SOME people counted them out but it didn’t stop the Ateneo Lady Eagles from soaring all the way to the top.
When it made its much-anticipated Season 81 debut last February 17, Ateneo lost to arch-rival De La Salle, led by rookie Jolina dela Cruz, in four sets at the Mall of Asia Arena in Pasay City.
That campaign-opening setback surrounded the Lady Eagles with doubts and bashing over social media saying that they were overhyped during the preseason.
But the Lady Eagles defied those doubts and made them unstoppable to fly high in ending a four-year title drought after completing a Finals series comeback over University of Santo Tomas and lifted their third overall championships.
“It’s not how you start, it’s how you end it,” said Ateneo head coach Oliver Almadro after their 25-17, 25-22, 25-22 conquest in a winner-take-all Game 3 infront of over 21, 000 fans on Saturday at the Mall of Asia Arena in Pasay City.
“We lost the first match of the season. Many people counted us out. Bobo daw outside hitter namin, wala kaming receive, wala kaming defense, but we made it,” he added.
Ateneo was on the brink of settling for another silver-medal finish after getting swept by UST in Game 1. But the Lady Eagles rose again in Game 2 to live another day and completed their redemption from missing the Final Four last year by claiming their third overall title with all players working as one unit.
“Yung FEU, di raw kami mananalo sa FEU, but we made it. This one, nung nakuha ng UST yung Game 1, sabi nila di raw mananalo sa UST, but we made it. Importante lang talaga, they really want it,” said Almadro also referring to their first Final Four match loss to the No.4 Far Eastern University before booking gheir return to the Finals.
Almadro attributed their success to the players for embracing his system despite his transfer from the Ateneo men’s team to replace Tai Bundit.
Graduating middle blockers Maddie Madayag and Bea de Leon led the charge for the team and manned the net defense. Kat Tolentino emerged as the go-to-scorer, while Deanna Wong orchestrated the brilliant plays.
Outside hitters Ponggay Gaston and Jules Samonte also proved their doubters wrong especially in the last two games of the Finals, where they played instrumental. Liberos Dani Ravena and graduating Kim Gequillana also rose to the occasion protecting the team’s floor defense.
“It’s because of our faith and courage,” Almadro said. “We will not be that perfect players. I will not be that perfect coach, but we worked as a team. We worked as a family.”
“Sometimes, talent, science and skills are not important. What’s important is how you train, how you trust each other and how you put the faith in God,” he added.
Since that campaign-opening loss, Ateneo waxed hot and won 10 straight games to become the first team to take the league lead but La Salle sent its rival crashing again with a three-set defeat in their second-round clash.
But the Katipunan-based spikers rose again and swept their last two elimination round against cellar dwellers Adamson and University of the East to clinch the No.1 spot and twice-to-beat advantage with a league-best 12-2 record.
“Hindi pa ganun ka-perfect yung system, but they trusted the system. They really worked hard. I’m just an instrument. They really were the ones who worked for it,” said the three-time UAAP men’s champion coach.
As they soared back on top of the world, the Lady Eagles are about to lose graduating captains Madayag and De Leon together with libero Kim Gequillana, while Tolentino is likely forgoing her final season.
Almadro wants to cherish the success of all their hardships first before thinking about what’s next. But he has a prized recruits led by Nazareth School star Faith Nisperos coming next year to prove themselves again
“Yung pinaghirapan at pinagdaanan namin, di nila alam. So don’t count us out. Don’t count out the heart of a champion,” Almadro said. “They are champions in their life. Being in Ateneo is a champion in life already. Now, being a champion validates another thing.“