Someone asked me how my blog and newspaper column came to be titled "Bleachers Brew". It's like this, it's an amalgam of sorts of two things: The bleachers area in the stadium/arena where I used to sit when I would watch baseball, football, and basketball games and Miles Davis' great jazz album Bitches Brew. That's how it got culled together. I originally planned on calling it "The View from the Big Chair" that is a nod to Tears For Fear's second album, Songs from the Big Chair. So there.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Ateneo Men's Volleyball Team: History accomplished.

This appears in the Monday, March 9, 2015 edition of the Business Mirror.

History interrupted accomplished.
by rick olivares pic by arvin lim

Sometimes the road to a dream can take a sudden detour or can be rudely snatched away from you.

In the early morning of the sixth of December 2008, one day before the 67th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor that turned a European War into a global conflagration, Oliver Almadro, then in his first year as head coach of the Ateneo Men’s Volleyball Team, gathered his wards along Luneta Park in front of its famous monument.

“It is only fitting that we start our season right at the monument of your most famous alumnus,” he quipped about Jose Rizal. “This is where we begin a historic journey.”

What began as a three-kilometer run in an effort to bolster the team’s conditioning indeed ended in a historic run as the Blue Eagles made it to the Final Four with a 9-5 slate with AJ Pareja finally feted a deserving Most Valuable Player Award. Once in the Final Four, the inexperienced Ateneo squad was bundled out by UST. “We’re getting there,” said Almadro as his team bade goodbye to the college careers of stars AJ Pareja and Timmy Sto. Tomas during a late team dinner in San Juan.

“There” however would come five years later. First came the unexpected set back and a fall from grace by both coach and team.

The following season, the AMVT, without its heavy cannons struggled in the first few games as they lost several nervy five-setters. At one point in a fit of frustration, Almadro struck Neil Flores (after he committed two costly errors that saw them lose a game) in the chest prompting some controversy that led to his departing the team midway through the season. While the team managed to return to the Final Four with a 10-4 record, FEU sent them packing in four sets.

The coach felt bad as he longed to coach the blue and white. He also dreamed of sending his children to Ateneo. “I made a mistake,” lamented the coach who during his playing days suited up for Letran. “But it’s time to move on.”

Ateneo fell to a 4-10 record the next year while Almadro resurfaced at National University where he brought in Peter Torres, his kababayan from Leyte, Vince Mangulabnan and company. He intended to bring them to Ateneo but his recruits followed him over to NU.

The Blue Spikers continued to plummet; by Season 74 they were down to seventh place with a 2-12 record. Then they began a rigodon of coaches – Rizalito Del Moro (2010), Mario Mia Jr. (2011), and Leonardo Toyco (2012).

Almadro’s Bulldogs were climbing the standings. From 3-11 the year before he came on board, they finished 7-7 in his rookie year at the Sampaloc, Manila school.

Around this time, some of his former players from Loyola Heights made entreaties about bringing him back to Ateneo. The team began to experience discipline problems and it heavily told on their play and even their academic performance. Curiously, some of those who demanded his ouster were the ones behind the move to bring him back. While he was intrigued, he wasn’t sure about it. After all, his batch of recruits for NU were on the verge of challenging for a championship.

However, the best laid plans of mice and men came back to haunt him. Caught in a tug of war battle with some team officials who would stop at nothing to win as well as a series of ugly incidents that involved some players saw his premature departure from NU. It was a difficult time for him. His wife was giving birth, money was scarce, and he had a crisis of confidence.

Nevertheless, he was quickly brought back to Ateneo (a few of his Bulldogs players offered to follow but Almadro declined because it would affect their eligibility) where he began coaching the high school team.

Almadro was able to bring in a young kid from Concepcion, Marikina named Marck Espejo who was also targeted by NU and La Salle. A couple of his former players – Neil Flores and Xavier Senoren – offered to come back for their last years of eligibility.

The returning Ateneo coach told his two players he would gladly have them back but they must make the decision to return themselves. Furthermore, he informed them he wouldn’t slacken one bit in his style. The two said it wouldn’t be a problem.

In his first year back, armed with some promising recruits and with some heady veterans, Ateneo crashed the finals party against NU that was seeking its own back-to-back men’s title. The Blue Spikers finished with its best record in the UAAP ever with an 11-3 record; second only to NU’s 12-2. Espejo was named not only Rookie of the Year but also the league’s Most Valuable Player. Co-rookie Esmilzo Polvorosa was named the Best Setter and libero JP Pareja as the Best Receiver.

In the finals, Ateneo’s youth showed. It was a learning experience in many ways for both coach and players. “Masaya kami nung nakarating sa finals,” recounted Espejo. “Tapos yung tanong namin, ‘O, ano na? Paano na to?’”

Alamdro admitted to being to wound up (gigil) to beat his former team. The Blue Eagles responded to the taunts (including some of pointed barbs towards some of the Atenean’s sexuality) of some of the Bulldogs. In the end, the inexperience in big games told on the team.

By Season 77, Ateneo Athletics officials told Almadro to temper his intensity because it wore out the team. He received a boost when the women’s head coach, Anusorn ‘Tai’ Bundit befriended him. The two always spoke during practice. “Mas senior yan sa akin at dapat lang ako makinig,” noted Almadro of those daily conversations with Coach Tai. “Besides, ang dami niyang accomplishments.” Bundit offered him sound advice that changed the manner of their training as well as the approach to the game. One of which was meditating before games.

At first, the players were apprehensive. They didn’t want to be copycats despite their being close to their women counterparts. And it felt “weird” in the words of middle hitter Rex Intal. “Nagtatawanan pa kami nung una. Pero nakatulong siya.”

Ateneo stumbled at the start of the season losing two of its first three. “We needed to settle down,” described setter Tomie Rivera. “May gigil talaga.”

The team began to work on their serves to give opponents receiving problems. In all their matches save for one, they committed more errors than their opponent. Yet they mostly came away winners. “High risk; high reward,” succinctly put Almadro. “Especially Marck’s serve. There was only one time I got mad at him for the serves but never again even if he committed a lot of service errors. High risk; high reward.”

The Blue Spikers righted their ship and finished atop the league with an 11-3 record (tied with UST but Ateneo was ahead by quotient). Espejo was once more the league MVP and and Polvorosa the Best Setter.

It was a more confident Blue Eagle team that faced NU for the second consecutive year in the Finals. The Bulldogs were going for a three-peat but they knew they were in for a fight against a tougher and hungrier foe. They had to bring in all their championship experience as well as their unconventional weapons.

However, this time, the Blue Eagles didn’t respond to the taunts. “We agreed to all turn around and ignore them,” added Intal. “Doon sila (NU) kumukuha ng lakas kapag sumasagot yung kalaban. Kami? Puntos na lang at laro.”

The day after the huge game one victory over NU, the team talked about not letting their foe take a game. “Hindi pa tapos ‘to,” reminded Almadro before sending his wards home into the night. “We have unfinished business.”

That night, over a Japanese food dinner and on the cusp of a championship, he ruminated. “I learned that you have to do things the right way and for the right reasons. I think I changed as a coach through the years. I learned my volleyball coaching basics from (La Salle head coach) Ramil De Jesus. I learned on my own as well. And now from Coach Tai. May kasabihan nga na “good things come to those who wait.” When I first coached Ateneo, I was so happy to be here. I talked about creating something historic for the school and then nawala. Nandito ako ulit and parang homecoming to. Naalala ko lahat ng mga player ko rito. A championship will complete the journey will started. Para rin sa kanila yan.”

As Rex Intal put away championship point (for the school's first major men's volleyball title since 1976) and blue bedlam erupted, Almadro sat down. That was the only time he did so during the entire game. Upon the prodding of supporters, he finally stood up to join the celebration and then cried.

The historic journey – interrupted for a spell but eventually back on track – was accomplished.


Additional reading: Ateneo Men's Volleyball Team: The Way We Were

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