The first one is always memorable, as they say, and such is the case for Ateneo De Manila University in UAAP Season 76, when it conquered the Women’s Volleyball tilt for its first-ever gold medal in the event.
That run, to this day, remains dear to the hearts of its dear faithful. It was one of the most epic runs that college volleyball had seen, since no one expected the Lady Eagles to climb all the way to the top.
Even its very own players such as Ella De Jesus and Alyssa Valdez never thought that it was possible, given the situation of the spikers from Katipunan heading into the said season.
“Alam mo kung ano ‘yung na-feel namin talaga noon? Hindi talaga kami mananalo at all,” De Jesus recalled in Tiebreaker Vodcasts’ The Prospects Pod, presented by SMART and supported by Chris Sports, Friday.
“Like, kahit nga Final Four baka hindi kami pumasok. Or kahit nga manalo ng isang game, hindi namin alam paano mangyayari pagdating ng Season 76 talaga,” the 27-year-old added.
At that time, the Lady Eagles were rebuilding following the departure of the famed Fab Five of Fille Cainglet, Jem Ferrer, Dzi Gervacio, Gretchen Ho, and Ailysse Nacachi due to graduation.
Aside from the exit of their core — who were responsible for bringing Ateneo to silver medal finishes in the previous two seasons — the team had also switched coaches, bringing in Tai Bundit as it moved on from Roger Gorayeb.
“Pagka-graduate nila, nag-change din kami ng coaching staff,” recalled three-time UAAP Most Valuable Player Valdez in the podcast, where she was among the guests along with De Jesus and Bea De Leon.
The team, of course, needed time to adjust, especially to the Thai mentor. Bundit barely spoke English or Filipino, and only arrived to the Lady Eagles’ lair in September 2013 — just three months prior to the season opener.
“Nung una mahirap talaga, kasi parang mainitin pa ‘yung ulo ni coach Tai noon. Na tipong ‘pag nagsabi siya ng instructions, kailangan gets namin agad. Eh hindi namin naiintindihan,” De Jesus said.
“So, ‘di namin alam kung paano gawin ‘yung drill, kung ano ‘yung ibig sabihin niya, so doon nagkakaproblema kami. Pero dahil andoon si Ate Charo [Soriano] — si Ate Cha kasi, fluent siya sa Thai, so tinulungan niya kami, kinakausap niya si coach Tai, tapos sinasabi niya sa amin kung ano raw ‘yung gusto niya mangyari. So ‘yun, eventually naka-adjust na rin kami, and nasanay na.”
Season 76 then began, and the fears of both De Jesus and Valdez only worsened when the Lady Eagles bowed to the Santiago sisters-led National University right in their very first assignment.
“‘Yung first game namin, natalo kami agad ng NU. Sabi namin, ‘Oh my God, aabot ba kami ng Final Four?!’” recalled Valdez, who was in her third playing year in the college ranks back then.
But Ateneo bounced back in the next game, which proved to be the start of a five-game winning streak. They then bowed twice to De La Salle University — in the last game of the first round, then in the following round’s opening salvo.
But the Lady Eagles managed to snap that skid, before going on to win five of their next six assignments. They finished that elimination round with a 10-4 slate — good enough to finish third in the standings and book a playoff spot.
Entering the Final Four is a feat in itself, especially for this Lady Eagles batch, but playing there is another story. That season saw a stepladder playoff since the Lady Spikers swept their way to the championship round.
It was a dangerous path that Ateneo had to tread. It began with Bang Pineda and the fourth-seeded Adamson University, the squad that took them to five grueling sets back in the second round.
But the Lady Eagles continued their mastery of the Lady Falcons, finishing them in three sets in the one-game playoff. That earned them the right to face the Lady Bulldogs, the second-best team in the league, in the semis.
NU was the favorite in that clash. Besides its twice-to-beat advantage, it also had Ateneo’s number after sweeping the latter in their elimination round encounters.
The Lady Eagles did not allow a repeat, though. They took down the Lady Bulldogs in four sets to extend the series, and then did it again in the rubber match to complete the stunning upset.
“Mindset namin noon, one game at a time,” recalled Valdez of that stepladder. “Wala kaming kwenta in a sense na parang ‘di nga namin iniisip na, ‘Oh my God, kailangan namin manalo.’ Never namin inisip ‘yun.
“Kasi mas nag-iisip kami paano kami magsu-survive sa training ni Coach Ta na parang, ‘Oh my God, may training na naman,’ ang hirap na naman ng training.“
Bundit’s practices are now infamous for their difficulty. “Ang lala mag-training ng mga yan. Ang lala mag-training ng mga ‘yan. Sobrang lala,” Kiefer Ravena chimed in.
“Magsasaya kami, and then after a while, mare-realize namin na, ‘Shet, training na naman pala bukas.’ Parang nalulungkot pa kami na training na naman. Hanggang sa umabot na kami hanggang sa dulo,” De Jesus said.
But as cliche as it may sound, all that work hard paid off. Ateneo made it to the Big Dance. But in its way was the mighty La Salle, which was poised to extend its reign of dominance in the UAAP to four.
And the Aby Marano-led Lady Spikers appeared to be too tall of a mountain to climb. They were equipped with a thrice-to-beat advantage, a privilege they earned after going unbeaten in 14 games in the eliminations.
But much to the surprise of everyone who trooped to the historic SMART Araneta Coliseum, the Lady Eagles beat their long-time tormentors in the first game in four sets.
La Salle would redeem itself in the following game, but Ateneo would answer right back in Game Three. It then swept its arch-rivals in the deciding fourth match to complete the conquest, witnessed by 21,314 fans at the Mall of Asia Arena.
The Lady Eagles finally brought home their first-ever UAAP Women’s Volleyball gold, and they did it at the expense of the very same team that beat them in the previous two Finals. It couldn’t get any better than that.
“Actually parang nagkaroon na lang talaga kami ng parang, ‘Andito na tayo’ nung last game. Na parang, last game na natin ‘to … Parang dun lang kami nagkaroon ng, ‘Guys please manalo tayo’ na mindset,” recalled De Jesus.
Win they did, in the best and most fitting way to conclude such a fairy tale.