MANILA, Philippines – Of all the former De La Salle University stars that suited up in the "Battle of the Rivals" last Sunday, it was Stephanie Mercado who was perhaps most unfamiliar to the volleyball fans at the Mall of Asia Arena.
Longtime viewers of the sport will remember Mercado as a part of La Salle's title teams in Seasons 71 and 73, but she missed the epic rise of volleyball that was partially brought about by La Salle's rivalry with Ateneo de Manila University in the UAAP.
It was not until Sunday's charity match that Mercado again wore La Salle threads and faced off against their archrivals, but "Paneng" made sure to show fans exactly what she is capable of as she nearly stole the show in the "Battle of the Rivals."
The daughter of Lydia de Vega, Asia's fastest woman, Mercado fired 13 points built on 11 attacks, showcasing her leaping ability and body control on her way to scoring off sharp spikes.
The Lady Spikers bowed to the Lady Eagles, 25-17, 25-21, 19-25, 21-25, 15-13, but it was undeniable that the 28-year-old Mercado gained a legion of new fans with her performance.
"Masaya, sobrang saya na after UAAP, ngayon ko na lang ulit na-experience 'yung ganitong suporta from the La Sallian community," said Mercado, who now sees action for Cignal HD in the Philippine Superliga.
"Kung gaanong kaingay 'yung audience, nakakadala talaga sila," she said.
[I'm so happy. Since I left the UAAP, this is the first time that I've experienced this kind of support from the La Sallian community. The audience's energy is really contagious.]
Over 13,000 people watched the "Battle of the Rivals" on Sunday, and Mercado acknowledged that "majority" of those fans were probably seeing her play for the first time.
"Sana naman, napakitaan ko sila ng magandang laro," she said. "Sana naging masaya din sila sa nakita nila ngayon."
"Ang tagal ko na ding huling sinuot 'yung La Salle jersey," Mercado added. "Happy lang din na nabigyan ako ng opportunity, and binigyan ako ng tiwala ni Coach Ramil (de Jesus) na maglaro throughout the game."
[I hope I was able to give the fans a good game, and I hope they enjoyed themselves. It's been a while since I last wore a La Salle jersey, and I'm just happy to have been given this opportunity and this trust by Coach Ramil.]
Famed La Salle middle blocker Abigail Maraño, who teamed up with Mercado in La Salle's Season 73 championship team, was utterly delighted to see her former teammate pull off her old tricks again.
"Sobrang saya," said Maraño. "Kapag makakuha ako ng blocker, tapos siya walang blocker tapos magbabaon siya, lagi naming pinagtatawanan."
"Kasi sabi niya, 'Ay, 'di pa ako thunders!' Ang sabi ko, 'Ay, parang college lang!' Kaya tawa kami ng tawa sa loob ng court," she added. "Nagagawa namin kung ano kami dati."
[I'm so happy for her. Whenever I drew a blocker so she can get a clean hit, we always laugh because she'll say that she's not old yet. And I tell her that we're playing like we did in college. That's why we're so happy.]
While Mercado did not get the chance to play in the Finals against Ateneo, she is still delighted at how their rivalry with the Lady Eagles has helped increase the popularity of the sport in the Philippines.
"For how many seasons, sunod-sunod na nag-Finals appearance 'yung both teams," said Mercado. "Sabi ko, lalaki ito, and I felt like ito 'yung magdadala sa volleyball. Grabe din 'yung in-improve ng volleyball overall."
[They met in the Finals for several consecutive seasons, so I knew that it was going to become a big deal and help volleyball.]
For more sports coverage, visit the ABS-CBN Sports website.