The Ateneo Lady Eagles are crowned UAAP 76 women's volleyball champions after defeating La Salle in 3 straight sets. Photo by Mark Cristino for ABS-CBNnews.com
MANILA, Philippines – Not much was expected of the Ateneo Lady Eagles entering the UAAP Season 76 women’s volleyball tournament. They had lost five key players of last year’s team, had a new head coach, and were fielding two rookies in their starting six.
Most fans believe that at best, the Lady Eagles could reach the Final Four. Not even the members of the team thought that they could make it to the Finals, much less win the championship.
Yet at the end of the tournament, that is exactly what happened.
The Lady Eagles, after two consecutive years of placing second, finally won it all – and did so in stunning fashion, winning five do-or-die games and beating archrivals La Salle three times in the finals to claim their first ever women’s volleyball crown.
How did they do it?
1. Playing with no pressure
The Lady Eagles agreed that playing with no expectations played a major factor, especially after two straight years wherein they were under tremendous pressure – both internal and external – to excel in the tournament.
Unlike the past two years, when a “Fab Five”- led Ateneo squad stumbled at the finish line, the Lady Eagles this time were calm, even in the face of tremendous odds.
“’Yun ang nag-work sa amin, so siguro ‘yun ang ime-maintain namin as a team,” said team captain Alyssa Valdez, who was spectacular for Ateneo all season long. “Kung kailangan na hindi namin i-pressure or hindi kami mag-expect, bakit naman namin ipe-pressure ‘yung sarili namin di ba?”
Former Ateneo player Gretchen Ho saw firsthand how playing without any pressure allowed this season’s Lady Eagles to shine.
“(Last year) we wanted to go to games not to play or to win, but more of… natatakot kami mag-fail. Nafu-frustrate kami pag nagkakamali kami,” she admitted. “But this year, it’s a whole new mindset for the team. It’s a whole new aura. Pag pasok mo pa lang, ang gaan, ang happy, sobrang okay.”
2. Coach Tai and his ‘heart strong’ philosophy
Another major factor was Ateneo’s new coach, Tai Bundit, who was originally tasked with making a young, up-and-coming team stronger physically and mentally, yet wound up leading the Lady Eagles to a historic championship.
It was Bundit who instilled Ateneo’s now famous “heart strong” mentality, constantly exhorts the players during timeouts to “play happy,” and leads them in meditation between sets to keep them grounded.
“Kahit anong mangyari kasi, si Coach Tai, hindi siya magsasawa na i-push ka at sasabihin niya sa’yo na ‘You’re a good player.’ If you believe you can win, you can win,” said Valdez.
“So bakit ikaw sa sarili mo, mangd-doubt, kung ‘yung coach mo nagtitiwala sa’yo?” she added.
Bundit speaks little English, yet communication did not seem to be an issue for Ateneo throughout the season. Indeed, Bundit’s actions seemed to speak louder than words, as his now-famous courtside dances often serve to spark the Lady Eagles when they flag during games.
“’Yung mga players, every time na mayroong good point, gusto ng players na nakikita ‘yung ginagawa niya na tumatakbo-takbo,” said Ateneo team manager Tony Boy Liao. “Kaya ‘yung mga bata, nai-inspire din.”
But make no mistake - the hard work for Bundit and the Lady Eagles come during training, said Valdez.
“Do-or-die match, eh sa training namamatay na kami,” she said. “Sobrang hard din talaga, at yung resulta din naman ng training niya, sobrang okay sa games.”
“Si Coach Tai, he’s beyond helpful. Sobrang inspiring siya. Sa training, sobrang patayan ‘yan, as in lagi siyang nagagalit, pero sa game, sobrang cool siya, sobrang bait niya and lagi niya kaming ine-encourage,” added libero Denden Lazaro.
3. Mix of veterans and rookies
Ateneo also found the correct mix of veterans and rookies even as they dealt with injuries to key players this season. Rookie Ana Gopico, originally the team’s middle hitter, suffered an injury in the first round, forcing changes to be made in the rotation.
Bundit eventually settled on a group that included veterans Valdez, Ella de Jesus, Amy Ahomiro and Aeriel Patnongon, with rookies Michelle Morente and setter Jia Morado, while Lazaro proved to be the backbone of their defense. Another veteran, Marge Tejada, was usually the first player off the bench.
Only Valdez, de Jesus and Lazaro played key minutes in Ateneo’s two Finals losses to La Salle, but their championship experience combined with some truly brave performances from their rookies proved to be enough against La Salle.
“This year, kami na ‘yung may responsibility, kami ni Den at ni Ella, na dalhin ‘yung mga rookies. But what happened is, hindi talaga kami nagdalat, kasi (we did this) together. As a team talaga,” said Valdez. “Lahat, ginagawa lang ‘yung roles.”
Ateneo's fairy-tale run this season had a happy ending, and they are hoping to find the right combination once more next year as they take the floor as defending champions for the first time ever.
"Siguro for next year, kasi wala talagang expectations (this year), naglaro lang kami ng best every game," said Valdez. "Next year, hihintayin namin si Coach Tai muna. May (Shakey's) V-League pa, so magkakaroon kami ng exposure as a team, experience, so hopefully mas maganda 'yung run namin next year."