MANILA, Philippines -- De La Salle head coach Ramil de Jesus has high expectations for his rookie middle blocker, Thea Gagate, even going so far as to compare her favorably with Jaja Santiago.
Gagate, at age 19, already stands at 6-foot-2 and is tipped to be next in line in La Salle's long lineage of superb middle blockers.
In her first UAAP game, she made an immediate impact, scoring 10 points -- including five blocks -- in a 25-17, 17-25, 25-17, 25-15 victory over defending champion Ateneo de Manila University.
"It's surreal, kasi ang sarap ng feeling paglabas pa lang. The crowd was shouting at us, cheering their hearts out," Gagate said of her debut, back on March 7 at the Mall of Asia Arena.
"Masarap lang sa feeling na part ka ng La Salle team, since ito 'yung parang malaki at magandang dream," she added.
De Jesus gave Gagate passing marks for her debut, noting that she was already showing the skills that she developed while training with the Lady Spikers. A relative late-bloomer to the sport, Gagate learned volleyball from coach Babes Castillo of Nazareth School of National University (NU), before transferring to La Salle for senior high school and college.
"Although bata siya, alam ko may mga experience siya," De Jesus said. "Kasi, during 'yung high school days niya sa NU, maganda 'yung pinapakita niya then."
"And then, mas na-develop siya dito sa La Salle. Mas nabantayan, nadagdagan 'yung skills niya, actually," he added.
Gagate's height, talent, and potential have La Salle fans all hyped up for the latest "Taft Tower," and even De Jesus sees a bright future for his young star.
In particular, he believes Gagate can follow in the footsteps of NU's Jaja Santiago as the premier middle blocker in the country.
"Kung makikita natin si Jaja, compared mo sa kaniya noong ganyang year -- siguro, rookie year ni Jaja," said De Jesus.
"Although mas malaki si Jaja, mas advanced ito siguro. Ahead ito siguro ng one step," the coach added.
It will take Gagate some time to live up to Santiago's standards, considering the former UAAP Most Valuable Player has already shown what she can do on a continental level and has stood out even in Japan. De Jesus, however, is optimistic.
"Huwag lang masisira ng kahit anong injury, mas aangat pa itong bata," he said.
(For more sports coverage, visit the ABS-CBN Sports website).