MANILA, Philippines – Before its third-place finish this season, the Ateneo de Manila University men’s volleyball team did not belong among the ranks of the most glamorous and respected squads in the UAAP.
In fact, the Blue Eagles were the whipping boys of the league, having not won a single game for 9 straight seasons.
This embarrassing record, however, never hindered 6’4”-tall Andre Joseph “AJ” Pareja, a stalwart of the Lourdes School of Mandaluyong volleyball squad, from deciding to don the blue-and-white uniform.
“When (Ateneo volleyball program head) Louie Gepuela approached me, he said the team could not promise me the glory and fame of the sport,” said AJ, whose older brother, Paolo, was already playing for the Eagles then. “But he said the school could promise me my future.”
AJ, however, had no idea of the rollercoaster ride he was up to. When he entered the team, the Eagles remained as one of the cellar-dwellers in the league, but they started winning.
Season 71 was the Blue Eagles’ breakout year. AJ, who served as the squad’s team captain that year, and Timothy Sto. Tomas led their younger teammates Duane Teves, Eduard Ortega, Xavier Señoren, and JR Intal to the Final Four, which signaled the end of the dark ages for the school’s men’s volleyball program.
“More than the awards, last year’s Final Four appearance is my proudest moment as a volleyball player,” AJ beamed. “I am very proud that during my stint as the captain, I was able to bring my team to the Final Four, which the Ateneo men’s volleyball team has dreamed about for decades.”
Key losses, however, seemed to have dented the Eagles’ rise. This season, the Katipunan-based squad lost Sto. Tomas, the team’s scoring leader last year, to graduation, while Señoren did not suit up for the team.
AJ also graduated from his Biology program, but pursued his long-time dream of becoming a doctor by taking up Medicine in Ateneo.
The rigors of Medicine school did not stop AJ from playing his last year for the Blue Eagles. He, however, admitted, that it affected his performance.
“I am not as physically in condition as last year,” said AJ, who attends his classes every weekday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. “But I just thought that my main contribution to the team was my leadership and that I would just play and lead my teammates. But I would leave the winning, enduring, and scoring to them.”
Far from the promise the team showed last year, Ateneo started its Season 72 campaign with an awful 2-5 win-loss card in the first round. AJ admitted that even he doubted the team’s ability to make the Final Four for the second year in a row.
The second round, however, proved to be a different story. Sto. Tomas took the coaching reins from former mentor Oliver Almadro, and the Eagles started to knot wins even against formidable contenders like the Far Eastern University (FEU), University of the Philippines, and De La Salle University, which enabled them to book the third seed coming into the semifinals.
Coach Sto. Tomas, who also happens to be one of AJ’s closest friends when the former was still playing, stressed how valuable Pareja was to the team.
“AJ is a good team player,” Sto. Tomas said. “He knows how to communicate with his teammates, and he is able to gel with them.”
Most Valuable Player
Come Final Four, the Blue Eagles proved to be a minute roadblock for the Tamaraws to once again make it to the Finals. AJ, however, did not want to give them the game easily.
In his last timeout in the fourth set, Sto. Tomas egged his players to give their best as this was the last stretch of the tournament for them. AJ responded to the call and unloaded 2 quick hits, one of which landed straight to the chest of FEU’s libero, Bryan Brioso.
With his team bowing out of the race, AJ was ready to hang his jersey and bid the UAAP goodbye. After all, he was part of the Eagle’s 2 most successful campaigns after 2 dry decades. But a player like AJ does not go silently just like that.
Finishing the eliminations as the third best scorer, the most effective attacker, and the 8th best server, AJ was easily the top pick for the season’s Most Valuable Player (MVP) plum, edging La Salle’ offensive machine Chris Macasaet.
“I was really surprised that I got the award,” AJ said. “I just feel happy that I was able to do my part in changing the volleyball program of Ateneo, and that I think was the reason why I was awarded MVP.”
Sto. Tomas explained further why AJ deserves the title.
“Whenever the opponents see AJ, they are already intimidated because of his height,” Sto. Tomas said. “He matches this intimidation factor with his superb volleyball skills and he has grown into a more intelligent player. He has earned the respect of his teammates.”
Simply the catalyst
Despite getting the admiration of his teammates and the league, AJ admitted that some people were not completely sold about the idea of him being named as the league’s top player.
“The worst thing said about me is that I do not deserve to be MVP,” AJ said. “I just treat these criticisms as honest opinions from others and areas that I can improve on.”
At 21 years old, AJ has accomplished so much. He has been named as the UAAP MVP, he has brought his team to 2 Final Four appearances, and he is a future doctor.
Despite all these achievements, AJ wants to be remembered simply as the “catalyst.”
“I hope to be remembered as one of the factors that proved that Ateneo volleyball is no longer mediocre,” AJ said, “and that studying and athletics are not opposing endeavors.” – by Ivan Angelo de Lara
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