|The young girl hoping to attract Alyssa Valdez' attention goes unnoticed. She is near tears. Alyssa's father Ruel is directly in front of her while Joe De Jesus and myself are across her. We both notice her plight.|
This appears in the Monday, March 23, 2015 edition of the Business Mirror.
by rick olivares
The young girl managed to squeeze her way to the front of the crowd that was gathered around the Ateneo Women’s Volleyball Team tent during the bonfire celebration last Saturday night.
The firewood was lit. The program was over and the Lady Eagles made their way to the tent for some food. A phalanx of security men surrounded the reigning two-time UAAP Most Valuable Player Alyssa Valdez as fans – four or five deep – swarmed around looking to get an autograph and a picture, and if possible, both.
The young girl was pushed aside by others who jostled for a better position. “Alyssa,” she called out but her voice was drowned out by the cacophony of fan delirium as well as the music of Sponge Cola that reverberated from the massive sound system around the Ateneo Grade School parking lot. “Alyssa,” she repeated.
She was in near tears.
“Hi. Kain lang ako ng sandali,” Valdez apologized to the crowd before she plopped down on a chair. The phenom wiped the sweat off her brow then looked at the barbecue, grilled hotdogs, turon, and other finger food set on the table. She nibbled a bit, decided she had enough then stood up to attend to the fans held back by the cordon sanitaire.
Choy Cojuangco, businessman and a former Ateneo Men’s Volleyball player who was part of the last two-peat during the school’s stint in the NCAA had returned to the game; both with Ateneo and the V-League. He watched the madness with keen eyes. Looking lithe and fit even after all these years, Cojuangco, smiled and declared, “This is amazing.”
It is an understatement.
In 1975, Ateneo celebrated a rare treble with championships in the men’s, women’s, and boy’s divisions. “There was some buzz around the campus then,” recalled Cojuangco who was also a varsity player with the Ateneo High School. “After all, we were a part of something historic. But you didn’t really take in the magnitude of the achievement. In fact, I didn’t attend the bonfire because I had to study for the finals.”
Jimmy Javier, younger brother of Danny of the APO Hiking Society who once worked at the Philippine Senate and as a sportscaster and is now a professional photographer, recalled those days: “I was captain with now Budget Secretary Butch Abad as co-captain. Louie Gepuela (who once coached Ateneo and Miriam College) was the setter backed up by Butch and Rasty Rastrullo. Also on those champion teams were Choy Cojuangco, Kokok Aquino, Boy Ramos, Eddie Apacible, Levi Encinas, George Price, Andy Nañagas, and Ging Ruedas. Levi was a hitter and libero on defense. The late Pitong Custodio was our coach.”
“When we won the first championship, we had done so ahead of the men's senior basketball squad (their own finals wasn’t finished). During the bonfire to celebrate the twin championships, with a pile of wood ready for a bonfire, we were asked to go up to makeshift stage fronting the then track oval across the Loyola Center (now called the Blue Eagle Gym). I was asked to say a few words. I went up to the microphone, paused a bit, and said 'Thank you.' After a short pause, I went down and joined my team. No frills.”
There was a time when the only bonfire was exclusively celebrated when the men’s basketball team won a championship. That was broken in 2006 when the men’s football team nailed a historic three-peat with the tail end won at the expense of La Salle. In 2014, another bonfire was held, this time to celebrate the exploits of teams from women’s volleyball and men’s baseball among others.
Now it is an annual end of the season rite, as promised by University President Jett Villarin, S.J. three years ago.
As the women’s team was called to the stage as the headliners of the 2015 bonfire, a collective shriek went up and fans rushed towards the stage. Lady Eaglemania was on full display. Ruel Valdez, the phenom’s father, struggled to fight back the tears as he received a friendly ribbing from Joe De Jesus, father of Ella, the volleybelles’ graduating open spiker. “Grabe, no? Galeng,” said Mr. De Jesus. The elder Valdez wiped his eyes.
Elmer De Leon is from La Salle. As is his wife, Det, and their son. His daughter, Bea, was earmarked for the Lady Spikers to replace their sainted captain Aby Maraño in the middle. Several years ago, through Poveda coaches Rubie De Leon and Angeli Tabaquero, former Ateneo coach Roger Gorayeb received a tip about Bea. Entreaties were made about her moving to Loyola Heights. Yet, she practiced with the Lady Spikers. As fate would have it, she eventually practiced some with the Lady Eagles. One time, while waiting outside Blue Eagle Gym for her ride home, Alyssa Valdez and Denden Lazaro kept her company. Bea thought it a nice gesture. Her mother relates that it was a turning point – the good vibes she felt with the team – aside from the convenience (she lives in Loyola Grand Villas) and her passing the Ateneo College Entrance Test (her father said if she passed then she would go to Ateneo if not elsewhere).
“No regrets,” Bea’s mother admitted. “We love how we have been embraced in the community. It is better than anything we expected.”
The De Leons aren’t the only family with a green pedigree to have an offspring in blue. The baseball playing Laurels were in attendance. Several years ago, Matt Laurel finally moved to Ateneo after a failed recruiting pitch following graduation from La Salle Greenhills. Matt briefly went to UP before transferring to the east end of Katipunan. When Matt helped the Ateneo Baseball Team win its first UAAP title in 2013, his father, sportsman Arsenic Laurel, wrote Ateneo officials thanking them for helping mold his son not only into a sports champion but also in his academics of which he has done quite well.
In the days leading up to the bonfire, Matt who is also due to collect his diploma when he marches next week, promised, “I have to get my parents to attend. They have never been to one.”
Last Saturday night, the family was in attendance, and they all wore blue. “Thank you,” the elder Laurel beamed to everyone who shook his hand and wished him and his family well. “Thank you. This means a lot to me and my family.”
Last year, there were non-Atenean fans who were able to attend the bonfire. This year, some fan groups, like the larger and well-organized ALYfinity group, were given permission to attend; hence, the bigger turnout.
The young girl called out. Her voice was still drowned out. Noticing her plight, Joe De Jesus and myself called out to Ruel Valdez who was seated in front of the young girl, to help her get through the security line and for a photo op. The frown and tears quickly disappeared as she now patiently waited for her turn. And when Alyssa stood beside her for their own selfie, the young girl radiated with megawatt happiness. She smiled the smile of contentment and the opportunity to be next to her sporting idol. She waved to her mother and exulted, “I finally met her.”
The whole scene unfolded right in front of Cojuangco, some team sponsors, a few parents and school officials. “Incredible,” said a nonplussed Conjuangco who groped for the right words. “Incredible,” was the only thing he could say.
But Ruel Valdez did him one better as he referred to the young everyone helped to an all important and cherished selfie, “She is now ‘happy happy.”
|After several minutes, we call on Ruel Valdez who assists the young less in getting inside the cordon. She is now smiling.|
|The gleeful anticipation of meeting her sporting idol.|
|Patiently waiting for her turn as Alyssa is now next to her. I wasn't able to capture the final photo for their selfie as I was distracted from behind.|