the sport they love.

Coach O is Mr. 2017

Men’s volleyball continued to fly under people’s radar, which was a shame since 2017 was historic, especially for one coach Oliver Almadro.

While Ramil De Jesus continued to dominate the women’s, his former protege established his own dynasty throughout the year.

All the Men’s teams that Almadro coached won the championship.

In the UAAP, his Ateneo Blue Eagles completed a season-long sweep, fending off the determined National University Bulldogs in two classic matches in the Finals.

In the PVL Men’s Division, Almadro led the Cignal HD Spikers to the Open and Reinforced Conference championships, then anchored the Blue Eagles for a third consecutive Collegiate Conference crown.

Counting other leagues, the frenetic mentor barely lost a match. While it can be easily argued that it was his players that won the matches, it was Almadro’s unrelenting voice of guidance that helped establish his teams’ winning culture.

Almadro and men’s volleyball barely got any fanfare in 2017. A look at how little coverage the Men’s National Team got and one will find just how underapprecieated the men are.

It’s a miracle that the Men’s National Team even got to participate in the Southeast Asian Games, as head coach Sammy Acaylar and LVPI acting president Peter Cayco had to lobby heavily for the team to be considered competitive.

The men worked for everything they got, toiling away in the Arellano Law School Gym almost every day for the better part of five months.

While the men failed to even enter the SEA Games semifinals, they showed potential. That most of the roster were 25-years-old or younger should be considered, especially with the 2019 SEA Games right around the corner.

Like the women’s side, the men could also do with a lot less politics for 2018. Hopefully, they too get some sort of international exposure and continue to develop as a team.

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SMART Sports’ Best of 2017: Banner year for Filipinas, Ceres-Negros

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Football was well and truly alive for Filipinos in 2017

There were highs and lows but the roller coaster ride showed that the sport is gaining in prominence ever since the resurgence brought about by that fabled Azkals run in the 2010 AFF Suzuki Cup.

Philippine Women’s National Football Team qualifies for the 2018 AFC Women’s Asian Cup

After 15 years in the wilderness, the Philippines is set to compete once again in Asia’s premier international women’s competition.

Steered by 2017 AFC Coach of the Year nominee Buda Bautista, the Philippine Women’s National Football Team had three wins, one draw and one loss in the qualifiers held last April 3 to 12, 2017 in Tajikistan to book a ticket for the 2018 AFC Women’s Asian Cup in Jordan.

“It was really (the players’) thirst to win that pushed us,” said Bautista after the Filipinas’ second place finish in Group A which sealed the deal. “Hindi pa nga nagsi-sink in. I think we made history.”

The one player whose stock rose in the qualifiers was De La Salle University’s Sara Castaneda who scored the goal against Bahrain that clinched the point needed to move on to the big dance which shall be held this April 6 to 18, 2018.

“[It’s] very fulfilling. I mean it is not all the time that we get an opportunity like this,” the midfielder said. “I wouldn’t have been able to score the goals without the team, so thank you to them.”

The Filipinas’ initial reward for their endeavors is to grouped alongside China, Thailand and hosts Jordan. As of this writing, preparations for the competition are ongoing in the USA with newly appointed coach Richard Boone.

Since the tournament also serves as the Asian qualifiers for the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in the France, a fifth place finish is what the Filipinas need to enter the world stage.

“We call on all true supporters of Philippine Football to come together to help make the World Cup Qualification a reality. In 2010, the Miracle in Hanoi brought us all together to support the men’s national team. Now is the time for Women’s football to take us to the next level,” commented Philippine Football Federation president Nonong Araneta.

La Salle, Ateneo reclaim UAAP football crowns

Right from the kickoff of the UAAP Season 79 Men’s and Women’s Football divisions, it was clear which school was a notch higher in its respective division.

Both the De La Salle Lady Archers and Ateneo de Manila University Blue Eagles suffered heartbreak in their respective Season 78 finals matches and were eager to go one better from where they last let off.

La Salle did not just go one better, though, as the Taft school won all its games including the 3-1 title-clincher against University of Santo Tomas last May 7, 2017. The Lady Archers’ victory handed La Salle its ninth UAAP Women’s Football championship and its first after seven seasons.

La Salle coach Hans-Peter Smit shared, “It’s about time! The girls deserve this considering what I said before that we’re not a complete team, healthy team. And with the injuries and everything there and coming out champions with with a perfect season, what else can I say?”

Likewise, Ateneo had a dominant season in the Men’s Division as the Blue Eagles only drew and lost once in the elimination round. Season 79 MVP Jarvey Gayoso was Ateneo’s main star and it was fitting that the grandson of the legendary Ed Ocampo and son of former Ginebra stalwart Jayvee Gayoso scored the only goal of the finals match against Far Eastern University.

“We deserve this. I’m so happy to win another championship,” said Ateneo coach JP Merida after the Blue Eagles’ 1-0 victory of the Tamaraws.

Gayoso’s championship goal was one of the 12 he scored en route towards Ateneo’s league-best seventh championship. “That’s why I always point to the sky. I offer this to my lolo, my mom and my dad,” said the now third-year striker.

Philippines Football League is launched amidst growing pains

Out with the old and in with the new.

In a move seen to help Philippine football evolve to the next level, the PFF launched the nationwide Philippines Football League to replace the Metro Manila-centered United Football last April 21, 2017 at Shangri-La at the Fort hotel in Taguig City.

Kaya-Makati, Ceres-Negros, Global Cebu, JPV-Marikina, Stallion Laguna, Meralco Manila, Davao Aguilas and Ilocos United comprised of the eight teams in the league’s inaugural season.

PFF president Araneta said to Nevin Reyes of the Manila Times, “This is the first professional football league in the Philippines. We are really happy that this is pushing through. Hopefully, it would be successful. We are here to support the success of this league.”

As always in the formation of something new, growing pains were experienced by all of the league’s stakeholders. Not all clubs were said to be able to pay the franchise fee, but the league’s biggest problem was arguably its lack of decent coverage on television or livestream.

Mike Limpag of Sun Star Cebu wrote, “There were a lot of major hiccups in the inaugural season of the PFL and I think the most glaring one was the TV deal with PTV 4, which didn’t even last half a season.”

If the PFL’s shortage of TV coverage was bad enough, then its livestream platform Mycujoo’s lack of stability made the circumstances worse. Local football fans were deprived of the stable online platform they needed to fully enjoy the show.

With all those issues mentioned, however, we must realize the the league needed to exist sooner rather than later. The longer the league failed to get established, then the probability of it not existing at all would definitely be higher.

Ultimately, Ceres cemented itself as the best team in the land with a 4-1 victory vs Global in the championship game. Ceres’ victory showed that while the league itself is difficult to manage, it’s always going to be worth it.

Here’s to a better season come 2018.

Local clubs rise in international cups

The two clubs that reached the 2017 PFL final were Ceres and Global. These two clubs were also the flag bearers for Philippine club football in continental and regional play.

Global got eliminated in the preliminary rounds of the 2017 AFC Champions League so the Cebu club slid down to the 2017 AFC Cup group stage. Global and Ceres then progressed past their respective groups and entered Asean Zonal semi-finals.

Sadly, the dream of seeing both clubs face each other in the ASEAN Zonal Final wasn’t meant to be. Singaporean club Home United painfully eliminated Global 5-4 on aggregate while Ceres had Fernando Rodriguez’s last-minute penalty to thank for as the Busmen drew level 4-4 with Malaysian powerhouse Johor Darul Ta’zim and advanced via the away goals rule.

Destiny beckoned for Ceres and the Busmen took it with both hands. Ceres downed Home United 3-2 in aggregate thanks to a masterful performance in the Panaad Stadium in Bacolod City to become the AFC Cup’s ASEAN Zonal Champions.

Busmen coach Risto Vidakovic opined to Cedelf Tupas of the Inquirer, “The players gave everything. It wasn’t easy when you miss so many chances because when that happens, you usually lose. But whoever came on gave their all for the club.”

Although Ceres failed to get past West Asia Zonal champions Istiklol FC of Tajikistan, the Bacolod club’s achievement drew recognition from AFC president Shaikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa. Al Khalifa said, “On behalf of the AFC football family, I would like to congratulate Ceres Negros for claiming the ASEAN Zonal Champions crown.”

On the other hand, Global went through another international heartbreak. Misagh Bahadoran and company became the first Filipino club to reach the Singapore Cup final after prevailing 4-3 on aggregate against Singapore side Hougang United.

Japanese club Albirex Niigata awaited Global in the finals and the two clubs drew level at 2-2 after extra time so penalties were needed. Albirex then outlasted Global 3-1 on penalties after the latter’s Wesley Dos Santos, Darryl Roberts and Paolo Salenga all missed their spot-kicks.

Global coach Akbar Nawas commented to ABS-CBN Sports’ Camille Naredo, “I’m immensely satisfied with the whole season. The players, myself, the staff, the coaches, everyone had to dig deep. Every single game, we had to dig deep in our approach to beat the opponents.”

Come 2018, Ceres and Global will again carry Philippine club football in international play courtesy of their PFL finals appearance. The sky is the limit for both clubs and an improvement will be most welcome for Philippine football’s growth.

Asian Cup frustration and the Taiwan debacle

It is safe to say that 2017 was a year to forget for the Philippine Azkals.

The Azkals should have followed their female counterparts’ lead and qualified for the 2019 AFC Asian cup by now, but the national team is currently flirting with disaster. Grouped with Yemen, Tajikistan and Nepal; the Filipinos won their first two assignments only to draw the next three.

Javier Patino’s ACL injury turned a deadly Azkals squad into a tame one in terms of goalscoring, although that shouldn’t be a big excuse as the squad had more than enough firepower to seal qualification in that infuriating goalless draw away to winless Nepal.

Araneta said to Inquirer’s Tupas, “It’s disappointing. We have to talk to (Dooley) on what the team needs as we should have won that game. I don’t know what are the reasons for that but we can’t afford another bad result.”

Aside from failing to seal Asian Cup qualification for the first time, the Azkals saw their place in the FIFA World Rankings go down from 118 to 124 at the end of the year. This was mainly due to the poor performance shown by the squad selected for the Chinese Taipei Football Association International Tournament held last December 1 to 5, 2017.

Mentored by Marlon Maro and managed by Davao Aguilas owner Jefferson Cheng, the team formed with mostly Davao players won against Laos and went on to lose to Chinese Taipei and Timor Leste. Local football fans were livid with the results and the backlash went into overdrive.

Azkals team manager Dan Palami voiced his dissent on Twitter and stated, “Just as we remember the Azkals Miracle in Hanoi, so too should we not forget this experience in Taiwan. Both offer valuable lessons…” which forced a reaction from Cheng.

Cheng answered back, “I think whoever makes these negative statements are being unfair. We ended up second place with 3 days preparation, the players were given the best organization one can possibly do with the time, and logistics constraints we have plus the conflict that the CTFA Tournament have with the PFL schedule.

“We may not have won the tournament but the winner here is Philippine football. The exposure given to our younger players was the right thing to do,” added the Davao owner.

Thankfully, 2018 offers a new opportunity for the Azkals to soothe the frustration of local football fans. What better what way to start the repentance than to earn Asian Cup qualification against Tajikistan in Panaad this March 27, 2018.

A win or draw will suffice for the Azkals’ qualification while a loss would leave Filipinos hoping Nepal escapes defeat against Yemen in the other fixture.

Philippine Football Personality of the Year: Leo Rey Yanson

Truth be told no other person rocked the local football scene more than Ceres owner Leo Rey Yanson.

Yanson poured money into the club to recruit stars such as Roland Muller, Iain Ramsay and Stephan Schrock for the Bacolod club and his investment has paid dividends. Ceres not only won the inaugural PFL crown, but the Busmen also affirmed themselves on the international stage with their ASEAN Zonal title.

“This year is undoubtedly, a great year for us,” said Yanson to Cedelf Tupas. “Clinching the AFC Cup 2017 Asean zone title and the Philippine Football League Championship title would have not been possible without the hard work and sacrifices that each of the players and coaching staff have put in.”

In fact, such is Yanson’s love for the club and its fans that tickets to watch Ceres’ games are for free. As told by Ceres official Warren Concepcion to Spin.ph’s Christian Jacinto, “Our team owner Mr. Leo Rey Yanson decides to give out the tickets for free. It’s been the story of Ceres Negros Football to give back to our fans and supporters in Panaad so our boss decided to give out tickets for free.”

It is only fitting then that Yanson’s Ceres will carry the flag for Philippine football in the upcoming 2018 AFC Champions League. First up for the Busmen will be Myanmar champions Shan United on January 16. Ceres will have to pull off a win sans Ramsay and Muller who will leave the club.

Nevertheless, expect Yanson to pull off some aces in recruitment to help give his team a possible run in Asia’s premier competition.

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Filipino finishes with a masters degree from Korea’s Dream Together program

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Tiebreaker Times contributor and former Ateneo Blue Eagle (swimming) Aldo Tong became the first Filipino to receive a masters degree from the prestigious Dream Together Master program at the Seoul National University, last December 19.

The program is funded by the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism of Korea and the Korea Sports Promotion Foundation. Dream Together is a global sport development program that is aimed at educating future global sports leaders.

Some of the program’s distinguished mentors include sports scholar Joon Ho Kang, Bettina Cornwell of the University of Oregon, father of modern sports management Packianathan Chelladurai, award-winning sportswriter and best-selling author Alan Abramson, Olympic Games specialist Lisa Hindson, among others.

“This is the culmination of the 17 months of the program where I was able to not only earn a degree but also make friends both from Korea and abroad,” said Tong about the experience.

“With the experience and knowledge that I gained, I hope that I can do my part in helping develop and grow Philippine sports and help the Filipino athlete,” added the member of the class of 2018 that consists of 28 students from all over the world.

Tong, 30, graduated from the Ateneo de Manila University with a degree in Applied Mathematics major in Mathematical Finance back in 2009.

He became part of the school’s Finance faculty afterwards while moonlighting as the swimming head coach of Ateneo’s juniors swimming team.

He joined Tiebreaker Times back in 2014. He covered events such as swimming and water polo.

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