Dindin and Jaja Santiago with the author
Jaja Santiago was throwing up jumpers. One. Two. Three.
The first was short as it hit the front of the rim. The second was long as it struck the back iron. The third looked like it was going in but instead rimmed out. Jaja raised her arms then punched the air in playful disappointment.
If you didn’t know Santiago, you’d think she was the towering center of National University’s women’s basketball team. After all, she’s now 6-foot-5 and still growing.
She sauntered over to the other side of the court -- to the volleyball court – where it suddenly becomes obvious that she’s no female cager but a volleybelle. An exciting and up-and-coming star.
Jaja dropped her gym bag onto the bench then snuck up on a teammate for a giant bear hug. The two exploded in giggles as they traded hugs and jokes.
It’s easy to forget that Jaja Santiago is only 17 years old because of her height. However, when you look into her eyes, she’s got that look of a young woman slowly growing into the world. She’s touted as the next volleyball sensation although she protests and points out those who are her senior not only in NU but also in other teams.
“Bago pa lang ako,” she shyly objected. “Wala pa akong pinapakita sa UAAP.”
Older sister, Dindin, two years her senior and three inches shorter at 6-foot-2, is seated on the bench munching on a light snack while chatting with head coach Edjet Mabbayad. The start of formal practice is 15 minutes away.
The Santiago sisters – Dindin and Jaja – represent hope. Not just as the Twin Towers for NU’s volleyball program but also for their own family.
The sisters both admitted to feeling awkward early on about their height that they inherited from their father, Jojo, who stands 6-foot-6 and once played for the University of Manila Hawks and the San Juan Knights in the defunct Metropolitan Basketball Association. Their mother stands 5-foot-9 and currently works in Israel.
Wherever they went, the sister felt like they were in a fishbowl as people ogled at them. And because of their height, it poses a problem when it comes to boys.
Dindin admitted to liking one someone but he was uncomfortable with the height disparity. “Ang tangkad mo kasi,” he said and that was the end of that.
Their height could be both a blessing or a curse. To name another outside boy problems. there’s the challenge of finding adequate clothing as the traditional Asian sizes don’t fit them.
That was then. The sisters have since decided that their height is a blessing and a gift as it allows them to focus on a couple of things – studies and volleyball.
Their family isn’t well off and at an early age, they have become the breadwinners. Meaning, they have to think about their family. Older brother Axel is also with them in NU. He works as a coach for both volleyball teams. Abigail, their half-sister and younger than Jaja, stays with them. She, too, is into volleyball and joins them in training.
“It’s tough,” admitted Axel in the vernacular. “I’m older so I have to give my sisters advice. But I give them space as they are also old enough to make some decisions. It is good though that we are all in one school and living close to one another."
Several months ago, Jaja received some interest from American Division One school University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA). Someone videotaped the Lady Bulldogs during a game and uploaded it onto YouTube.
UCLA women’s volleyball assistant coach Joy McKienzie-Fuerbringer inquired about Jaja and the two began to exchange emails. Although Jaja eventually decided to stay home and play for NU, she is hoping that given a year or two (and having matured some more) and provided the offer is still good, she can try her luck abroad.
NU athletic director Junel Baculi reiterated that the school will not stand in the way of Santiago’s opportunity to go to the US. “We laid down all the scenarios for her so she will understand it clearly. If the scholarship is good, what does that include? Who will provide for expenses for books, laptops or the necessities? You know that they are very strict in the US NCAA. One misstep means that the entire school can be suspended. So we are taking this slowly until there are more answers that will clear up things,” Baculi said.
Axel and Dindin admit to being fiercely protective of their younger sister. They are happy for the attention they receive but at the same time, they are also careful. And they consult one another regarding important decisions.
Living in the University Belt area is tough. On the other hand, it has also toughened up the Santiagos. Between the two, the elder sister is more of a homebody as she goes to Mass almost every day while the younger one likes to go out with her teammates to malls. “Dindin thinks a lot about life today, tomorrow,” admitted Axel.
Dindin doesn’t disagree with her 23-year-old brother. Right now she is taking Hotel and Restaurant Management. After she gets her degree, she hopes to continue her studies as she knows that she cannot play volleyball forever.
While volleyball’s popularity is soaring, the jury is still out if one can earn a living playing the sport. “Siguro pagkatapos ng ilan pang taon pwede na talaga maghanap buhay sa volleyball,” postulated Dindin. “Pero sa ngayon, hindi pa. Pero masayang tignan yung atensyon na binibigay sa volleyball at sa mga manlalaro.”
In this coming UAAP season, NU will need the Santiago sisters to soar to greater heights if they want to unseat the three-time defending champions, La Salle. Minus Jaja who was still in high school, NU finished fourth with an 8-6 record during UAAP Season 75. Once in the Final Four, they were bounced from play by the Lady Archers in three sets.
In the recent University Games, the Lady Bulldogs looked sluggish and in doing so, gave the coaching staff, as led by the youthful Edjet Mabbayad, cause for concern.
“Meron pa naman kaming two weeks para maayos yung mga gusot,” pointed out Dindin.
When NU won the V-League after the UAAP, they did so with guest player and eventual MVP Rubie de Leon and with long-time libero Jen Reyes. Both are no longer part of the team. It is now incumbent upon new libero Bia General and setter Ivy Perez to get the Lady Bulldogs high-powered attack (that includes Mina Aganon, Myla Pablo, and Aiko Urdas) going.
Looking across the UAAP landscape, UST made some noise as they won the recent University Games volleyball championship. Ateneo lost a lot of key players and as a result, not much is known how they will fare as they didn’t play in the last V-League conference.
La Salle remains the gold standard. “Pag dating ng season, very focused na sila,” said Dindin by way of tribute to the focus and drive of the three-time defending champions.
“Yung ganyang determinasyon at focus? ‘Yan din ang gusto rin namin matutunan.”
If they figure that out this season that’s going to be double trouble for other teams.
Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.