IT was a team composed of the finest collegiate volleyball players in the country whipped into a cohesive unit for almost three years by a Russian coach no less.
And it happened to be the last Philippine women’s team, too, to win the volleyball gold in the Southeast Asian Games by beating mighty Thailand in a winner-take-all match.
As the country's women and men's volleyball teams make a return to the biggest sporting conclave in the region that comes off the wraps on Friday in Singapore, Spin.ph tracked down some of the key players of the national squad which did the unthinkable 22 years ago by emerging as champions.
At the helm of the celebrated squad is no less than a towering 6-foot-1, southpaw open spiker from Southwestern University, whose mere mention of her name easily strikes fear in the hearts of the opponents.
“Kinatatakutan talaga siya,” was how Rosemarie Prochina described to Spin.ph talented teammate Nene Ybanez-Chavez, who ran away with the Best Spiker and MVP award when the Filipinas were the toast of SEA Games volleyball during the 1993 edition of the meet in Singapore.
With Ybanez-Chavez leading the way, the Filipina volleybelles thwarted a thrash-talking Thai side that was bidding to win a third straight gold in the regional meet.
First formed in 1990 by Russian coach Stanislav Lyugaylo, the team had the likes of Prochina, Thelma Barina, Natalie Cruz, Arlene Apostol, Bernadette Burcelis, Leonora Escollantes, among others, in its roster.
But there was no doubt that Ybanez-Chavez was the face of the gold-medal winning squad.
“Nagtatanong pa sa amin 'yung Thailand (coach) sabi niya, 'Is Nene going to play?' shared Prochina, now the head coach of Mane ‘N Tail in the Philippine Super Liga (PSL), where Ybanez-Chavez serves as her deputy.
“Kasi ganoon siya kinakatakutan ng ibang teams.”
It was Barina, then already a part of the national team, who actually first laid eyes on who would become the missing link in the team’s gold-medal campaign, when she saw Ybanez-Chavez suit up for SWU in the 1987 National UAAP held in Davao.
“Sa Visayas kami ang nag-champion (SWU). Ang nag-champion dito sa Manila UST (UAAP). E, may national UAAP. First na laro ko doon sa Davao. So that time, nagkalaban na kami, nakita na nila ako na malaki, tapos fighter. Siguro kasi siyempre Bisaya, fighter talaga,” recalled the Cebuana pride.
“Nag-offer na sila agad na maglaro ako sa Philippine team. Kaya lang, first year ko pa lang sa paglalaro, kaya hindi muna ako pumunta. Nag-aral muna ako,” she added.
After much prodding, Ybanez-Chavez, along with Prochina and four other players from Cebu, went to Manila three years after and tried out for the national team being groomed for the 1991 SEA Games in Manila.
“Every year 'yun sinasabihan ako to join the Philippine team, pero ako priority ko ang pag-aaral,” she said. “Sila Thelma sinasabi na kailangan nila kami dahil sila may mga edad na. So kami ni Prochina nag-decide na pumunta ng Manila to join the team. Yun na start.”
Six ladies from the Visayas tried out for the team, but only Ybanez-Chavez and Prochina made the cut.
“Anim kaming Bisaya. Dalawa lang kami natira kasi magagaling 'yung mga taga FEU, taga-UST sina Natalie Cruz, (Bernadette) Burcelis. Grabe ang competition noon sa training kasi kung anu-ano (lalambot-lambot) ka, laglag ka talaga," added Ybanez-Chavez of the experience she had to deal with as a young Cebuana player who was not even good in speaking Tagalog, but had to fight for a place in the national team against some of the best players from the Big City.
With the foundation finally laid down, the team went on and bagged the bronze medal in the 1991 Manila SEA Games.
But the ultimate target was the Singapore meet.
As part of its preparation, the team travelled to Japan for rigorous training and later, competed in various tournaments through the help of volleyball official Tats Suzara, now president of the Philippine Super Liga.
“With the help of Tats Suzara, nag-training kami sa iba’t-ibang bansa. Nakatulong talaga sa amin `yun, kasi commercial teams ang nakakalaban namin," said Ybañez-Chavez.
In the tournaments they’ve competed, the Philippine team showed what Filipina volleybelles can do.
“First exposure ko sa Thailand. Nakita ko yung China team (at) Japan team. Nagyabang ako kasi Philipppine team kami, talo namin kayo bukas," Ybanez-Chavez said to herself.
“Noong sinabi ko kay Thelma, sabi ko, 'Mama The (as what she calls Barina), ano kayang score nila sa atin bukas pag naglaro tayo?' Sabay sinasabi niya sa akin, 'Ewan ko, Nene. Baka ma-zero tayo niyan. Kasi malalaki ang China.'"
“Sabi ko 'eh malaki rin ako.' Sagot niya naman, 'Eh malilit kami, ikaw lang ang malaki.' Pero noong iniisip namin, parang na-challenge (ang team)," she continued.
That very same attitude was what carried the team to victory in the Singapore SEA Games.
“Every time papasok ako sa court talagang walang reserba sa laro, either basa sa bola, depensa, palo, block. Gagawin talaga lahat, walang iniinda. Kaya hindi mo alam nakuha mo na pala ang bola kasi nandoon yung focus mo sa laro," said Ybanez-Chavez of the team’s campaign in the biennial meet.
“Kailangan hindi papatak 'tong bola. ‘Yung parang nag-visualize ka sa sarili mo, nag-motivate ka sa sarili mo na walang dadaan sa akin na bola, ba-blockin ko 'to, which is nangyayari. Minsan psychological din 'yung laro."
But the team reserved its best for the gold medal match against no less than the defending champions.
The night before the gold-medal game, Lyugaylo, the Russian coach, let the Filipina volleybelles unwind a bit and allowed them to go shopping.
Unknown to them, it was while during their shopping spree that they’ll be motivated even more to win the gold.
“Di ba pag nasa ibang bansa ka bibili ka ng mga souvenirs para sa pamilya, sa kaibigan. Tapos 'yung manager nila (Thais) kinantyawan kami. Bumibili kasi kami ng key chain ng Lion dahil Singapore 'yun 'di ba? Kaibigan naman namin (manager) siya. Sabi niya, 'Now you buy many many golds because tomorrow you only have silver,'" Ybanez-Chavez recalled.
“Sa isip ko the night before (the championship) bakit kami sinabihan ng ganoon? Laro 'to eh. Bakit nila sinu-sure na ganoon?" she added.
That only bolstered the team’s yearning to beat the reigning champions.
“Na-challenge kami. Halos lahat kasi kung meron silang kamay, meron silang paa, meron din kami. Kung anong meron sila meron din kami. Lalo ako na-challlenge ako kasi yung mga seniors sa akin umaasa pero sabi ko sa kanila hindi ko ito magagawa kung wala kayo,” said Ybanez-Chavez.
She added, “Hindi ko na maalala (ang score ko sa championship) kasi pag nasa loob ako ng court talagang wala na akong pakialam. Hindi na ako nakikinig sa mga tao, talagang focus lang ako sa laro.
“Nagtulung-tulong kami, lahat na-challenge. Kaya ayun nakuha namin ang gold medal."