ON Saturday, the UAAP feted its top performers for Season 78, handing out Athlete of the Year awards to La Salle’s Ian Lariba of table tennis, Ateneo’s Jessie Khing Lacuna of swimming, Adamson’s Queeny Sabobo of softball, and Ateneo’s Alyssa Valdez.
While the four athletes' achievements this season were no doubt impressive, the UAAP missed what should have been a very easy decision to make, a no-brainer, really — choosing Lariba as its lone Athlete of the Year.
Reason? Her feat was simply unparralled this season.
The award, we must point out, is given to the best UAAP athlete who made his or her mark not just in the collegiate league but also in the international scene. In that respect, Lariba's feat was second to none.
From what we heard, UAAP officials were until the last minute undecided on who to award among the 16 candidates who were MVPs in their respective sports, coming out with a decision only hours before the closing ceremony. A source added that except for a few, no one had an idea who the winner was, except for officials of host University of the Philippines, who had the final say on the Athlete of the Year winner.
The winners went to four athletes — two from the individual sports category, and two from team sports which, to our knowledge, is a first for the league.
Ultimately, the decision missed the point entirely.
There is no denying that Valdez has become a larger-than-life figure in Philippine sports. She made Ateneo's volleyball squad one of the most popular teams in the country regardless of sport, and volleyball the fastest growing sport. For that, Filipino sports fans should be grateful.
However, there is no denying, too, that despite the little fanfare that followed her accomplishment, the magnitude of Lariba's feat this year not just for La Salle feats for the country, which we should point out is one of the biggest considerations for any award in the UAAP, were unmatched.
With Lariba leading the way, the Lady Archers table tennis team won three titles over the last four years, going undefeated this season. And while Valdez won a third MVP award, she was the only one among the four Athletes of the Year awardees who didn’t win a championship this season.
A case can be made for Valdez on her role in the resurgence of the Philippine team when she led the country’s participation in the Asian Under-23 Women’s Volleyball Championship and the Southeast Asian Games, the nation's first in a decade. But both national teams failed to land in the playoff round.
As for Lariba, she became the 11th and final Asian to make it to the table tennis competition of the Rio Olympics — not just as a wild card entry but by qualifying on her own merits. She got no free ride.
While the country was expecting Olympic qualifiers from traditionally strong sports like boxing, taekwondo, and even basketball, no one, not even Philippine sports officials, expected Lariba to qualify for the Olympics, becoming the first-ever Filipino player to do so since table tennis became part of the Games program in 1988.
You don’t have to look far to realize that Lariba deserved the award.
Just take a look at a tweet posted by Kiefer Ravena, the former Ateneo basketball star and rumored boyfriend of Valdez, who, in reaction to a SPIN.ph story naming him, Valdez, and others as the candidates for the Athlete of the Year award, practically conceded the award to Lariba.
“jusko @AlyssaValdez2 , OLYMPIAN lang naman kalaban natin. Congrats, Ian Lariba!” wrote Ravena.
Choosing Valdez as one of the four Athletes of the Year may be a popular decision that is good for nurturing the league’s ever-growing fan base. But making Lariba the sole winner of the most prestigious individual award in the league, we believe, was the most logical decision.