MANILA, Philippines -- Simply sharing the court with star middle blocker Jaja Santiago is already an honor for two of the country's young volleyball prospects, Faith Nisperos and Jennifer Nierva.
The two collegiate players got the opportunity to train with Santiago, even for only a brief moment, when the Philippine National Volleyball Federation (PNVF) held a tryout for the women's national team last week in Subic.
Ateneo's Nisperos and National University's Nierva were among the handful of student-athletes who attended the tryout. Only 16 of the 40 players invited by the federation showed up to the exercise, with several high-profile players citing health and safety concerns as the reason for their absence.
For Nisperos and Nierva, however, it was an opportunity they could not turn down, even with the worries brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Speaking to "Off the Record with Migs Bustos and Cesca Litton-Kalaw," they expressed their excitement at getting to play again after long months away from the sport.
"I really felt safe [during the tryout]," said Nisperos, whose promising rookie season with the Lady Eagles was cut short by the pandemic. "And of course, kasama na doon na excitement, 'yung parang, 'yung thrill na it's finally happening, 'yung dream ko. I'm taking one step towards that, that's the feeling."
"Actually, una po noong nalaman ko po, sobra akong na-excite at natuwa talaga. Kasi ever since, 'yun naman ang dream ko, to be part of the national team, and maka-receive ng invitation sa tryouts, sobra akong na-motivate talaga," said Nierva, the NU libero.
The two players relished the opportunity to suit up next to their idols, including longtime national team captain Abigail Maraño and former UAAP Most Valuable Player Majoy Baron. But even among these veterans, the towering Santiago stood out.
For the young players, Santiago is not just a dream teammate but also an inspirational figure, given what she's accomplished both in the Philippines and abroad.
"Seeing her play and 'yun nga, kapag nakikita ko siya sa court, parang it's very rare to have a teammate like that," Nisperos said of Santiago.
"And seeing her achieve all those things in Japan, like, grabe. Doon ako nag-start na, it's really possible pala for a Filipino to achieve those kinds of things, 'yung mga na-achieve ni Ate Ja," she added. "So being with her lang, parang isang karangalan na for me."
Before returning to the country in April, Santiago made history with the Saitama Ageo Medics in Japan's V. League when they won the V Cup.
Nierva still remembers watching Santiago when she played for the Lady Bulldogs in college, while the young libero was winning juniors titles with the NU girls' volleyball team.
"Si Ate Jaja kasi, grabe 'yung leadership niya, and nakita ko 'yun kasi na-witness ko 'yung nung high school ako, kasama ko sila," she said. "Like sumasama ako sa kanila pag nagmi-meeting sila, and nakikita ko na, 'Wow, ang galing niya'."
"Nakita ko din na meron siyang routine every day, so na-amaze ako," she added.
All 16 players who attended the tryouts last week are already part of the national team pool "in principle," but there's no certainty that they'll eventually be included in the squad that will represent the Philippines in the upcoming Southeast Asian Games in Vietnam in November.
But even if they don't end up making the final roster, Nierva and Nisperos were already inspired just by playing alongside Santiago for a few hours in the Subic tryout.
"You get to know her, get to know her stories, how she moves, like 'yung body language niya every day, mawi-witness mo eh," said Nisperos. "So in that sense, isang malaking karangalan na for me. Si Ate Jaja 'yung teammate na I'm looking forward to."