MANILA, Philippines – With Oliver Almadro shifting from one side of the Blue Eagle Gym to another, the Ateneo de Manila University turned to a very familiar face to take charge of their men's volleyball team.
The university officially announced last May 24 that Almadro is the new head coach of their women's volleyball team, after five years of coaching the Blue Eagles. Rather than looking at external options for their men's team, Ateneo instead promoted Timothy "Timmy" Sto. Tomas, a longtime assistant of Almadro.
Almadro was the one who recommended Sto. Tomas for the head coaching position. "He is the most eligible para doon sa job na 'yun, the most qualified," Almadro said of his protégé.
"'Yung experience niya, 'yung UAAP experience niya sa Ateneo, hindi na biro 'yun," added Almadro.
An Ateneo lifer, Sto. Tomas played for the Blue Eagles from 2004 to 2009 before joining their coaching staff. He has also been the coach of Ateneo's high school team, and has worked for the University Athletics Office for the past decade.
There are no doubts that Sto. Tomas is qualified for the job. When he confirmed Sto. Tomas's appointment, Ateneo president Fr. Jett Villarin, SJ said: "Coach Timmy is more than capable of continuing the team's legacy of Ateneo athleticism."
Yet Sto. Tomas himself knows that he still has to prove himself as a coach – and show that he can follow in the footsteps of the very man who recommended him for the position.
"I have big shoes to fill," Sto. Tomas admitted in an interview with ABS-CBN News. "Siyempre, si Coach Oliver ang pinalitan ko."
Same system, different approach
Almadro's stint with the Blue Eagles was wildly successful, as he steered the team to five consecutive finals appearances – highlighted by a run of three straight titles from UAAP Seasons 77 to 79. Of course, it helped greatly that he had a generational talent in five-time Most Valuable Player Marck Espejo, and a remarkable setter in Ish Polvorosa.
But there were no questions regarding Almadro's system or his player development, which is why Sto. Tomas has no intentions of fixing what is not broken.
"I've learned from the best," he said. "We'll still apply the system of Coach Oliver."
What will change, Sto. Tomas said, is the approach. If Almadro developed a paternal relationship with his players – acting almost like as second dad for many of them – Sto. Tomas intends to be more of a "brother figure."
"Ang role ko kasi talaga sa team before, nung si Coach O pa ang may hawak, ako 'yung parang pacifier. So parang ako 'yung taga-kalma, 'pag nagagalit si Coach Oliver," he revealed.
"Of course, as a project officer din sa Athletics Office, 'yun din ang role ko eh. Ako 'yung mas malapit sa mga estudyante, so nakita ko talaga kung paano 'yung paglaki ng mga bata. Ngayon siguro, ita-try naman natin 'yung approach na more of a brother side, na pagtuturo sa mga bata," he said.
This does not mean that Sto. Tomas will not channel his mentor's ferocity. Almadro was known for passionate sideline outbursts, his emotional timeouts, and sometimes, frenzied tirades at game officials or even his own players.
It was not unusual to see Almadro drop to his knees during games, or get called for a yellow card or even a red card by the first referee.
Sto. Tomas appears to be far more easygoing than Almadro, but he stressed that he can be as intense as "Coach O."
"Sinasabi nga ni Coach O, mas matindi akong magalit sa kanya. Kasi since I'm handling the high school team, iba 'yung galit mo sa mga bata, compared sa mas matatanda na eh," he said.
"So 'pag nagalit ka sa mga bata, alam mong mas intense, kasi' pag matanda na, medyo usapang lalake na 'to na direct to the point," he added.
"Feeling ko naman, makakapag-adjust naman ako when it comes to that kasi I've been with the team for a very long time, and I know where to draw the line. So, I think kaya namang adjust-an agad 'yun."
Perhaps the biggest change that Sto. Tomas will deal with is the expectations for the Blue Eagles. The Ateneo men's team surprised a lot of pundits when they made it to the finals in Season 76, in Almadro's first year back in charge.
But in the following years, Ateneo was always a title favorite. They lived up to their billing in 2015, 2016, and 2017, before being dethroned by rivals National University this year – Espejo's and Polvorsa's final season in the UAAP.
With the exit of their two stars – along with team captain Karl Baysa – the expectations are somewhat lower now for the Blue Eagles, though, of course, the spotlight will shine as bright as ever on one of the most popular men's team in the league.
Sto. Tomas believes that the roster he inherited is still strong enough to contend in Season 81, however, and he is also confident in the new players that they are going to bring in.
"Kahit papaano malakas pa rin naman ang team. Andon pa rin 'yung core mo," he said. "Of course, we'll have to find lang a system wherein na magki-click 'yung mga tao na andoon sa loob namin."
"'Yung iba naman na nagta-tryout sa amin, 'yung mga kinuha namin, they've been with the system for... like two, three years. Kasi 'yung dalawa, coming from my high school team," he said of their recruits.
"'Yung system ko naman sa high school is not very different from the one sa college. So I think makaka-adjust naman kaagad sa mga bata."
Sto. Tomas said pressure will now shift on players like Ron Medalla, Chumason Njigha, and Gian Glorioso, who will be the new veterans of the team. While all three players had their moments during Season 80, for the most part they were carried by Espejo and Polvorosa.
"Ngayon medyo may experience na naman sila, so kaya na naman nilang dalhin ang sarili nila. And of course hopefully madala na rin nila ang team," said Sto. Tomas.
'In the right hands'
The young coach's first test will likely come in the Premier Volleyball League Collegiate Conference, which the Blue Eagles have dominated for years. It will be just the start of a long process for him and the squad.
But their real challenge comes next year, in the UAAP Season 81 men's volleyball tournament.
Sto. Tomas won't deny that he is quite nervous about fully taking over the men's volleyball, but not for the reason one might think.
"Siyempre, nakaka-kaba kasi for the longest time, I've been an assistant coach, so playing has been my passion," he explained. "And now, parang 'yung coaching and 'yung volleyball, magiging trabaho na siya for me."
"So parang medyo, alam mo 'yun, medyo nakaka-kaba, kasi I don't want to lose that passion because of the stress and everything nang paghe-head coach, kasi iba 'yun eh," he added. "So, 'yun ang feeling ko na challenge, 'yun ang pinaka-challenge sa akin ngayon, how to cope with stress na madadala sa akin nitong pagko-coach."
His mentor, however, has no doubt that Sto. Tomas will be just fine.
Indeed, Almadro is confident that Sto. Tomas will shine in his new role – and that he will bring the Blue Eagles to new heights.
"Mayroon siyang mga ideas," Almadro said of Sto. Tomas. "It's about time na ilabas niya na 'yun."
"The Ateneo Blue Eagles, 'yung men's (team), they're in the right hands, tamang kamay ni Timmy," he added. "On the right track pa rin naman sila."
"Marami pa namang maida-dagdag si Timmy doon."
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