MANILA, Philippines -- Before even getting to play a single set of collegiate volleyball, young spiker Mhicaela Belen already received a baptism of fire on the international stage.
At 19, Belen was the youngest member of the Philippine team that played in the recent Asian Women's Club Volleyball Championship in Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand. A former Most Valuable Player in the UAAP high school division, Belen played for the youthful Team Rebisco which finished last in the seven-team field.
Her inclusion in the team was admittedly a shock to Belen, who had not played competitive volleyball in over a year before the club tournament in Thailand. The last time she played in an actual game was in the finals of the UAAP Season 82 girls' volleyball tournament, where she and the Nazareth School of National University completed an undefeated season.
"Since noong November pa po, after po matapos ng UAAP sa juniors po, hindi na po ako nakapag-[laro], puro na lang po training," Belen recalled on the "Post-Game" podcast. "Hindi na po ako nakaranas ulit ng competition."
"So noong seniors na po, sabi ko, bakit naman agad-agad, ito agad-agad. Parang napa-ganoon po talaga ako," she added. "Sabi ko, meron namang Under-19, Under-21, bakit naman seniors po agad?"
Belen was extremely nervous heading into their first game of the tournament -- a showdown against the eventual champions, Altay of Kazakhstan.
"Diyos ko po, grabe po 'yung kaba ko talaga noong first game. Parang lalabas na talaga 'yung puso ko sa kaba," she admitted.
What helped Belen overcome her nerves was the presence of her more veteran teammates, notably libero Jennifer Nierva who played with her in the high school level and will be her teammate once again with the NU Lady Bulldogs.
Nierva was also making her debut at the senior level but was quick to reassure the younger Belen even as they went up against a difficult opponent.
"Nagwa-warm up kami, talagang 'di siya mapakali at all. Gusto niya sumigaw, isigaw lahat ng pressure, 'yung kaba," said Nierva of Belen.
"But then once na naka-hit na siya… Sabi ko kasi, 'Bella, once na makapalo ka ng isa, wala na 'yan.' Kasi kilala ko siya eh. Kinakabahan lang siya, pero 'pag nakuha niya na 'yung laro niya, tuloy-tuloy na 'yun," she added.
Nierva was proven right as Belen emerged as Team Rebisco's top scorer with 13 points in a 23-25, 13-25, 17-25 defeat to Altay. Though they lost in straight sets, Belen was grateful for the support she received from her "ates" in the squad.
It was not only Nierva who had encouraged her, but also F2 Logistics standouts Kianna Dy and Majoy Baron, who were the veterans of the team.
"Noong naglaro po kami noong first game, parang naano po ako, nawala po 'yung kaba ko, kasi parang napa-feel po nila sa amin na andito sila, iga-guide nila kami," she said.
The rest of the tournament was a rollercoaster for Belen -- she scored just one point the next game against Supreme Chonburi, but had an all-around outing against Saipa that drew praise from some of the best volleyball players in the country.
Overall, she wound up averaging seven points per game for Team Rebisco.
"She really showed na deserve niya na umabot sa ganoon [na level]," said Faith Nisperos, another one of Belen's Team Rebisco teammates who also played with her in NU. "Na kahit di siya dumaan ng collegiate leagues pa, it really proves na kaya niya sa ganyang level."
Up next for Belen is her rookie season with National University in the UAAP seniors, with Season 84 tentatively set to start in the first quarter of 2022.
There, she hopes to apply the lessons she learned from the Asian club tournament at the collegiate level.
"Super excited po talaga," Belen said of her collegiate debut.
To hear more about the Philippines' stint in the Asian Women's Club Volleyball Championship, check out the Post-Game podcast where Belen, Nierva, and Nisperos discussed their experiences as well as their expectations for the future.