MANILA – Gilas Pilipinas Women combo guard Stefanie Berberabe often utilizes her summers to know more about her heritage.
Born in Norwalk, California to Filipino parents, Berberabe has spent vacations in Palawan and Batangas growing up. She has come to love sinigang, which her mother Susan cooks for her every time back in the United States.
She has embraced local Batangueño favorites like lomi and kapeng barako from her father Sonny’s hometown.
Hailing from a basketball-loving country, it was also Sonny who introduced Stefanie to the sport at the age of eight.
“Just knowing that basketball is the sport of the Philippines, my parents loved the sport, I was able to pick it up and fell in love with it too. I love the aspect of team sport, being able to make others look good,” Berberabe said.
Growing up, Berberabe also tried volleyball and track and field. Eventually, it was hoops which became her main sport.
“I just love sports. I’ve played sports my entire life. I love the thrill of it,” she said.
Choosing this path led her to donning the Gilas Women jersey in back-to-back Southeast Asian (SEA) Games – making her last two summers even more memorable.
“I honestly did not have playing for the Philippines on my radar at first. I didn’t think there was a chance for me to play, but I was able to get exposure and find a lot of interest,” Berberabe said.
Berberabe tried out for Gilas Women back in 2021 amidst the pandemic, when Fil-Am Nation co-organized a tryout and combine with head coach Patrick Aquino in the United States.
Before her national team career, Berberabe was already in the collegiate history books.
In her junior season for Westmont College, the speedy backcourt general led the Warriors to the NAIA Division 1 national title.
She averaged 17.1 points on a 54.8-percent clip, 5.3 rebounds, 4.5 assists, and 2.1 steals, on her way to being named NAIA Player of the Year, NAIA First Team All-American, and Most Valuable Player of the national tournament.
She would go on and finish a Hall of Fame-worthy five-year stint for Westmont, which included two NAIA All-American and three All-GSAC selections.
"It was just a chance that I took, and I’m glad I took it. My career went better than expected. I didn’t know what kind of impact I would make joining the team, but I was able to win national player of the year, all-time leading scorer, it’s just a lot of awards and accolades I never knew I was capable of," Berberabe added.
"As long as you work hard for it and be present in the moment, the results will work out."
Listed at a modest 5-foot-4, Berberabe always knew she was going to be challenged against taller and stronger backcourt opponents, but she made up for it with her quickness and athleticism.
“The one thing my coaches always said stood out was my speed, my quickness. Even though I did not have the fundamental skills (at the time), they knew they could work on me, like having my speed as an advantage on the court,” she said. “I love running. That was something they saw in me.”
Even with the odds stacked against her, Berberabe said her parents kept pushing her to become a better athlete day in and day out.
“I went to a small high school. I played in a small club so I did not get much exposure from college coaches. But when Westmont reached out to me, I accepted the offer pretty quick just because an opportunity arose and why not take it,” she said.
Berberabe’s underdog mentality, coupled with will and determination, were also what served as her ticket to play for the national squad.
“My inspiration are my parents. They’re just hardworking; they sacrifice so much, and that’s a big reason that’s why I am super honored to play for the Philippines, because it’s a way to give back to my parents as well,” she said.
“I needed the support from family and friends to believe in me when I didn’t even believe in myself, and that’s definitely how I got here.”
Berberabe said she enjoys being surrounded by players who are equally competitive as her whenever she is with Gilas Women.
“It’s fun to be in this environment. Everyone is competing and have the same love for the sport and being able to represent the Philippines. It’s been fun,” she pointed out.
What made the transition easier for Berberabe was seeing how many of her teammates were just as tall as she was. But the similarities were not only superficial; sharing the same competitive fire with the rest made her gel with the national team quite seamlessly.
“I was shocked that everyone was kind of same level height as me, but heart over height for sure. It doesn’t matter how tall you are, as long as you’re putting in the effort and it shows on the court. Our height does not stop us from competing,” she said.
“There’s so much talent on this team and it’s cool, but what stood out the most was the heart each of them had. They’re diving for loose balls, they’re physical, their effort can never be questioned.”
Many years ago, Berberabe did not understand what it meant to wear the tricolor and represent the country; two SEA Games podium finishes later, she cannot wait for the next chance to play for the Philippines again.
Through basketball, she has had two memorable summers, and has developed an even more concise understanding of what it means to be Filipino.
“It’s like a dream come true. It’s so cool to wear ‘Pilipinas’ on my chest. This is also the time of the year where I get to embrace my heritage.”