MANILA, Philippines—Ateneo head coach Oliver Almadro knew there were plenty of questions about his women's volleyball team ahead of UAAP Season 81, questions that only grew louder after the Lady Eagles dropped their first game of the season.
Losing to La Salle in 4 sets in their first game of the tournament opened Ateneo up to criticism: there were questions about their first ball and floor defense, and about the readiness of their wing spikers. Almadro heard it all.
"We lost the first match of the season. Many people counted us out. Bobo daw outside hitters namin, wala kaming receive, wala kaming defense," he said.
"But we made it," he stressed. "It's because of our faith, and because of our courage. I really tell you guys, it's really the faith and the courage."
Over the course of Season 81, Almadro and the Lady Eagles made sure to answer those questions and silence their critics. They put together a stunning 10-match winning streak that included come-from-behind wins over Far Eastern University and University of Santo Tomas. They established themselves as the best blocking team in the league.
Their floor defense and service reception picked up as the season went on, and their outside hitters began to find their mark.
"Noong start, wala kaming receive, wala kaming depensa, slowly we went up. Hindi nga lang naging No. 1, No. 3 'yung receive namin, No. 4 pa rin. Pero 'yung defense namin naging No. 2," said Almadro.
"They counted us out. 'Yung outside hitters namin, they counted them out, they counted out (libero) Kim (Gequillana), they counted out everybody, but I trust them," he added. " 'Yun ang pinakaimportante talaga sa lahat."
"You really trust your family, this is family."
Ateneo went on to secure the top seed in the final 4, but faced more bumps there. The Lady Eagles were stunned by Far Eastern University in the semis, and dragged to a do-or-die game. The Lady Eagles showed their fighting spirit in turning back the Lady Tamaraws, but were then clobbered by University of Santo Tomas in Game 1 of the best-of-3 finals.
At that point, doubt began to creep in even within the Lady Eagles, but they battled through it.
"Of course, there was doubt because UST will come at you, and you're going against the two best wings. That was really hard, that was really hard for us," said Ateneo captain Bea de Leon, who cut an emotional figure at the end of their Game 1 loss.
"But again, we just wanted to come together. We said whatever happened, we shouldn't forget to be grateful that we were here, and to stay close, to stay happy, to stay together."
In the end, the last word of the season belonged to Ateneo, as what Almadro kept saying all year long came true. His team overcame UST in 4 sets in Game 2, then outplayed the Golden Tigresses in 3 sets in the deciding Game 3 on Saturday to win their first UAAP women's title in 4 years.
"It's not how you start, it's how you end," said Almadro, parroting a line he has said over and over again in Season 81.
"Sabi ko sa kanila, when we lost the first game, it’s not important. What’s important is the last game of the season. And indeed, last game of the season. Umabot ng Game 3, so it’s really written. The Lord has plans," he added.
"We really have to believe in His plans, no matter what challenges kung ano pa yan, He willl really give it to You. The Lord fulfills His promise."
The championship, Almadro's fourth with Ateneo, after leading the school's men's team to a 3-peat in Seasons 77 to 79, was a testament to the system that the coach put in, a system anchored on his mantra of "faith, trust, courage."
"Of course, we will work hard, we will not be the perfect players, I will not be the perfect coach, but we work as a team, we work as a family, that’s what’s important," said Almadro. "Sometimes, talent, science, and skills are not important."
"What’s important is how you train, how you trust each other, how you put the faith in God," he stressed.
All credit, the coach said, should go to the Ateneo players. The Lady Eagles had welcomed Almadro upon the exit of Tai Bundit, the legendary Thai coach who led the team to back-to-back crowns in Seasons 76 and 77. Almadro endured his fair share of criticisms from Ateneo's famously passionate fanbase, but he refused to lose sight of what had always worked for him in his career: "faith, trust, courage."
"Thank you very much to the players for trusting me and — di pa ganoong ka-perfect 'yung system — for trusting the system. And they really worked hard. I’m just an instrument, they’re the ones who worked for it," Almadro said.
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