MANILA, Philippines -- Oliver Almadro's first season as head coach of a women's team is certainly an unforgettable one.
"Coach O" was at the helm of the Ateneo de Manila University men's volleyball team for five years, during which time he steered them to five straight finals appearances and three championships from Seasons 77 to 79. He was crucial in the development of players like Marck Espejo, who became a five-time MVP, and Ish Polvorosa, who was a five-time Best Setter.
He was tabbed to be the new head coach of the Ateneo women's volleyball team in May 2018, upon the exit of beloved Thai coach Tai Bundit at the end of Season 80. It was an entirely different challenge for Almadro, who soon saw how much bigger the spotlight is in women's volleyball. The fanbase, too, was much bigger, and much louder. Each one of Ateneo's preseason games was dissected, and Almadro's coaching decisions were put under the microscope.
It certainly was not a smooth road for Almadro and the Lady Eagles. He memorably trended on social media in November 2018 after giving Ateneo setter Deanna Wong a stern reprimand that was caught on camera. At the time, the coach said he cared not for the "bashers," and focused on how he could build a team that could compete at a high level in the UAAP.
His exuberant coaching style, his antics at the sidelines, and his post-game quotes continued to draw attention in the UAAP season, even as his system proved to work for the Lady Eagles. In the end, the team tuned out all that was said about their coach and their team, and won the UAAP Season 81 crown in a thrilling finals series against University of Santo Tomas (UST).
"Well, ang sarap," said Almadro when asked about his first title in the women's division.
"Of course, masarap 'yung sa men's, kas three-peat 'yun. Of course, masarap din 'yung sa women's, kasi sa women's, parang drama eh," he added.
They embraced the "drama," but knew how to handle it as well, he said.
"Pag sumakay ka talaga sa drama, malulunod ka eh. So we managed, my team managed it, we agreed to manage it. We agreed to take part sa drama but we have to manage it," said Almadro.
For Almadro, to be a champion in both the men's and women's division is part of God's plan for him.
"Kapag sa'n ka dinala ni Lord, you just have to pray and ask why are you here. It's the higher purpose, 'yun ang nagiging inspiration ko dito sa pagiging champion," he said.
All the roadblocks and challenges were part of that plan, and to have reached the pinnacle after such a journey only made their championship so much more fulfilling for Almadro. In his moment of triumph, he commended the passionate Ateneo fanbase, many of whom may have questioned him and his decision-making over the course of the year.
"Ang sarap ng feeling, it’s because 'yung mga fans, 'yung mga galing probinsya pumupunta, minsan walang ticket 'di makapasok. 'Yun 'yung masarap dun, sa women’s team talagang 'yung sabi ko sa kanila, let the Lord make them heroes of faith and hope," he said.
"So tinanggap nila 'yun na maging heroes sila ng hope and faith. Kasi 'di ba ano ba naman kami, tapos 'yung mga bata, nagho-hope sa amin na manalo kami," he added.
Yet even as he relished his latest title -- his fourth in the UAAP -- Almadro made it clear that the spotlight belonged not to him but to the Ateneo players. Specifically, he lauded the Ateneo seniors who were the backbone of the team, not just on the court, but off it.
"Thankful ako kay Bea (de Leon) na bumalik siya, si Kim (Gequillana), in-accept niya 'yung challenge. Si Kat (Tolentino), new position, in-accept. Si Maddie (Madayag) in-accept niya 'yung leadership sa team," he said.
"Yun 'yung nagcha-challenge sa'yo as a coach, na may mga players kang ganito. How will you make them champions?" he noted.
Almadro's second year in Ateneo should be no less dramatic than the first. The spotlight will only grow brighter, and now they have an additional target on their backs as defending UAAP champions. But for the coach, it is part of the journey, part of the plan.
"Sabi ko sa sharing namin, anong nag-iinspire sa 'yo?" he said. "Ang nag-iinspire sa akin aside from my family, aside from the Lord, is makita yung tinuturuan mo na nagiging successful."
"That moves me more to be better than my best every year, every job na binigay sa akin," he added.
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