The Game 1 victory of the Ateneo Blue Eagles over the National University (NU) Bulldogs in the UAAP Men’s Volleyball Finals has the fingerprints of its head coach Oliver Almadro.
In the first set when it looked like NU would win running away with his team obviously rusty from a 23-day lay-off as a result of their elimination round sweep, Almadro told his team, “I don’t care what the score is. I want to see the energy and the intensity.”
The two-time defending champions responded with remarkable come-from-behind charge to take the set 25-22.
However, they saved the best for last.
With middle hitter Rex Intal unable to get going and the team looking somewhat out of sorts, NU came back to take the next two sets, 25-21 and 25-22.
In the fourth set, Intal not only got going but so did the rest of the team. They took the fourth, 25-18, and stunningly, the fifth, 15-13, to come within a match of winning a rare trifecta in the sport since the league expanded to eight teams in 1986. In that time, only Far Eastern University and the University of Santo Tomas have won three straight (the latter won four straight from 2007-11).
When I first followed the Ateneo program in 2006, Almadro was an assistant to Ronald Dulay. When the latter departed for UP two years later, he took over as head coach of the men’s team. Their transformation was instantaneous although the cause for much palpitations and frustration. The team made the Final Four with its towering open spiker AJ Pareja, who is now a doctor, becoming the school’s first most valuable player in UAAP men’s volleyball. The next year, the team somewhat crumbled with the weight of expectations.
They would race to a two-set lead and fumble away the last three. And this happened in several first-round matches. As a sign of frustration, he struck a player on his chest when questioning his heart.
I was shocked that the players took this negatively and so did the athletics officials. Almadro was let go and he moved to NU where he eventually built a team that would win a championship (though not under his watch). I actually found it annoying as some of those players mocked Almadro. And where did they end up anyways? They actually floundered.
And the fiery and intense Almadro was eventually brought back.
I always thought he was like a grenade that was ready to explode. I have seen many like him – Joe Lipa and the coach he admired so much, the great Bobby Knight. Oliver is a great teacher, trainer, and motivator. He can be excessive too. And sometimes, I thought, he should learn to chill a bit and take a step back. But that’s his way.
I have heard there are times when the UAAP’s reigning Most Valuable Player Marck Espejo gets ticked off by Almadro’s constant needling.
But there’s a method to all of this. “I need to push them so everything else becomes easy for them,” confided the coach some time ago. The mind games. The verbal jousts. The stare-downs. He tries to balance it with compliments.
While Almadro has learned a thing or two working with his counterpart over at the women’s side, Anusorn Bundit, he remains his own man with his trademark fiery style. So fiery that he drew a stern warning from first referee Jeff Lopez during Game 1.
“I guess I do need to take a step back,” he conceded during a conversation a year ago during the team’s celebration for a back-to-back crown. “It’s tough though. It’s me kasi. Tough love too.”
It would be easy to say that he has very good players. But I beg to differ. When he first took on the team, they were but massive underachievers. Any game was an automatic win by the opponent even before they stepped on the court. Ironically, when they played NU, it was like a championship – to stay out of the cellar. And yet, the two schools have been the most dominant in the past five seasons including the off-season V-League tourneys.
Yes, the Blue Eagles have the phenomenal Espejo. And they even have Tony Koyfman who when he realizes his true potential can be even more devastating considering his height and body structure. They also have Ish Polvorosa, their setter supreme.
But Alamdro makes them go.
I recall how years ago, on the eve of their first-ever Final Four berth (during his first go-around with the squad), he took them jogging in Luneta. Their starting point was at the statue of the school’s most famous alumnus, Jose Rizal. “This is where we start making history,” he said. Whether his players believed him then or not (they sure did after the season), look at where they are now.
They certainly are in a position to win it all for the third straight year. Yet even if they don’t. Watching the sideline that Almadro patrols with that nuclear engine for a heart and a bullhorn for a voice, it sure is just as entertaining.
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