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 15, 2015

The pursuit of Happyness and Perfection: The Ateneo Lady Eagles win their second straight title

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The pursuit of Happyness and Perfection
The Ateneo Lady Eagles win their second straight title
story and pics by rick olivares

The score was 12-9 for La Salle in the third set when Cyd Demecillio served. As the Ateneo Lady Eagles received the ball, the initial attack was blocked but kept alive by the girls in blue. Jia Morado tossed the ball in the middle and it appeared that Bea De Leon was going to smash it home.

“Backline!” yelled La Salle head coach Ramil De Jesus.

The warning was too late. De Leon ducked and Alyssa Valdez took off for a thunderous strike from the back row. Boom!

Ateneo head coach Anusorn Bundit punched the air.

When ‘Tai’ Bundit first took over the Ateneo women’s volleyball team two years ago, school officials asked him how he rated the team. Tai didn’t mince his words. “Ateneo players – five. La Salle players – seven. Alyssa Valdez – eight.”

In the relentless pursuit of perfection, it must be an exhilarating feeling to have Philippine college volleyball’s most devastating weapon.

“Not yet. In time.”

Cut to today. The pursuit by Bundit’s volleybelles resulted in back-to-back championships with the latest seeing the girls go undefeated, 16-0. Perfect.

Two days before Game Two, a reporter asked Coach Tai if the La Salle Lady Spikers will go down in three sets. He vociferously waved his hands to signify no.

Bundit preferred not to predict anything.

“If you say we win in three sets, if our opponent wins one set, then you get frustrated. When you get frustrated you forget your game plan. When you forget your game plan then you lose.”

In the pursuit of perfection, one must realize his limitations. And be humble.

Spoken like a true Mr. Miyagi or Zen Master. Or even a prophet.

True enough, mustering the pride of champions past, the DLSU Lady Spikers gave Ateneo a taste of its own medicine with powerful serves that they were unable to receive well. In doing so, it blunted the Lady Eagles’ attack. The three-time champions were much more composed and better defensively.

Desiree Cheng bounced back from a poor Game One with better receiving and strong attacks. Dawn Macandili who likewise was the target of Ateneo’s serves had a better outing than Ateneo counterpart Denden Lazaro who was wobbly at some point.

In Game One, it was Ella De Jesus who got Ateneo out of its collective funk. This time, it was Michelle Morente whose booming serves and huge spikes that vaulted her team ahead.

Yet even in the face of La Salle’s strong stand, the Lady Eagles remained calm and composed. Even after consecutive serving errors, Bundit said nothing and merely exchanged fist bumps with his players.

With La Salle leading, 19-18 in that same first set, Morente fired an ace to level the game. Another strong serve and La Salle sent a weak shot across the net that Amy Ahomiro scored on a check ball. Another strong Morente serve that could not be converted for a strong attack and Ella De Jesus put it away. Michelle’s next serve was another ace that made it 22-19. Her fifth serve and Ateneo had another free ball that Valdez used to punch through the block, 23-19. Like De Jesus in set one of the first game, Morente served for a sixth consecutive time. And like De Jesus as well, fired the ball out.

No matter. Ateneo had finally gotten going. With La Salle tried to forge a 24-all score, Alyssa Valdez hammered it home to give Ateneo the first set.

“Breathe,” calmed Bundit.

La Salle badly needed to take the first set but the Lady Eagles held fast.

There are some who derisively call the Ateneo team as “Alyssa Valdez and nothing else.”

Every team has it’s go-to player. National University has Jaja Santiago. La Salle has Ara Galang. UST has EJ Laure. It is preposterous to say that Santiago can win it alone. Ditto with Galang and Laure. It is the same with Ateneo. That is why Denden Lazaro has received digging and receiving awards two years running. Jem Ferrer was the Best Setter three years ago. This year, Jia Morado was named Best Setter as well. If Bea De Leon wasn’t sidelined for a couple of games, who knows, maybe she could have bagged the Rookie of the Year Award. And “Kiwi” Amy Ahomiro who in years past struggled with consecutive knee injuries that severely curtailed her confidence and playing time was named this Finals’ MVP. So it’s a team. In fact, Morente was so good that the equally terrific Jhoanna Maraguinot couldn’t get in the game.

Perhaps more than any season, the Lady Eagles showed their evolution as a team. In Game Two, Valdez scored her usual 20 points but three others added 10 points each – Morente, De Leon, and Ahomiro (in stark contrast, La Salle didn’t have anyone in double digit scoring). There were stretches where De Leon scored several consecutive points. Ditto with Ahomiro. And in the third and last set, it was Jia Morado who scored the last two points, all on drop shots (after a pair of excellent digs by De Jesus) that were predicated on guile.

Just when it seemed that Ateneo would take the third and final set running away at 21-17, La Salle showed its verve by coming within a point of leveling the count and possibly extending the game, 23-22.

If one noticed it, Coach Tai didn’t called for any time out in the third set. There were two technical timeouts and La Salle burning one of their own after Ateneo made it, 21-17. Not even with the score at 23-22.

“They know what to do,” later explained Bundit. “They are ready.”

“We never thought about winning championships,” explained De Jesus. “We took it literally game by game. We had modest goals – to win one game at a time. We never thought, wow, we are undefeated. Coach Tai would have none of it. A sweep doesn’t guarantee a championship. I think La Salle knows that. We have to work for every game. Laro lang. Do our best. But now with a chance to win it, you bet will give it our best.”

Two Julia Morado virtuoso points later, Ateneo was the best UAAP volleyball team once more.

As white confetti rained courtside as the Lady Eagles and their supporters celebrated another championship, Denden Lazaro wept. It was a mixture of tears of joy and sadness. It was her last college game along with Aeriel Patnongon and Ella De Jesus. In the middle of the bedlam, Bundit found her. The two embraced. “For the past five years, I went to school with my teammates,” ruminated Lazaro on the eve of the Finals right before practice. “I saw them every day for practice and they have become a part of my life. And now it’s going to be all over. I mean we’re all going in different directions after this. I am not sure if I am going to medical school or if I will play in the PSL (Philippine Super Liga). Some of my other teammates are graduating too. Some are staying in school. But we have established a bond that can never be broken. Even years from now, if and when we do have reunions, this will be our happy moment.”

“Are you happy?” asked the Thai coach in the middle of all the on-court celebrations.

“Yes! Yes!” cried his prized libero.

“At the start of the season, we still couldn’t believe we were champions,” revealed Alyssa Valdez. “It’s only starting to sink in now.”

How about the back-to-back title?

“Maybe next year it will sink in?”

When I asked Coach Tai what he now thought of Valdez -- back-to-back MVP awardee -- he gladly pronounced,  "Perfect."

A second successive championship; this time via an immaculate 16-0 slate and a league record -- it was the perfect way to end the season and for some, their college days.


Additional reading (CLICK ON THE LINK): Ateneo makes history by the numbers

Ella De Jesus: Standing Tall with the Ateneo Lady Eagles

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