A lot has changed since Jaja Santiago returned to Saitama and play for Ageo Medics last August.
On her end, the 25-year-old native of Tanza, Cavite made history. She became the first Filipino volleyball player to win a championship in an international league after helping the Ageo Medics win the 2021 V.League Division I V Cup.
“Surreal pa ang lahat. I didn’t expect anything bago magsimula ‘yung season,” she told Tiebreaker Times. Santiago is still in quarantine at Vivere Hotel and Resort in Alabang after arriving back in the country last Wednesday.
“I just went there with a goal.”
But it’s not just Santiago whose fortune has changed. While she was away, there was a seismic shift in the local volleyball scene.
Besides finding a new home on Cignal, the Premier Volleyball League also turned professional, which led to an exodus from the other league. And one of the teams that transferred was Santiago’s mother team Chery Tiggo.
Santiago has juggled duties with both the United Asia Automotive Group-owned franchise and Ageo Medics for the last three years. She shared that the developments did not surprise her, since she always believed that one day, there would be one domestic league in the country.
“Dati pa naman inexpect ko na na darating ‘yung panahon na magkaka-pro league na tayo at magsasamasama ang lahat ng teams.
“Now na nangyari ‘yun, sobrang saya at excited ako to play with my fellow players, lalo na ‘yung teams na matagal na rin naming hindi nakakalaban. It’s more challenging this time,” said the 6-foot-5 spiker.
Chery Tiggo will no longer just face the likes of F2 Logistics, Cignal, Sta. Lucia, and PLDT. They now have to also prepare for Creamline, Petro Gazz, Perlas, Army, Choco Mucho, BaliPure, and newcomer UAC.
Yes, every game will be a barn-burner come the Open Conference.
“Actually, that’s why bumalik ako ng maaga, kasi I want to play sa Chery.”
Santiago knows that there will be pressure for her to help end Chery’s five-year title drought. But the National University product was quick to add that at the end of the day, volleyball is still a team sport.
“I don’t think na may added pressure since volleyball is a team sport, not an individual event.
“Kailangan ko pa rin ang tulong ng teammates ko ,and kailangan ko rin silang tulungan sa court. Ang main goal ko coming into the season ay matulungan sila na maunti-unti maibalik ‘yung kundisyon nila sa paglalaro,” said Santiago. All of her teammates have yet to play since March of last year.
“Sa akin naman, I will do my best na magawa at ma-share ‘yung mga natutunan ko sa Japan para sa Chery,” she added.
Santiago feels excited to meet both the old faces and new pick-ups of the Crossover when batch training is allowed to resume once more.
And as the team stands right now, Santiago says that this is the most complete Chery Tiggo team she has played with.
“Sobrang excited ako! Actually, nakasama ko na sila last year kahit ‘yung mga new recruits namin. Hindi lang nabigyan ng chance na makalaro kasama sila kasi the league was cut short,” expressed Santiago.
“This time, complete ‘yung team kaya mas sobrang nakaka-excite!”