MANILA, Philippines – Even in a room full of towering volleyball players, Thea Gagate stands out.
De La Salle University's newest middle blocker is 19 years old and stands 6-foot-2. As a rookie, she is already the tallest member of the team, which also features a 6-foot tall opposite spiker in fellow freshman Leila Cruz, and a 5-foot-10 middle blocker in veteran team captain Aduke Ogunsanya.
Yet when asked if she wants to keep growing, Gagate laughs and answers quickly: "Ayaw ko na po tumangkad."
"Mahirap po," she explains.
Gagate is expected to once again stand out once the UAAP Season 82 volleyball tournament begins. A former star for National University's (NU) girls' volleyball team, she transferred to La Salle for senior high school and has been training with the Lady Spikers for the past two years.
Though she is still just a rookie, it won't be a surprise if Gagate is part of Ramil de Jesus' starting line-up immediately. The possibility of joining the first six is something that the teenager considers an honor.
"Knowing coach, 'pag ginawa ka niyang first six, he has big trust in you," said Gagate. "Nakaka-pressure po talaga, pero ayun, I'll just think na he trusts me and I believe in him naman."
It would be an impressive achievement for Gagate, who only started to learn the sport in the eighth grade, when she was recruited by NU coach Babes Castillo. At the time, she already towered above her classmates and teammates.
"Dati, hindi po talaga ako fan ng volleyball," she admits.
"Noong Grade 8 noong nag-start ako sa NU, doon lang po talaga ako natutong mag-volleyball," she explains. "I think, 6-footer na po ako noon or 5-11."
She laughs again, then adds: "Higante na po talaga ako dati pa."
Gagate would go on to help the Bullpups win a couple of girls' volleyball titles, before leaving for La Salle.
"Dream school ko din po (ang La Salle)," she explains.
In La Salle, Gagate has the privilege of learning not just from De Jesus, one of the most well-respected volleyball coach in the country today. She also gets to gain advice from La Salle's former players, including national team middle blockers Abigail Maraño and Majoy Baron.
This, as the Lady Spikers share the same practice hours and venue as the F2 Logistics club volleyball team.
"Nagsasabi po sila ng mga kailangan kong gawin," Gagate said of La Salle's former middle blockers, both of whom were UAAP Most Valuable Players. "Like, tips, kung anong gagawin sa blocking."
"Sobrang laki po ng tulong. Kahit saglit lang po 'yung usap namin pero malaking bagay po siya, kasi siyempre sila po may experience tapos ako wala pa," she added.
"Ayun, gusto ko rin pong ma-apply sa sarili ko 'yun," said Gagate, who hopes to follow in Maraño and Baron's footsteps as La Salle's star middle blockers.
There will be no shortage of attention on Gagate this season, and with it, pressure. Much will be expected of her, especially as the Lady Spikers are determined to return to the top of the mountain after a disappointing campaign last year.
La Salle saw its decade-long streak of finals appearance come to an end in Season 81, as they bowed to University of Santo Tomas in the Final 4.
Gagate expects to feel some nerves in her first game, but she is putting all her focus on the instructions that De Jesus and her veterans will give her.
"Andoon 'yung mindset na kailangan naming bumawi, and mas magpakita pa kung ano ang kailangan naming gawin," she said.
"But I don't want to put any pressure on myself, kasi nakaka-apekto po talaga 'yung ganoon. I'll just trust whatever coach is telling us to do."
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