AFTER a decade-long absence, the Philippines has made a memorable return to the international volleyball scene by way of the Asian Under-23 Women's Volelyball Championship in Manila.
The Philippines won two of seven games, took a set against reigning Under-23 world champion China and finished seventh in a 12-team field - not bad for a team formed hastily amid a leadership wrangle and trained for just three weeks, seldom with a full complement of players.
The future no doubt is bright for Philippine volleyball, which is in the middle of a rebirth that has seen leagues born left and right and volleyball stars turn into celebrities.
This tournament taught Philippine volleyball five more lessons moving forward.
Star turn for 'Baldo'
There is no question about Valdez’s superb talent and her dominance in the local leagues like the UAAP. But her stint in the Under-23 tournament proved that she can also be one of the best in Asia.
Despite an injury to her spiking hand, Valdez, or 'Baldo' to her coach Roger Gorayeb, held her own against Asia's finest, scoring almost at will with her picture-perfect spikes from the back row and timely drops.
She was so impressive that the Philippines relied on her - often too much - to bail them out time and time again, so much so that she ended up averaging 18.4 points and scored 31 points in one game alone.
Little wonder she and middle blocker Jaja Santiago turned a lot of heads in the tournament.
Reality check for Philippine volleyball
As well as the Philippine team played, the tournament showed we still have a lot of catching-up to do against our Asian neighbors, no thanks to the dark years when volleyball was all but dormant in the country.
Forget China, for now. As it is we still lagged behind Southeast Asian rival Thailand which has risen to become a regular in the FIVB Grand Prix circuit and has in fact clinched a place in the World Under-23 Championship with its runner-up finish in the Manila tournament.
The vibrant local volleyball scene and the return of the Philippines to the international scene is just the start. Hopefully a more stable national team program can be established, with cooperation from all the major stakeholders in the sport.
Height isn’t always might
China won the gold medal with a team with an average height of 185 centimeters. But this competition has also shown that a team doesn’t necessarily need to be tall to be good in Asia.
Take the case again of Thailand, which, along with fourth-placer Japan, only have an average height of 174 cms. Bronze medalist Korea has a slightly better average height at 176 cms. The Philippines is actually taller than the three teams, having an average height of 178 cms.
Coach Tai's positive influence
Coach Anusorn 'Tai' Bundit found himself a dancing rival in the tournament when compatriot Nataphon Srisamutnak, the coach of the Thai national team, showed off his own dance moves on the sidelines during the tournament.
But there's no denying the positive influence Coach Tai has had on Philippine volleyball ever since he took on the coaching job of the Ateneo Blue Eagles in the UAAP.
His spartan training, which spelled success for Ateneo in the UAAP, has no doubt helped raise the standards as well as the level of play in Philippine volleyball, showing everybody that there is no substitute to hard work.
Need for a united front
If this Philippine team can turn heads in the Asian Under-23, imagine if national coach Roger Gorayeb succeeded in signing up all the players on his wish list.
That, unfortunately, is easier said than done. The Philippine national team program is coming off a reboot and it will take time before the Larong Volleyball ng Pilipinas Inc. (LVPI) will get the cooperation of all the major stakeholders and forge a united front for the sake of the national team.
That should be the next big battle for Philippine volleyball.