MANILA, Philippines—More than three years after she reluctantly let go of an opportunity to play abroad, Dindin Santiago-Manabat is taking the first steps toward finally fulfilling her lifelong dream.
Santiago-Manabat, the former National University star, was formally introduced by the Toray Arrows of the Japanese V.League as their Asian reinforcement for the upcoming season.
It is a tremendous opportunity for the 25-year-old Santiago-Manabat, who joins younger sister Jaja and former Ateneo ace Marck Espejo as three Filipinos who will suit up in Japan this season.
“Siyempre, ’pag sinabing import, so challenging sa'yo,” Santiago-Manabat told ABS-CBN News on Wednesday, before heading out with her family at Mall of Asia Arena. “Then binigyan ako ng challenge ni Lord noong nanganak ako, nakabalik ako. Na-injured ako, nakabalik ako.”
“This time, ito na ‘yung pangarap ko,” she added with a wide smile.
Santiago-Manabat had dreamt of playing abroad once before. In December 2014, there were reports that she was all but certain to play in Europe, in what would have been a first for a Filipino volleyball player.
It was clear to see why international clubs were recruiting Santiago-Manabat. At 6-foot-2, she was a natural middle blocker, skilled and agile, able to anchor a team’s defense while also being a legitimate threat to score at any part of the court.
But those plans were scuppered. “ ’Yung sa Europe, nabale-wala ko,” said the player. “Tinanggihan ko.”
Instead, she stayed with Philippine Superliga (PSL) club Petron. She was a force to reckon with for the Blaze Spikers, helping them win the 2014 Grand Prix and the 2015 All-Filipino crowns. Then, in December 2015, Santiago-Manabat announced her pregnancy.
When she returned in 2016, it was to team up with younger sister Jaja for Foton, turning the already-loaded Tornadoes into immediate favorites. But that comeback was short-lived. In March 2017, Santiago-Manabat suffered an ACL injury on her left knee while playing in the PSL Invitational Conference.
It was only in February 2018 that Santiago-Manabat began to play club volleyball again. Remarkably, by August she had regained enough of her form to merit her inclusion to the Philippine national team that competed in the Asian Games in Jakarta.
Santiago-Manabat’s journey to Japan began when Jaja tried out for two Japanese clubs: Toray and Ageo Medics. The 6-foot-5 Jaja, fresh off an MVP-campaign in the UAAP, was almost immediately accepted by Ageo, according to her older sister.
That left Toray still searching for a middle blocker of their own, thus opening up an opportunity for Santiago-Manabat.
“Noong time na nalaman ko na tanggap na siya (Jaja), nag-congrats ako sa kanya agad,” said Santiago-Manabat. “Sabi ko, sana sa December, tutal bakasyon naman, baka pwede akong mag-training sa inyo. Parang sabi niya, ‘Sige Ate, mabait naman ’yung coach ko.’ ”
“Then, ’yung manager ni Jaja, nag-tanong kasi kailangan pa daw niya ng middle, kasi naghahanap pa sila (Toray),” she explained.
Thus, Santiago-Manabat got more than just a chance to train — she received a golden opportunity to chase an old dream.
She submitted videos of her games to Toray, even as she was honest about her status.
“Sinabi naman sa kanila na, kakapanganak ko lang, and galing nga ako sa ACL,” she said. “Alam din nila na naglalaro ako dito ng outside hitter.”
Toray chose from five players, Santiago-Manabat said. She didn’t want to ask for too many details, but was thrilled to be the one chosen by the club team — more than three years after turning down her first opportunity to play for a foreign squad.
“Ngayon, kumbaga, step by step ulit,” Santiago-Manabat said of her volleyball journey. “Dito muna (sa Japan).”
She doesn’t want to stop there, however.
“Kapag pinalad, aangat, aangat,” she said. “Baka malay natin, Korea, Europe.”
But first, she has to perform well in her new club. Santiago-Manabat is set to fly back to Japan on Sunday, having gone back to the Philippines only to take care of her working visa. She has already touched base with Toray, and trained with them in South Korea in September.
“Positive lang,” she says. “Basta, gawin ko muna ang performance ko ngayon this year, hanggang next year, and sana maging okay lahat.”
Santiago-Manabat has nothing but good things to say about her new team and her teammates. She repeatedly calls the Arrows “approachable,” even the star players. “Walang ere,” she beams. “As in, pantay-pantay talaga sila.”
Another reason for her happiness? In Toray, Santiago-Manabat will be back to playing her natural position as middle blocker, after dabbling in the wings for Foton and the national team. The towering player could not hide her delight when asked what position she was set to play in her club in Japan.
“Middle,” she said, smiling almost giddily. “First love never dies. Eto talaga, eto talaga ‘yung hinihintay ko.”
“Since high school ito na 'yung minahal kong pwesto. Tumungtong akong college, ito na 'yung pwesto ko, grumaduate ako ng college, nag-pro ako, nag-start ako, middle talaga ako,” she said.
The league runs for seven months, until next May. According to Santiago-Manabat, Toray will face off with her sister’s team, Ageo Medics, at least once. It will be the first time since 2015 that the famed Santiago sisters will find themselves on opposite sides of the net.
“May the best woman win,” Santiago-Manabat quipped. “Basta, gawin niya yung best niya, gawin ko yung best ko. Trabaho lang. Alam naman niya yun, at alam naman ng mga tao 'yun na trabaho lang.”
As she spoke, Santiago-Manabat’s young daughter, Chloe, entertained herself by running around the wide open space of MoA Arena’s entrance. At one point, the toddler tugged on Santiago-Manabat’s hand, said “Mommy,” as if to get her attention, then ran off again.
Santiago-Manabat won’t deny that it will be tough to leave behind her husband, basketball coach Chico Manabat, and their daughter. But it is a sacrifice that she is willing to make, for her second chance at a lifelong dream.
“Pupunta naman sila doon (sa Japan),” she said. “Homesick sa umpisa, pero kayang lagpasan naman.”
(For more sports coverage, visit the ABS-CBN Sports website.)