MANILA, Philippines -- There were times, early in her collegiate career, when National University (NU) libero Jennifer Nierva became emotional because of their inability to win games.
Losing was unfamiliar to Nierva, who won four straight championships with NU's girls' volleyball team in the juniors division. But in her freshman campaign in college, the Lady Bulldogs won just four matches, and missed the Final 4.
"Noong Season 81, lagi kaming natatalo," Nierva recalled in an appearance on CNN Philippines' Sports Desk, Thursday.
The losses rankled not just Nierva: it was also a tough year for her batchmates, Princess Robles, Ivy Lacsina, and Joyme Cagande, all of whom were part of a decorated group that delivered several titles for the Nazareth School of National University (NSNU).
For Cagande, it was especially painful. A highly touted setter, she suffered a knee injury in their very first game of Season 81, and missed the rest of the tournament.
Yet even as their defeats piled up in Season 81, the Lady Bulldogs knew that they would soon get a lifeline.
"Sabi namin ni Jen sa mga bata, na hihintayin namin sila sa college," Robles said. "Sabay namin kukinin 'yung championship."
Robles was referring to the next batch of talented players that would come out of the NSNU program. When she and her batchmates graduated from high school and progressed to the senior team, they left behind a slew of youngsters who continued to win titles and awards in the girls' division.
These players -- Bella Belen, Alyssa Solomon, Camilla Lamina, and Sheena Toring -- saw what their seniors endured in Season 81 and vowed that things will change once they reunite.
"Sabi ni Ate Jen, 'Belle, Aly, intayin namin kayo dito sa college. Kailangan mag-champion tayo dito.' 'Yun po 'yung time na pinag-usapan namin," said Belen.
They had to wait longer than expected: the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out Season 82 as well as Season 83, in what should have been Belen and company's first seasons in college. But they proved themselves to be well worth the wait -- not just for their teammates, but for the entire NU community.
"Sabi ko po talaga, kahit sa family ko, sa mga friends ko, na abangan ninyo 'tong mga rookies na 'to. Very promising," Nierva said of her younger teammates.
They blew away every expectation. Belen earned Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player honors, the first to do so in women's volleyball. Solomon was the Best Opposite Spiker, Lamina was the Best Setter, and Toring was the 2nd Best Middle Blocker of Season 84.
And the discussions that they had during the doldrums of Season 81 came to fruition: the Lady Bulldogs romped to the Season 84 championship, winning all 16 of their matches.
"Sobrang proud kami na galing kaming NU [high school]," said Robles, who earned Finals MVP honors after their sweep of De La Salle University in the best-of-3 championship series.
"Super happy kami na nag-stay 'yung iba sa amin. Kasi wish talaga namin noong high school na kailangan, pagdating ng college, may magawa kami, may maiwan kami sa NU, na hindi kami makakalimutan," she added.
"'Yung sistema namin sa high school, nadala namin siya sa college," said Lacsina, for her part.
It's the kind of continuity that schools dream of when building their athletic programs. From high school, the NU players learned the game, grew and developed together, and carried that over to college.
It's also clear that things could have turned out very differently. Belen and her cohorts were hotly recruited by other schools, and with good reason. Two members of their high school team opted to leave for other schools: Thea Gagate for La Salle, and Faith Nisperos for the Ateneo de Manila University.
But Belen said they saw a chance to do something rare with the Lady Bulldogs -- to end decades of heartbreak and prove that the success they enjoyed in high school can be duplicated at the higher level.
"'Yun po ang isa naming dahilan sa pag-stay po sa NU. Kasi po, 'di ba po, ako po, kunyari po lumipat man po ako sa ibang school, 'yung ibang schools po like La Salle, malaki na po ang history nila eh," said Belen.
"'Yung NU po kasi, 'yun nga po, hindi po sila nag-champion for 65 years. And sobrang happy po ako na nakuha ko po siya with my teammates na 'yun din po ang goal, na bigyan ng history ang NU, and magbigay ng glory sa NU," she added.
Nierva beams when she is asked about their rookies. It didn't take a lot of convincing to get them to rebuff other schools and stay in NU, she said.
And now, they have been rewarded for their decision in historic, unforgettable fashion.
"Na-feel ko po talaga na gusto din nila -- kung ano po 'yung vision namin for the school, kung ano po 'yung nakikita namin na kayang ma-achieve ng NU," she said. "Talagang nakita ko po 'yung commitment nila, 'yung loyalty nila, and most importantly, 'yung love."
"'Yun po 'yung nakita ko sa kanila. 'Yung love na meron po sila sa amin, and 'yung relationship na na-build namin together noong high school."