MANILA, Philippines – Five years after last seeing action in the UAAP, Far Eastern University's (FEU) Rose Vargas is back and eager to lead the Lady Tamaraws in Season 80.
At her peak, Vargas was one of the most potent scorers in the league, possessing a tremendously powerful swing capable of smashing through their opponent's arms. She was the UAAP's Best Scorer in Season 74, beating up-and-coming stars like Alyssa Valdez and Ara Galang, and dismissing other fine attackers like Maika Ortiz and Fille Cainglet.
But she left at the end of Season 75 despite still having one more year of eligibility left, and has since spent her time bouncing around the semi-professional circuit. Vargas has played for Philips Gold in the Philippine Superliga (PSL), for Pocari and Bureau of Customs in the V-League, and most recently, for Creamline in the Premier Volleyball League (PVL).
All the while, Vargas knew that she had unfinished business in FEU. In late 2017, she decided to return to her alma mater, to beef up their roster for the upcoming UAAP Season 80 women's volleyball tournament.
"Hindi ko naman ito pinag-isipan ng matagal, or nag-dalawang isip ako," Vargas told reporters on Monday after the Lady Tamaraws wrapped up their practice at the FEU Gym in Morayta.
"Noong tinanong lang sa akin kung gusto ko daw bumalik, ang sagot ko lang, oo," she added.
The question on everyone's mind now is, why? Why return to her collegiate team five years later, when she already has a role in a Creamline squad that is favored to roll through the PVL this year? Why now?
The answer comes very easily to Vargas.
"Gusto kong makatulong," Vargas said simply when asked why she wanted to return to FEU.
The Lady Tamaraws made it to the Final 4 in Season 74, during Vargas' best year with the squad. In Season 75, however, they faltered to a 6-8 record and missed the postseason. They did not make it back to the Final 4 until Season 77.
For the past three years, however, the Lady Tamaraws have been stuck in the semifinals. In Season 77, they were dismissed by National University in the stepladder playoff. In Season 78, they forced a do-or-die game against De La Salle University, but were swept in the decider. Last year, they gave Ateneo de Manila University all it could handle, but lost in four painful sets in their semifinal game.
All these happened even as FEU built one of the more impressive rosters in the league. With Bernadeth Pons and Toni Rose Basas serving as their chief scoring options, the Lady Tamaraws believed that they have a team worthy of matching up to powerhouses like La Salle and Ateneo. However, they have not been able to break through, even as they remained competitive against the top teams.
Vargas is hoping that her return can help turn the tide in FEU's favor.
"Gusto kong makuha 'yung championship namain na matagal ng hindi nakukuha ng FEU," said Vargas.
"Sabi naman ng director naming, with or without me, kaya ng team. (Pero) malaking bagay na dumating ako sa team, kasi kahit papaano, nashe-share ko 'yung knowledge na natutunan ko sa pro leagues, na pwede kong maituro sa mga bata," she further explained.
With a whopping 29 women's volleyball crowns, FEU remains the most successful program in the UAAP. But they have not won since Season 70, when a team led by Rachel Anne Daquis emerged as champions.
Vargas is determined to help FEU get the 30th women's volleyball title that they long for. To do so, however, she must first hurdle questions regarding her eligibility.
This was another issue that popped up when Vargas announced her intent to return to the Lady Tamaraws. Will she still be qualified to play?
FEU is confident that Vargas can pass. "Tiningnan na namin 'yung year kung kalian siya nahinto, 'yung age (niya), so bago siya nag-training, 'yun muna ang inayos naming," new FEU head coach George Pascua assured.
A source with knowledge of the situation also revealed that Vargas is likely to pass the eligibility requirements. This, as the "seven years out of high school" rule remains suspended for Season 80. Still, nothing is final until the board of managing directors hold their eligibility meetings this week.
UAAP volleyball commissioner Noreen Go also noted that FEU is unlikely to risk anything, so the school must be certain that Vargas is still qualified to play.
Vargas, who turned 25 last December 12, has mostly tuned out these questions in favor of answering the one that most matters to her: what role will she play in this FEU team?
The 'ate' role
In Season 74, Vargas' role was clear. She was the No. 1 option in an FEU team that also featured Marie Toni Basas, Maica Morada, Wenneth Eulalio, and Sam Dawson.
But it is Season 80, not 74, and even Vargas does not anticipate that she will be the No. 1 option for FEU this year. What's more, she knows that she does not need to be.
"Noong dati kasi, parang masasabi na one-man team siguro (kami)," she said. "Pero ngayon kasi, lahat kami eh. Lahat tumutulong, kahit sa libero, sa setter."
"Lahat sila, nagko-contribute. Hindi lang ako 'yung aasahan. So kung may aabangan, hindi lang ako. Lahat kami," she stressed.
Pons is an established superstar in the UAAP, capable of scoring from virtually any spot on the floor. On good days, Basas is capable of dropping 20 points in a game. Even less-heralded players like Jerrili Malabanan and Heather Guino-o provide a scoring punch.
Thus, what FEU needs from Vargas is not so much her scoring skills, but her maturity and leadership. The Lady Tamaraws have a solid roster, but they lost team captain Remy Palma to graduation after last season and will need someone to fill in the leadership void.
Vargas said she is ready to step in and take that role.
"Nadagdagan siguro 'yung maturity ko," she said.
"Sabi nga ni coach George, matutulong ko daw sa team ay hindi lang 'yung natutunan ko sa pagba-volleyball, matuturo ko din sa kanila 'yung pagiging mature," she added.
"Kasi dito, ako 'yung pinaka-ahead eh, ako 'yung pinaka-matanda. Kung tutuusin, ako 'yung pinaka-matagal," she also said. "Sabi ko naman sa kanila, hindi lang ako nandito para maging teammate niyo, nandito rin ako para maging Ate niyo na pwede niyong takbuhan in and out the court."
Pascua is already hailing the way that Vargas has taken up the leadership mantle in the team.
"Siya mismo kasi, pinapakita niya not only in what she's saying, but pati 'yung action. Leader ako. Hindi lang puro sinasabi, pero ginagawa. 'Yun ang kagandahan sa kanya," he observed.
One of the favorites
FEU is in a transition period heading into Season 80. Not only are they integrating Vargas into their roster, they are also still adjusting to a new coach in Pascua, and learning to play without Palma, who has been their rock for the past couple of years.
Yet the Lady Tamaraws are still among the favorites to advance to the Final 4, and if they get some favorable breaks, they can make it to the Finals for the first time since Season 71.
Vargas, for one, is very confident that they can get the job done this year.
"Hundred percent, or kung may lalampas pa doon," she said with conviction, when asked how optimistic she is for the upcoming season. "Sobra-sobra."
"Ako, may maitutulong ako sa kanila, at pati 'yung mga bata na dinatnan ko dito, sobrang gagalin. And then, marunong naman silang making, at may disiplina sila. So wala namang problema," she added.
"Kung ano 'yung goal naming ngayon, paniguradong makukuha naming kasi lahat naman kami, marunong sumunod sa coaches namin."
FEU opens its campaign on February 4 against the Ateneo Lady Eagles at the Mall of Asia Arena.
For more sports coverage, visit the ABS-CBN Sports website.