It was another humid night and the University of Santo Tomas Tiger Spikers had turned the Sands SM by the Bay court into a torture chamber.
Kris Roy Guzman was on his game, riling up everyone around him – from the UST Yellow Jackets to the game officials, who were from UST, the host school.
They were down 13-14, but Guzman and Krung Arbasto had their rivals National University’s Bryan Bagunas and JM Natividad right where they wanted them.
If the Tigers’ uncle-nephew tandem had proven anything over the past three seasons, it was that they are incomparably resilient. From taking a thrice-to-beat Ateneo side to the limit in the Season 78 Finals, to finally bringing home the UAAP crown in Season 79, Guzman and Arbasto have seen every situation and conquered it.
Down 13-14 in the third set of the winner-take-all match for the Season 80 title? Guzman and Arbasto had faced worse odds.
But the Bulldogs had been in prime position, as well. Taller and with more preparation time in the off-season compared to UST, Bagunas and Natividad had had enough of the riled up crowd and Guzman’s antics.
The final sequence of the season exploded with drama: the six-foot-three Bagunas whirring above Arbasto for the fatal point, the throng of NU Bulldogs rushing the court to celebrate, Guzman and Arbasto collapsing to the sand.
In five years, Guzman had compiled four silvers and a gold in UAAP. Given the numerous do-or-die matches and the countless unfavorable turns of circumstance, Guzman probably should have had more.
Arbasto definitely felt this way. To him, his uncle-turned-brother was the best beach volleyball player with whom he’s ever played. It was Guzman, after all, who encouraged him to play on the sand when fighting for a spot on the indoor team turned bleak.
“Kung di na lang siguro ako, deserve ni Kuya KR mag-champion talaga,” said Arbasto.
“Iba ‘yan siya eh. ‘Di sumusuko, laban lang nang laban kahit sobrang hirap.”
The loss lingered, festering into the off-season. Arbasto still had a shot at redemption and so did Guzman through their unbreakable cosmic connection.
With Arbasto determined, the big problem was finding him a new partner.
It would be futile to try and forge the same connection, so Jaron Requinton strove for something new.
In many ways, the rookie Requinton was wholly different from Guzman. The Bulacan native was a highly-touted indoor recruit since he was in high school for his incredible length and court sense. Guzman always had trouble indoor due to his diminutive form; the sand was always his equalizer.
In many ways, the two were alike. As Guzman had always worn his heart on his sleeve, Requinton willingly learned to be the same.
“Sinabi ko sa mga coaches at doon po sa partner niya last year na sige kuya, ako na po maga-adjust nang malala. Ako na mag-iingay sa court. Kasi diba last year si Kuya Kitoy (Guzman) po ‘yung super ingay sa court so yun po parang nile-level ko lang po sarili ko kay Kuya Kitoy kasi ‘di po masyado maingay si Kuya Krung sa loob ng court,” said Requinton.
“Parang iaangat ko siya, papa-ingayin ko siya sa court, para sabay kami kasi ‘di ako sanay na ‘di maingay sa court.”
Arbasto and Requinton eventually created a fruitful partnership in the off-season, bagging titles in different tournaments. To start UAAP Season 81, the pair had an early hiccup against FEU, but slowly got a feel for their competition.
Requinton himself seemed to realize his potential with each game. He was a strong presence at the net, making teams pay for targeting him. When teams hedged their bets and picked Arbasto to attack, the veteran made them pay dearly.
Requinton could act like Guzman and even fill his role. But, the biggest question of the season was if he could play up to the same level and stage of the competition.
Rivalries in the UAAP are often inherited. Way before Bagunas and Natividad shattered Guzman and Arabasto’s back-to-back bid in Season 80, Bulldogs legends Edwin Tolentino and Henry Tipay had sparked the NU-UST rivalry in Seasons 76 and 77 against Guzman and the burly Mark Alfafara.
Requinton was the third generation of the long-standing rivalry. His performance against the Bulldogs in the elimination round, while still days away from their eventual championship triumph, defined the entire season.
In Requinton, Bagunas finally had someone as physically imposing as himself. This became apparent in their duel for a twice-to-beat advantage, in which Requinton and Arbasto squeezed past National U. In this match, Requinton and Arbasto reached their peak and never looked back. They barely made errors and took advantage of seemingly every opportunity NU gave them.
The Tigers eventually dethroned the Bulldogs in a quick semifinals outing. To fully gain redemption, however, they had to bring home the championship.
UST were so determined that they shook FEU, who swept the elimination round, convincingly. Game One was a cakewalk for UST. By Game Two, FEU had to sub out Kevin Hadlocon, leaving Jude Garcia and a cold Richard Solis to fend off a red-hot UST side.
The match, the season, Arbasto’s career and pilgrimage ended in flurry. The ensuing celebration felt like a sigh of relief in the middle of the noontime heat.
Among the crowd was Guzman, who hovered around the court, celebrating as if he was playing. He was one of the first people Arbasto hugged.
“Para sa kanya talaga ‘yung championship na ‘to,” Arbasto confessed to a throng of reporters.
“Parang nakulangan pa rin ako na kulang na naibigay ko lahat ng panalo, lahat ng dedication kay KR last year so parang binawi ko siya lahat ngayon. Nagsimula kami sa eliminations sa NU, tapos sa tatlong araw na yun, sunod-sunod, wala akong inisip kundi makabawi lang sa championship na ibibigay ko kay KR.
“Siyempre, sobrang proud ko sa kanya. Alam kong kayang-kaya nila ng partner niya eh,” said Guzman, who has momentarily set aside his beach volleyball career to pursue his Engineering license.
“Sinasabi niya nga sa akin na para sa akin daw ‘yung championship. Nakakataba ng puso, siyempre, kasi nga mahirap ‘yung pinagdaanan nila this year.”
While he did not have any bitter feelings to redeem, Requinton was fulfilled, all the same. He had helped his partner finish a mission and kicked off a promising seniors career with gold.
“Sobrang saya po kahit nahirapan po kami, sobrang saya po kasi yun nga graduating po si Kuya Krung tapos nabigyan ko po siya ng magandang exit sa beach volley,” he said.
“Ito siguro yung araw na di ko malilimutan as rookie kasi kahit natalo po kami sa eliminations ng FEU, natalo naman namin sila sa championships.”
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