MANILA, Philippines -- Filipina volleyball star Jaja Santiago had options after her contract with the Saitama Ageo Medics expired at the end of the Japan V.League season, but the COVID-19 pandemic kept her from fully exploring those possibilities.
Speaking to Anton Roxas on "Volleyball DNA," Santiago revealed that she could have gone either to Turkey or China after her stint with the Ageo Medics.
The former National University star played for the Japanese club for three years. Last season, she helped Saitama to a third-place finish in the V.League. And last week, they won the inaugural Division 1 V.Cup.
"Itong next season talaga, ang plano ko is mag-change ng team. Gusto kong mag-change ng team, at the same time, mag-change ng country," Santiago revealed. "Gusto kong mag-level up naman 'yung career and experience ko."
Her agent got her an offer from a team in Turkey, but the issue was that they wanted Santiago to play in the wings as an opposite or outside hitter. While the towering player is open to the challenge, it wasn't a transition that she can do immediately.
"Para sa akin, gusto ko i-grab 'yung opportunity, but then kailangan ko ng mahabang preparation for that. Kasi naglaro ako as a middle blocker, 'di ba," she explained. "So mahihirapan talaga ako."
It was the COVID-19 pandemic, however, that prevented her from pursuing the opportunity.
"Isa pang naging problema is, maagang nagsara din 'yung recruitment, 'yung recruiting agency nila sa Turkey, kasi gawa nga ng pandemic," she said. "So, natapos na 'yung recruiting nila noong, last month, February ata, no, April na ngayon. Two months ago. So nawala na rin 'yung chance ko na maglaro doon."
She also received an offer from a Chinese club, where she would have played for three months as opposed to an eight-month stint in Japan.
Again, the situation with the pandemic dissuaded her from taking the chance.
"Ayoko namang mag-take risk," she admitted.
"Hindi ko alam kung anong mangyayari, and marami din akong naririnig na kumbaga, sobrang hirap ng buhay sa China… Kumbaga, sobrang strict. Mas strict pa ata sila sa Japan," Santiago also said.
"Sa three months na 'yun, isang beses ka lang magpapahinga. Isang beses ka lang. Sobrang hectic ng sked nila."
As much as she wanted to play in either Turkey or China, the uncertainty brought about by the global health crisis made her hesitate.
"With this pandemic, I don't want to do any risky decisions," she said.
Ultimately, she decided to stay with the Ageo Medics, even with three other Japanese clubs -- Kurobe AquaFairies, PFU BlueCats, and Toray Arrows -- recruiting her. Two of those clubs -- Kurobe and PFU -- are lower in the rankings than Saitama.
"Lilipat pa ba ako sa pinaka-ano, eh… kumbaga angat kami sa rank sa kanila," she pointed out. "'Yung Toray ilang taon na rin sila nasa Final 4, but then last season, wala sila. So, gusto ko kunin 'yung opportunity na maglaro sa mataas na team and sa Japan."
Having already won one championship with the Ageo Medics, Santiago will try to help the team rise even higher next season. Saitama finished fifth in the main tournament of the V.League this year, behind JT Marvelous, Toray, NEC, and Denso.
"Nakaka-proud," Santiago said of her achievements in Japan, which made her the first Filipino player to win a volleyball championship abroad.
"Hindi ko talaga ine-expect na mangyayari sa akin 'to, na 'yun magcha-champion kami, ako 'yung first Filipina na makakakuha ng championship internationally," she said. "Alam naman natin, maraming talento ang Pilipino na hindi nakikita internationally."
"So parang ako, ay, eto na 'yung simula, nakaka-proud kasi isa ako dun. At kumbaga, isa ako dun sa una na 'yun, na nakapakita kung anong talento ng Pilipino, anong meron tayo, 'di ba?"
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