[7 May 2015] The U23 tournament has indeed pushed volleyball back into the limelight with PLDT and Smart Communications, Inc. going all-out in partnering with the Larong Volleyball sa Pilipinas, Inc. to stage the continental event.
The Philsports Arena in Pasig City has witnessed some of the most memorable moments in Philippine sports. And for the past week, 12 young women have taken the spotlight in the historic gym. The Philippine Women’s Under-23 National Volleyball Team has been luring the biggest crowds the Philsports Arena has seen in recent years while seeing action in the 12-country Asian Championship.
Playing their hearts out against more experienced teams in the continent, the Filipinas have endeared themselves to the home crowd with their grit and resilience. Representing the country is something they treasure. And being the faces of a sport fighting for relevance, they are fuelled by the desire to sustain the resurgence of volleyball in the country.
The tournament has indeed pushed volleyball back into the limelight with PLDT and Smart Communications, Inc. going all-out in partnering with the Larong Volleyball sa Pilipinas, Inc. to stage the continental event.
PLDT and Smart are staunch supporters of sports development in the Philippines. The companies have backed national athletes such as Gilas Pilipinas and Azkals, as well as activities of various sports organizations. PLDT and Smart chairman Manny V. Pangilinan is considered one of the country’s foremost sports patrons.
“[This tournament] has given us an opportunity to promote the game that we love,” said team captain and new Smart endorser Alyssa Valdez.
Team captain and Smart endorser Alyssa Valdez is considered by her teammates as the squad’s heart and soul
“It’s overwhelming because not everyone is given the chance to represent the country,” said setter Jia Morado who, like Valdez, is from back-to-back UAAP champion Ateneo. “We may come from different volleyball programs but we are here for one goal and that’s to represent the country the best way we can.”
Fellow UAAP stars Jaja Santiago, EJ Laure, Ria Meneses, Myla Pablo and NCAA MVP Gretchel Soltones are also in the team, along with Ateneo standouts Ella de Jesus, Bea De Leon, Joanna Maraguinot and Rissa Sato. Defensive ace Tin Agno of Far Eastern U and Army is the team’s libero.
The 19-year-old Morado has pulled the strings on attack for the youthful squad that was formed only last month. The players overcame scheduling conflicts with their club and school teams to answer the call for flag and country.
Notwithstanding the short preparations, the Filipinas have actually put up a gallant stand in the tournament, winning against Kazakhstan to reach the quarterfinal phase against reigning world champion China.
Reaching the knockout round is actually a feat in itself as the Filipinas are just making their return to the international stage after years of hiatus. In fact, Morado was just a grade five student the last time the country fielded a team in an Asian age-group tournament. She was among the sparse crowd that showed up at the Philsports Arena for the Asian Under-17 tournament. Little did she know that she would eventually don the country’s colors and end up teaming up with the star of that Under-17 squad back in 2008, Alyssa Valdez.
“There weren’t a lot of people watching the games back then,” Morado recounted. “It was just a few players and maybe people in the volleyball community, but it’s different now because people are really out here supporting us.”
And one of the biggest crowd drawers is the 22-year-old Valdez, considered the poster girl of women’s volleyball in the country. Having won back-to-back Most Valuable Player awards in the UAAP while leading Ateneo to titles, Valdez was selected as the captain of the team for the continental tournament. And she has led by example so far with her awe-inspiring play rubbing off on her teammates.
“We always put in mind that playing for the country is an honor and that motivates us to play better,” said Valdez. “One thing that makes this team special is that the players are hardworking and the willingness to sacrifice for the good of the team.”
Soltones, one of the youngest players in the team at 19, points to Valdez as the team’s heart and soul. “When you feel tired in training and playing on the court, you can just look at her and be energized because she works so hard for the team,” said Soltones, who plays for San Sebastian College.
She feels right at home with her teammates. “There’s just a positive vibe around the team,” she said. It shows on the court as the girls celebrate each point like it’s the last. One moment, the players show sheer ferocity on attack and defense, and the next moment, they’re giddy, hugging each other for every point.
“We try to lift each other and draw strength from one another,” said 21-year-old Agno. Defeats to Iran, Japan, and Chinese-Taipei have hardly dented the Filipinas’ confidence. They see those games as a learning experience especially since this is their first time to compete in a tournament of this magnitude.
“It’s been an honor playing against those teams,” Valdez said. “That’s something we have been looking forward to at the start of the tournament. Sometimes, we still get overwhelmed that we’re actually playing these strong teams.”
Santiago, one of two National University standouts in the team, said they are learning a lot from the powerhouse teams in the tournament. “The team is maturing in terms of international play,” said the 6-foot-5 Santiago, who is just 19 years old.
“I cannot fault the players because they play their hearts out even with the little preparations that we had,” said Philippine head coach Roger Gorayeb. “They have sacrificed a lot to put volleyball at this level. I just hope we continue to improve.”
Gorayeb believes the tournament will go a long way in promoting the sport. “We hope that it’s the start of better things for Philippine volleyball,” said Gorayeb. “The seeds have been planted and it can only get better if the developments continue. There’s plenty of potential in this team that we have now.”