Ateneo's Alyssa Valdez hugs a team mate following their thrilling Game 3 victory against La Salle on Wednesday. Photo by Mark Cristino for ABS-CBNnews.com
MANILA, Philippines – Former Ateneo standout Charo Soriano showered praise on this season's Lady Eagles after the team pushed defending champions La Salle to the brink on the UAAP Season 76 women's volleyball finals.
Soriano starred for Ateneo in the early 2000s and now serves as an assistant coach to the team.
After Ateneo's five-set victory on Wednesday that sent the UAAP finals into a do-or-die game, Soriano said this edition of the Lady Eagles “has a very good mix” that previous Ateneo teams did not have.
“It’s a very good mix between the rookies – the innocent, the purest heart and passion of our team – and at the same time, the maturity and the experience of the veterans such as Alyssa (Valdez), DenDen (Lazaro) and Ella (De Jesus),” said Soriano.
She also noted that there is great camaraderie between the players and the coaching staff, led by Coach Tai Bundit, who instilled the now famous “heart strong” rallying cry that the Lady Eagles adopted this season.
“It’s a very good mix talaga, with Coach Tai. ‘Yung fit niya as a coach with the kind of team that we have is very, very good,” said Soriano. “Kumbaga, well-baked. Ang ganda ng mix nila.”
“For me, that’s the thing that differs, that’s one of the factors na nag-iba sa team na ito at sa team before,” she added.
Ateneo reached the finals in the previous two seasons as well, losing to La Salle in both instances.
It was expected that the Lady Eagles will be rebuilding this year, with most pundits believing that they had a slim shot of making the Final Four.
But behind an MVP-campaign for Valdez, solid seasons from veterans De Jesus, Lazaro and Amy Ahomiro – as well as overachieving campaigns from rookies Michelle Morente and Julia Morado – Ateneo made a third straight finals appearance and is now on the brink of a title.
Their performance against La Salle in Game 3, in many ways, embodied their season as the Lady Eagles raced to a surprising two-set lead, collapsed in sets three and four, and overhauled a four-point deficit in the final frame to beat La Salle in a grueling match.
Team manager Tony Boy Liao said Ateneo’s effort, especially in the fifth set, boiled down to heart.
“Noong nanalo kami, ang nagpapanalo ay puso na lang,” he said. “Nakita naman, 12-8 na ‘yung score, so talagang sumisigaw na ‘yung La Salle ng ‘four-peat, four-peat, four-peat.’ Pero lagi nilang sinasabi, believe, heart. Kaya ayun ang resulta, nanalo kami.”
“We also have to give it to La Salle. They were down 0-2, nakabalik sila, they almost got the four-peat with the 12-8 lead. So sabi nga, it’s all heart. Talagang puso na lang ang gumana doon,” he added.
Although the Lady Eagles will obviously go all out on Saturday, Liao stressed to the team that they are already winners just by reaching the finals and pushing La Salle to the brink.
“I’ve always told them, we’re in the finals – you’re winners already, kahit matalo kami sa series na ito,” he said. “Nobody expected us to be in the finals, ngayon pa na natalo namin ang La Salle ng dalawang beses na.”
Ateneo and La Salle will meet for the final time this season on Saturday at the SM Mall of Asia Arena.