It’s been said so much it’s nearly a cliché: International experience is invaluable to a player’s development.
Take NU’s Jaja Santiago. Just this year, she has suited up twice for the Philippine National Team – in May for the Asian Volleyball Cup U23 tournament held on home soil, and in June for the Senior’s squad in the Southeast Asian Games in Singapore. In both tournaments, Santiago provided the Nationals with a consistent scoring option, her 6’5” frame dazzling opponents.
With the Philippine Superliga parading a lineup of experienced imports in their annual Grand Prix Conference, Santiago saw an opportunity to further hone her craft against high-level competition in playing for the Foton Tornadoes. “Gusto ko kasi maka-gain pa nang experience. Ito kasi [PSL] hindi lang sa may kasamang mga imports, may mga beterano pa dito [na locals] na bihasa na talaga. Marami ka kasing makukuha sa paglalaro kasama sila. Kailangan naman always mag-improve,” Santiago said. “Noong nakita ko ‘yung mga imports, hindi lang sila matatangkad – nama-maximize nila ‘yung mga galaw nila. Sabi ko sa sarili ko na kailangan ganoon din ako. Hindi ako laging magre-rely sa tangkad ko, kailangan ma-maximize ko rin ‘yung mga galaw ko.”
Facing players who are nearly as tall and athletic as her, Santiago has florished. Jaja nears the top of the league in points per game among locals, just behind her older sister Dindin Santiago-Manabat of the Petron Blaze Spikers. Playing with Foton, she has shown improvement in her serving while still hitting her signature quick attacks, even occasionally attacking from the back row. Jaja’s presence also affords Foton’s lineup virtually no weak points. Head coach Vilet Ponce-De Leon slots Jaja in the back row in the starting rotation, then uses her imports, Katy Messing and Lindsay Stalzer, in the first open hitter and opposite position respectively. When either the power-hitting Messing or the high-flying Stalzer rotates to the back row, setter Ivy Perez still has her long-time teammate, Santiago, to toss to for high-percentage quicks. Add the tremendous play of Fil-Jamaican Kayla Tianco-Williams and the always-crafty Isko, Angeli Araneta, and you get an offense-ubiquitous Foton squad.
“Sa practices po, blocking po talaga ‘yung tinatrabaho ko ngayon. Kasi nga po malaki ako, hindi naman pwede na puro palo lang ako, dapat may depensa din ako. Sabi nga po ng mga coach, sayang ‘yung haba ng mga braso ko pati tangakad ko kung hindi po ako makaka-block,” answered Jaja when asked about what she worked on over the course of the season.
Having just won a championship in another league last month with NU, Jaja considers all their accomplishments as motivators to strive for a better finish in the upcoming UAAP tournament on February next year. Winning with Foton would just boost the confindence of the towering National Team mainstay. “Sana madala ko ‘yung mga accomplishments na ‘to sa UAAP. Iba kasi ‘yung nagagawa nang mga panalo sa team. Para sa akin, lalo akong nagfo-focus sa mga kailangan kong gawin para ma-improve ‘yung sarili ko pati na ‘rin kung paano ko matutulungan ‘yung teammates ko,” exprsssed Santiago. Aside from the rejuvenated Perez, other NU players who are shining in the PSL include libero, Bia General who continues her development into a top-flight defender and Philips Gold’s Myla Pablo whose superstar status did not waiver even while playing with other great players. With the improvement of these Lady Bulldogs, an NU Finals breakthrough in the UAAP only seems inevitable.
The PSL also marks another league where both Santiago sisters have been pit against each other. Jaja, however, says that she and Dindin have gotten used to facing-off by now. Although they don’t talk too much on the court, Jaja reveals that their games still make for interesting conversations in the Santiago household especially with their grandparents who frequent their matches. “Kapag kaming dalawa ‘yung magkalaban mas gusto pa nga nila [grandparents] po kasi hindi sila kinakabahan. Masaya po sila kahit sino manalo sa aming dalawa. Minsan nga po kapag nabubugbog kami nila Ate Dindin sa laro, sasabihan nila si ate ‘Hindi mo man lang pina-isa sila Jaja’, ‘yung mga ganoon po. Tapos minsan mahihirapan pa sila magcheer lalo na kapag na-block o napaluan po namin ‘yung isa’t isa. Pero always namang masaya kapag may laban kami,” Jaja told. The Santiago sisters face-off one more time in the elimination round on Saturday. With Dindin’s Petron and Jaja’s Foton squarely in the semis, we could be treated to more epic matches between the sisters in the championship rounds of the tournament.
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