MANILA, Philippines – De La Salle University's Desiree Cheng could not be blamed for her highly emotional reaction to being named the Finals MVP at the end of the UAAP Season 79 tournament, after the Lady Spikers swept their arch-rivals, the Ateneo Lady Eagles, for their second straight title.
For most of the veterans in the La Salle team, including Kianna Dy, Majoy Baron and Dawn Macandili, it was their second championship; for graduating team captain Kim Fajardo, it was the third of her glittering UAAP career.
But for Cheng – who was already in her third playing year – La Salle's Season 79 championship was her first, and the culmination of a long journey that saw her go from a top recruit to a reserve who struggled to contribute on a consistent basis.
It was redemption for Cheng, who was injured when La Salle won the Season 78 title, and who was still so full of doubt in Season 79 that she openly contemplated quitting the sport she loved.
"Hindi ko ine-expect talaga," Cheng said, explaining her emotional reaction upon being named Finals MVP. "Ang gusto ko lang talaga po is 'yung big trophy talaga."
"Gusto ko mag-champion 'yung La Salle na masasabing kasama ako."
(I didn't expect the Finals MVP. All I wanted was the big trophy. All I wanted was for La Salle to win a championship with me there.)
Cheng was a part of the De La Salle teams that went to the UAAP Finals in Seasons 76 and 77, but in both instances, the Lady Spikers lost to the Lady Eagles.
While preparing for Season 78, Cheng was dealt another blow as she suffered an ACL injury in her left knee that completely ruled her out of the tournament.
Thus, she could only watch as the Lady Spikers finally broke through against their archrivals.
For Cheng, who was a highly decorated star while playing for Hope Christian High School, the struggles she experienced early in her collegiate career was difficult to accept.
"Super disappointed talaga ako sa performance ko and sa sarili ko. Kung ano po 'yung nangyayari sa akin… Bakit ganoon?" she said. "Ang feeling ko, wala na akong naitulong sa kanila noong mga times na 'yun."
(I was so disappointed in myself and in my performances. I was questioning myself. I felt that I was not contributing anything to the team in those times.)
That disappointment only strengthened when Cheng suffered her untimely knee injury. "Nasabi ko, mas lalo akong walang mahe-help (I couldn't help the team at all)," she lamented.
Looking back, however, Cheng can now say that her injury was a blessing in disguise. Stuck at the sidelines for a year, she watched how the team overcame multiple challenges en route to winning the championship.
She saw how Ara Galang – who was coming off an ACL injury in Season 78 – played superbly on both ends of the floor even as she lost some of the steam on her hits. She saw how Cyd Demecillo, their other open hitter, battle through injuries to finish the season strong.
"Nakita ko from the outside, 'ganito pala dapat.' Bakit hindi ko siya nagawa, bakit hindi ko siya nakita na ganoon dati?" said Cheng. "Bakit may mga times na feeling ko… Siguro feeling ko na wala na akong dapat i-prove sa sarili ko."
"Feeling ko lang pala," she added. "Yun pala, lahat ng feeling ko, mali."
(I saw how I should have been playing. I wondered why I couldn't do all those things. Maybe, I felt that I had nothing to prove to myself. But I was wrong.)
'COMEBACK IS REAL'
Ahead of Season 79, Cheng told this writer that her mindset for the tournament is "comeback is real."
She wanted to be a contributor to the team; she wanted to help the Lady Spikers defend their crown and send off skipper Kim Fajardo as a champion.
However, as the first round rolled along, it was clear that Cheng was still a shade of the player that she was in high school. Her performances were up-and-down, and while she was solid defensively, she struggled to score.
"Nitong Season 79, walang time na hindi ako na-frustrate sa sarili ko. Kasi 'yung performance ko, kahit sa training, ang pangit, ang baba," Cheng said. "Tapos lagi akong napapagalitan [ni Coach Ramil de Jesus]. Lagi niya akong pinu-push."
(In Season 79, I was always frustrated with myself. Even in practice, I was performing poorly. Coach Ramil would always scold me and push me to be better.)
The culmination was a five-point performance against the Lady Eagles in the first round, wherein the Lady Spikers lost in four sets.
Cheng also had 13 excellent digs in that game, but in the third set – the lone frame that La Salle won – she was subbed out in favor of the more powerful sophomore May Luna.
At the end of the first round, Cheng had scored only a total of 31 points. In comparison, Fajardo – their setter – had 37 points to her name.
"Dumating ako sa point na, 'baka hindi talaga para sa akin'," said Cheng, tears brimming at the corner of her eyes as she recounted the experience.
"After noong first-round game ng Ateneo, kinausap niya (de Jesus) one-on-one. Parang nag-usap kami na, sinabihan niya ako na hindi pwedeng ganyan ang performance mo. Hindi ganyan ang inaasahan ng team sa'yo, lalo na ngayong pagbalik mo," she added.
(I reached a point where I thought that maybe, this just wasn't for me. After the first-round game against Ateneo, Coach Ramil talked to me one-on-one, and he told me that I can't continue to play like this. This wasn't what the team expected of me this year.)
The conversation with De Jesus still makes Cheng emotional, and she considers it as the turning point of her season, if not her volleyball career.
At that point, Cheng said she realized that she needs to push herself to be better, not even for herself, but for her coaches and her teammates who never lost faith in her.
"Hindi sila nawalan [ng tiwala sa akin]," she said. "Kahit na gaano kapangit 'yung performance ko, lagi nila ako sinu-support at pinu-push pa rin nila ako."
(They never stopped supporting me. Even though my performances were bad, they kept supporting me and pushing me to be better.)
Cheng issued an ultimatum to herself at the end of the first round. "Ako naman ang nag-challenge sa sarili ko. Pag itong first game ko sa second round, pangit ba rin ang performance ko, ako na ang magsasabi kay coach na I'll stop," she revealed.
(I challenged myself. If in my first game in the second round, I still have a poor performance, I will tell coach that I'll stop playing.)
It was something that she had discussed with her parents, she added, and she was willing to tell De Jesus to bench her the rest of the season if her performance continued to deteriorate. She remembered preparing to tell her coach to "give others a chance."
Before that, however, Cheng gave herself a chance to answer her own challenge.
The Lady Spikers were playing the Far Eastern University Lady Tamaraws in their first game of the second round, and they vented their ire on the Lady Tams. The defending champions unleashed a dominant opening set where they only gave up five points, en route to a straight sets win.
Cheng scored 11 points in the game, all no attacks, while also contributing 11 excellent digs and tallying seven successful receptions.
It was the start a strong run for Cheng. She averaged 10.3 points for La Salle in the second round, finishing with a total of 103 points for the Lady Spikers.
She was at her best in the playoffs, as she scored 11 points against University of Santo Tomas in the semis and normed 11 points as well in the championship series, while still contributing solid defense.
In their title-clinching Game 2 win, Cheng had a "triple-double," with 11 points, 12 excellent digs, and 13 successful receptions. It was her work on the defensive end that compelled De Jesus to name her as the Finals MVP.
"Nakita ko 'yung 100% sa receive," said the coach. "Malaking bagay 'yun para sa team para makapag-execute ng play si Fajardo."
(I saw that she gave her 100% in receiving, and that's a big deal for us because it gives Fajardo a chance to execute our plays.)
Cheng had to wipe away tears as she recounted all her struggles in Season 79. "Grabe talaga ang pinagdaanan ko (I went through so much)," she said.
Nevertheless, after facing adversity head on and coming out as a champion, Cheng says all these challenges were definitely worth it. She is now hoping that come Season 80, she won't need to have an emotional discussion with her coach in order to jumpstart her campaign.
"Sa sarili ko, siguro hindi na kasi andoon na eh," she said. "Alam ko na kung ano ang gagawin ko."
"Pero siyempre, there's more," Cheng adds. "Sinasabi nga ni coach na hindi lang 'yan. There's more lagi. So hindi ka dapat titigil sa kung ano ang nagawa mo ngayon. Dapat hindi ka titigil, kasi alam mo sa sarili mo na simula pa lang 'yan."
(I know what to do this time. But of course, there's more. Coach always tells us that we can do more. We can't be satisfied with what we did. We have to keep going, because this is just the start.)
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