Remembering, celebrating and paying tribute to Ateneo’s Fab Five (and the rest of the Lady Eagles)
by rick olivares
Watching the Ateneo Lady Eagles go down in three sets to the three-time champion La Salle Lady Spikers, I wanted to hug my team and if humanly possible, take the hurt away.
I have been close to many Ateneo teams but perhaps the one that is closest to my heart is the Women’s Volleyball Team.
In 2006, Ricky Palou invited me to watch the Lady Eagles who were going to play UST at the Blue Eagle Gym. I remember it so well. “Di ba you like volleyball,” asked Mr. Palou.
I nodded. I played volleyball as an intramural sport in school. I loved it but only after baseball, football, and basketball (in that order). I watched volleyball every chance I got whether it was the Olympics or some Grand Prix tournament. I asked Palou, “Are we any good? Baka naman puro lang magaganda yung girls but they can’t play?”
The University Athletics Director looked at me like I said something sacrilegious. The girls – Charo Soriano, Karla Bello, Patty Taganas, Charlie Tan, Steph Veluz, Steph Gabriel, and rookies Misha Quimpo and Bea Pascual and others – played UST that was a powerhouse team. They lost that game, a contentious one at that but I came away a huge fan.
The games were played either at UP or Ateneo then and there were quite a few fans turning out.
The following year, I brought Gatorade and other sports drinks, fruits, and even water to every game. I never missed a game and began to watch them in earnest (even occasionally helping out the coaching staff on occasion on ideas and strategies).
The next year, the team looked good enough to make the Final Four but they suffered a huge loss when Bea went out with a season-ending knee injury.
When Bea crumpled to the floor of BEG, the whole place went deathly quiet. Her screams of pain were unnerving and they froze most people to where they sat and stood. I rushed to the floor with assistant coach Clint Malazo and eventually helped her on a makeshift stretcher to the other side (Charo Soriano brought her to the Moro Lorenzo Sports Center after).
I guess that was officially when I became really close to this team. That year, the team had a problem with the libero position. Steph Gabriel and Misha Quimpo alternated at the position. It wasn’t their natural one and they clearly struggled. Sensing their problems, I oft sat down with them to offer encouragement and to pump them up. After all, who was going to do it? Their only fans back then were their Ateneo Men’s counterparts and a few classmates who deigned to watch.
At the time Coach Ron left the team for neighboring UP. We were in touch the whole time and I tried to serve as the middleman for whatever problems there were. It was a tough situation, I’ll say.
The following season, the Ateneo Sports Shooters and I put together the first ever Ateneo Sports Calendar and we featured the veterans – Bea, Steph, Kara Acevedo, and Misha in the calendar. During the shoot, I remember the four of the five rookies – Fille Cainglet, Jem Ferrer, Gretchen Ho, and Dzi Gervacio - staying to watch. I had not met the rookies yet and Bea introduced me to all of them. “What’s this for,” asked Gretch who looked excited about what we were doing. I explained things and said they (along with A Nacachi) would get their chance to be on the calendar the following season.
I heard of Fille, Dzi, and Gretch while they were in high school. Their reputation preceded them. And as highly recruited players, I felt getting the Fab Five to come to Ateneo was like winning a championship. Ateneo had two sets of Fab Fives that year. Over in hoops, the Blue Eagles had Ryan Buenafe, Vince Burke, Justin Chua, Tonino Gonzaga, and Nico Salva. In volleyball, -- there they were.
And from the get go the Fab Five made Ateneo highly competitive. They not only started but they also gamely battled the league’s superpowers (FEU, UST, Adamson, and La Salle). They went through at least five five-setters (and lost every one of them) and as disappointing as the results were they were at the same time, exhilarating. How good can these girls get? Can they help end the title drought? Look at their effect on the game and the crowds. The team began to win. They made it back to the Final Four. They won a couple of V-League titles. They began to win individual awards. Their popularity grew massively. The sport of volleyball started to grow that by the start of their final season, my officemates could no longer deny it. I too hoped that like their Blue Eagle counterparts, they'd nail that elusive UAAP championship.
Roger Gorayeb was my walking partner that season (we walked around the campus for an hour before volleyball practice at 6pm). In the few walks we had together, we would talk about lots – recruiting, strategies, the girls, opposing teams, and even San Sebastian. With Roger and the Fab Five on board, I thought it was a matter of time before the team won a UAAP title. They won a couple of V-League titles and that made me (and many others look forward to the UAAP tourney).
It was cool writing about the Lady Eagles. No one really wrote about them in 2006 (save perhaps for TJ Jurado and the folks at the now defunct Spike It Hard). Not even for the Ateneo website or even the school newspaper.
After the freshman season of the Fab Five in 2008-09, I began to miss their games (because of a heavier workload). I had to content myself to watching them mostly on television. But nothing changed. I was ecstatic when they won; morose when they lost.
Jem and Gretch tirelessly bugged me to watch them play and to even write about them. It took a while to free myself of some commitments but I sure don’t regret it. I sort of got back in the thick of things two years ago beginning with the University Games at Roxas City. It wasn’t easy as the only ones I knew on the team were the batch of 2008. But slowly, I began to feel at ease with the new team.
Watching all their “road” games was an experience. I had seen the crowds and the popularity surge in Manila but I’ll always remember when they played a game in Capiz, the barker announced, “Napapanood niyo lang sila sa TV. Ngayon nandito na sila kaya manood na kayong lahat. Tawagin niyo lahat pati na lolo’t lola. Sa mga babae, wag niyo sama ang boyfriend ninyo dahil baka pagpalit kayo para sa mga taga-Ateneo.”
It was hilarious and at the same time inspiring. When in Roxas City to play their games, the crowds went all the way up to the third floor of the building. Even the football and basketball teams of other schools (Metro Manila and provincial) went to watch them play.
At this time, I began to work for GroupM where Gatorade is the product I help handle (public relations and strategy-wise). Like football, I worked hard to get brand to sponsor the team and the sport. I pushed as early as 2010 to get Gretchen as a Brand Ambassador. I would be given clearance to talk to her only to see the company back out. They were hedging because volleyball wasn’t popular they said. Still I pushed and pushed. Finally this year (even before the stadium attendance took a massive spike upwards), I finally got management to see the light.
This past season has been a roller coaster ride of emotions. There have been incredible wins and heartbreaking losses. Taking a long hard look at the teams Ateneo had to face, I felt this season was going to be very difficult trying to unseat La Salle. We will get past everyone else but the champs were on another level. They had a line-up all right but they still missed that consistent middle attacking threat.
The finals series eerily mirrored the elimination round matches – the first meeting a five-setter and the last one a clean sweep.
It’s funny how Fille, Jem, Gretch, Dzi, and A share the moniker of “Fab Five” the same as that talented crew that played for Michigan back in the early 1990s. They came in with a lot of attention. They certainly helped make their college sport a whole more popular. They went to the finals twice but came up short on both occasions.
Watching the Lady Eagles, it was obvious how catastrophic the Game One loss was. It was said on television they were more at ease in Game Two. Maybe so in spots here and there but they mostly looked tentative and even lost. I still maintain that had they won their first round meeting it might have been a different ending. But confidence especially in volleyball can be fleeting. I hoped that the experience of winning two V-League titles would allow them to dig deep into that reservoir of hope.
The few times they got going in Game Two, they lacked fire that was on display for four of the five sets in the Game One clash. That lack of conviction at the very end was perhaps their undoing. When La Salle smelled blood in the water that was it.
It sure was painful watching them at game’s end shed tears and knowing that it was all over. Their college careers done. And perhaps even done with volleyball for good.
Yet I remain proud of who they are and what they have accomplished. I choose to remember them, and celebrate them as having raised the awareness of the sport in school and even elsewhere. I choose to remember them as revolutionaries (along with their contemporaries) for the sport of volleyball.
They may have not won the UAAP championship but they fought the good fight and for that and the dignity in which they carried themselves, they will always have a place in our hearts.
I still wish I could hug them and take away their pain.
Thanks Fille, Jem, Dzi, Gretchen, and A. And of course, to the rest of the Ateneo Lady Eagles.
One Big Fight!