A GROUP of middle-aged women milled outside the University of Santo Tomas dugout after a recent Tigresses game in the Shakey's V-League, their faces no longer familiar to plain fans or to the mediamen around them.
It took Mozy Ravena, who is known to fans because she does the television coverage of the league games and happens to be wife to former PBA guard Bong and mother to UAAP star Kiefer, to break the ice between the ladies and the volleyball media, some of whom were younger than the women's own children.
They turned out to be volleyball royalty.
“O, before Alyssa Valdez (andiyan) si Natalie Cruz,” said Ravena, the former UST utility player, pointing to her former teammate who is hailed as one of the best volleyball players of her era.
Aside from Cruz and Ravena, also present were Carmela Abella-Barredo, Annaliza Yu-Lucero, Julie Ogayon, Myra Balaquiot, Carmen Gadionco, Mylene Cuenca-Bacud, Tina Ignacio, and Vilet Ponce de Leon, who is now part of the UST coaching staff.
Individually, their names no longer ring a bell. But collectively, the former Tigresses have achieved an unprecedented feat by winning the UAAP women's volleyball championship seven successive years under multi-titled coach August Sta. Maria from 1985 to 1991.
Long before the UAAP reign of the De La Salle Lady Spikers and the Ateneo Lady Eagles of Valdez, these ladies were the undisputed queens of the league, at one point even winning 10 tournaments nationwide in one season.
To compare, La Salle won three titles in a row and Ateneo has won two straight so far. Far Eastern University, the most accomplished women’s team in the league with 29 championships, was champion for four straight years from 1970 to 1974.
So good was this UST team (15 championships overall) that it was uncommon to see other teams win a set against the Tigresses, who even dominated the 1991 national team led by the great Thelma Barina during an exhibition match.
Some of these ladies were also part of the last Philippine women’s team to win the Southeast Asian Games volleyball gold medal back in 1993.
“Tune-up game lang naman pero since nalalamangan namin sila, pinatigil na lang,” recalled Yu-Lucero, brushing off the pleadings of Cruz not to tell the story. “Hindi, totoo naman eh,” she told her former teammate.
During their day, the old volleyball rule where a team could only score a point on their serve - and breaking a serve was no more than a side-out - still apply, so it was harder to score against them.
And they recalled the marching orders of coach Sta. Maria not only to win in straight sets, but not to let the opponent score as well – not unless the coach of the opposing team is Sta. Maria’s friend.
“‘Yung Ateneo dati friend namin si coach Louie, friend ng coach namin. So pag-zero ‘yung kalaban parang, 'O, bigyan nyo ng one point, so 15-1, ganoon lang ang mga score nila sa amin,” Cruz shared.
“Kasi ang target hindi makaka-set (ang kalaban),”added Ogayon.
“So five sets, ‘di ba? So ang coach namin pag may naka-set dyan, lahat kami lagot na. Ang target lagi straight sets, tapos if you can make the score zero, zero ang kalaban,” she added.
Comparisons therefore were inevitable between Cruz and Valdez, widely regarded as the best volleyball player in the country today. Cruz tried to sidestep the topic - “Naku, sila ang makakasagot niyan,” she said - but Abella-Barredo was not one to keep her silence for long.
“Mas magaling ‘to,” she said with conviction, pointing to Cruz.
“Siya (Cruz) ang nag-start ng running spike,” said Abella-Barredo, adding volleyball players have become larger than life today owing to the renewed popularity of the sport.
“Kaya lang kasi ‘yung volleyball ngayon na media hype, so akala niyo sobrang lakas na niya (Valdez). Pero kung napapanood ninyo ‘yung before, wala,” she added.
The top players of their era, Abella-Barredo swore, played with more power, grace and guile. She cited the Barina as an example, saying the former volleyball star's game can hold its own against the men.
“Even ‘yung No. 1 (volleyball player ng Pilipinas), si Thelma Barina, cannot be compared with anyone ngayon. Sobrang panlalaki ‘yung laro niya,” she swore.
There's also no point comparing the games during their era and the matches we see now, they swore.
“Wala!” Abella-Barredo said. “Actually wala. Kasi ‘yung mga current players ngayon wala naman masyadong power, papalo lang sila ganyan, siguro ‘yung defense lang rin ng kalaban ‘di rin gaanong kaganda so namamatay ang bola.
“Pero kung power, wala talaga eh, wala ‘yung baon na baon ‘yung palo,” she added.
Cruz, who is now based in Saipan where she is assistant manager in a Gold's Gym and is a part-time Zumba instructor, said the Tigresses relied more on power than the simple open-quick-open combinations commonly seen today.
“Dati power play talaga, parang lalake ang laro,” said Cruz. “Ngayon pabilisan. At saka dati nagko-concentrate na kami more on plays, hindi lang ‘yung basta-bastang open-quick-open ... nagko-concentrate na kami sa plays.”
If these ladies sounded so confident, Abella-Barredo said oftentimes all it takes is confidence to stand out.
“Minsan yabang lang talaga ang kailangan, ‘yung angas. Eh kaming lahat maangas, kahit matatanda na kami maangas pa. Okay naman, lahat naman magagaling,” she said.
Cruz also think today’s level of play wouldn’t pass the strict standards of coach Sta. Maria.
“Napakagaling talaga niyang coach. Pero kung nagko-coach siya, hindi pwede sa kanya ‘yung ganyang laro. Kanina nga, nagagalit na. Hindi pwede ‘yung palo mo ganyan-ganyan lang, hindi pwede.
"Kailangan tuldok,” she said.