Taking stock of the Phenom
by rick olivares
I bumped into Ruel Valdez on my way inside the San Juan Arena to catch the Saturday afternoon V-League matches. I shook hands with the father of Ateneo’s wunderkind Alyssa Valdez. We had not seen each other since the bonfire that celebrated the Ateneo Lady Eagles’ second consecutive UAAP title last March so I asked him, “How long will he be in Manila?”
“Up to tomorrow,” he said, “I just came over to watch her play.”
And somehow, that thought stayed with me. I’ll get to that later.
I missed volleyball coverage from the U-23s to the SEA Games as I was busy handling the media duties for the Filoil Summer Basketball Tournament that coincided with the former and I was abroad during the latter. I had caught a few of the V-League matches on television but not on a consistent basis. That has to change, I told myself as I have closely covered the sport since 2006.
And so after a morning lecture/seminar for Psychology students at San Beda College, I went to the San Juan Arena.
I took down notes as I watched the UP Lady Maroons take on the Arellano University Lady Chiefs. Stuff I could use for another day, I told myself.
I wasn’t done jotting down my thoughts when fandemonium broke out. Yes, it is those thunderous cheers and shrieks. Alyssa just led the Lady Eagles on the floor. Of course, this isn’t the first time that I had seen an explosion of adoration for her or the team. I wondered when did I first ever hear something like this?
When Vince Hizon first played for the Blue Eagles in ’93. Yes, the girls and the gays and fans of the opposing team went wild when he took to the court.
Chris Tiu from 2003-08. And that carried on to the PBA. So that is pretty much incredible.
From the distaff side, there was Fille Cainglet. She drew a lot of cheers. In fact, I wrote an article about it after watching fans not only pack the Capiz Gym and the Filamer State University not only to the fourth floor but also pack scaffoldings and climb up light posts just to watch her play.
And there’s Alyssa. What hasn’t been said or photographed about the phenomenal response she gets every time she steps on the court. Heck, make it even off the court.
I came to take down notes about the Lady Eagles.
- When Coach Anusorn Bundit felt that Pamela Dungo was a far ways off from taking Denden Lazaro’s spot as libero, he switched to Ella De Jesus that was an inspired decision.
- With Jia Morado out and recuperating from a nagging injury, Bundit went to Gizelle Tan who has done a sparkling job that should serve her and the team well come the UAAP games.
- I conversed with Bea De Leon’s father, Elmer, about her U23 and national team experience (he says that it helped her gain more confidence as she felt challenged going up against taller players).
- I loved how Maddie Madayag showed her promise at the next and while serving.
- I think that Jhoanna Maraguinot is ready to take her game to the next level.
As I looked at how Bundit was trying to cover the holes from graduation, injuries, and academics, I found myself once drawn to Valdez.
Pundits — and there are a lot of them with some quite bitter — would say that without Valdez, the Lady Eagles are not a great team. They’ll be competitive but aren’t championship material.
Without a doubt she is the best player in the league and has been for three years running (maybe even four but that could be a stretch). While Joanna Maraguinot, Kim Gequillana, Amy Ahomiro, and the others showed what and how they could contribute to the team’s success, when the team was in need of a big point, they went to Valdez. Nothing wrong with that. If you had LeBron James on your team, you’d give him the ball first, second, and maybe as a third option. That’s how good the man is. When you need a goal, you look for Phil Younghusband. After all he is the Philippines’ all-time leading goalscorer.
That’s who they are — go-to players. Money in the bank. Impact players. Assassins in tank tops.
Except Valdez is like Chris Kyle of American Sniper fame. She could hurt you in so many ways - from an open position, from the backrow, from the middle spiker position, from her terrific serves, and well, her defense. With regards to the Kyle reference, watching her sky for those backrow attacks, man, I could watch that over and over. It’s enemy death from above and from a distance.
What started out as my jotting down notes about the team, became a paean to Valdez. And I remembered.
It is her last year to play for the blue and white. After the V-League, they probably might play in another tournament before the UAAP. Even so, it isn’t like she is going away. She’ll play commercial ball, for the national team, maybe do some corporate stuff here and there. But this is her last year in blue and white barring her playing as a “guest” for the Ateneo team in the V-League.
Watching topshelf players like her — it is so easy to run out of superlatives. One game alone and you’re out of adjectives. Such are the challenges of a sportswriter.
Athletes like her don’t come around too often. And she will go down in Ateneo history as one of the best student-athletes ever recruited — not counting the homegrowns here — to ever go to Loyola Heights in the UAAP era.
You can make a case for Eric Reyes being the first, Magnum Membrere and LA Tenorio next, Chris Tiu, Mike Mendoza (track and field), the Fab Four (volleyball), Matt Laurel (baseball), Greg Slaughter, and then Valdez (you can now add Marck Espejo to my list).
So I sat mesmerized, enjoying myself in a volleyball game where even the TIP fans cheered with genuine gusto and delight despite their Lady Engineers getting walloped in three straight sets. And I enjoyed watching her mix up her attacks. Waiting for the game to come to her rather than force the issue. I watched her for the nth time strap this team on her back and keep the Lady Eagles undefeated in V-League play.
As everyone made their way out, I briefly chatted with fellow Ateneans MG Ebro and Thor Lim about the team, sports, surfing, and life in general. Somewhere in the conversation, Alyssa Valdez was brought up again.
Yes, she has that uncanny knack of finding her way in there. For a point, a win, or another reason why we should keep watching her.