There and back with Erika Dy and the Lady Eagles
by rick olivares
With about four seconds left in Game Two of the of the UAAP Women’s Basketball Finals, Ateneo Lady Eagles head coach Erika Dy crossed over to the victorious National University bench to shake hands with her counterparts.
She flashed that lovely smile of hers then went back to the Ateneo side of the court. Who knew if she was masking the pain of a loss? How was she taking it?
When Dy came over in 2000 as a freshman, she was that cartwheeling, finger pistol-shooting recruit out of De La Salle Zobel. Instead of moving laterally towards Taft, she instead, and much to the surprise of a lot of people, went to Loyola Heights.
"I really wanted to study in the Ateneo,” she admitted. "I was being recruited by La Salle but my first option was really Ateneo. Ateneo didn’t have a program back then pero I took my chances. I distinctly remember Sandy Arespacochaga talking to me during my senior year in high school. I participated in the Asean Youth Games and he was with the boys’ team. He found out that I was taking the ACET and he started talking to me about the culture of Ateneo as well as the basketball program for women’s that wasn’t so good. But he told me that with me walking in there might start something. I bought into that. And he still talks to me about that. That’s why I went to Ateneo.”
In her first year playing for Ateneo, the Lady Eagles finished 0-12 (at that time, NU didn’t field a women’s team). She never heard the end of it from her former Zobel teammates. “It was tough because we didn’t win at all and I was hearing from my friends in La Salle na hindi na lang dapat ako nag-Ateneo,” she shared. “But I stayed true to my beliefs that something good can come out of this. I knew that hindi ako magcha-champion sa Ateneo but maybe I can start something and eventually provide a path of which a championship can be built.”
Before the Erika Dy and the Lady Eagles could compete for a championship, they had to learn how to win.
During her second playing year, the Lady Eagles, now under John Flores, defeated defending champion Adamson in their first game of the season at the Lady Falcons’ own homecourt at San Marcelino in Manila. It was the first win in ages and they celebrated like they won a title. None of the girls wanted to change into their casual attire for school. In fact, they all went back to Loyola Heights still in their game uniforms. The all got down at Xavier Hall with the intent of having the student body look at them and ask if they had a game and if they had won.
“You can say that we wanted the attention,” laughed Dy at the memory.
The win wasn’t the last as the Lady Eagles went on to win a few more games that season and then they got really better in the next few years.
At one point, a couple of alumni showed up for a match prompting one Lady Eagle terse and sarcastic remark about people watching. Flores quickly riposted, “Eh, bakit nga naman may manonood sa inyo eh hindi kayo nananalo?"
Finally and with Flores still at the helm, they won two titles, in 2005 and 2007. However, with the graduation of the championship core as well as the sudden departure of Flores, the Lady Eagles slid back into the abyss.
"After continuing my studies in the States, when I came back, I made it a point to watch the games knowing that when I was playing walang nanonood sa amin. But after a bit, meron na nanonood sa amin. It was inspiring to give back in my own way."
"It came as a surprise when I was offered a coaching job,” she admitted. “Once more nagusap kami ni Sandy (Arespacochaga) and he convinced me to accept the job of coaching (the Lady Eagles finished 1-13 the year before she came on board as head coach). He said, ‘If there is anyone who knows how to bridge the losing years into the winning one it is you.’ So I once more bought into what he said and I was here.”
It was easier said than done.
If you ask her to describe her playing years in one word, she says it was “tough.” As for he coaching stint? “Tougher.”
She brought back on board Ron Camara to be her chief asisstant. Camara was Flores’ top assistant when Dy was playing. "We would compare the teams when I was playing and to what we have today. We saw similarities and differences and built on that."
"Ang mentality namin when I was playing was there was no where else to go but up. We wanted to prove to people that we were something in the UAAP. After yung team nila Peachy Cheng (the Lady Eagles’ star who led the team to a finals berth and starred for the national team in the mid-1980s), nawala rin yung women’s team then it made a comeback in 1995 na puro last place. This time around it is to bring back the glory days."
Another difference between those salad days and today was the support of the school. At that time, women’s sports weren’t big in Ateneo. Today, you have the emergence of the Women’s Volleyball Team that is paving the way for women’s teams.
"When the Women’s Basketball Team won in 05 and 07 there was more support,” shared Dy. “Today, scholarships are being given out so recruitment is easier. During my time, wala. All my four years in Ateneo walang scholarship. You also have more support with regards to facilities. Kahit ball boys, training opportunities, these are small things that do make a big deal."
The transition from playing to coaching wasn’t easy for Dy. "Ang na realize ko, the things I was good at were the most difficult ones to teach. For example, using ball screens that was something I was pretty good at. My players now, I spend 30 minutes easily teaching ball screens. I realize that I am not that detailed in teaching because it came naturally for me.”
Dy also drew on her experience working with the Supreme Court Administrator Midas Marquez whose management style was treating his employees not as workers but as friends. “That way, he got their loyalty and commitment to work to the best of their abilities. I applied the same to my team. Outside the court pagnakita mo kami naglalakad para kaming mag-barkada."
The team started to come together and during Season 77, the Lady Eagles finished 7-7 and nearly booked a Final Four slot but a loss to FEU prevented them from advancing.
“After the season, I wasn’t sure if (center) Danica Jose was coming back,” related Dy. “I told her that I will understand her not coming back but she assured me she was. I promised her that If she decided to comeback, I’d bring her to the finals. She was a prized recruit; someone you knew you could build a championship team around. If she finished her years at Ateneo wihtout a shot at a title parang pangit. After all her batch, this graduating batch of seniors were my first recruits as team manager. She was also an inspiration for me this year.”
This past season didn’t start out well as the Lady Eagles fell to a quick 0-2 hole.
“The night of the second loss, Danica called me up around 11pm and I had to go to Eastwood to talk to her. Start pa lang ng season and she was really down. I asked her, 'Do I look worried? I am not worried at all. I don’t know what God’s plans are for us. Whatever it is we have to keep playing and accept where we finish. Para wala na siyang gana nung and two games pa lang sabi ko sa kanya laro tayo ng laro. Not to give up. I understand very what that onne of the hardest things as a player is to fight back after a loss. When you’re down and going into the next game, down ka pa rin. Ang hirap makita na mananalo kayo. But you have to try."
Ateneo won its next game but unfortunately dropped the next two with the fourth loss to La Salle by one point.
"Di ko makalimutan yun. Hazel Yam was crying like a kid losing by one-point to our arch-rival. Masakit. Then we won three straight to make it an even 4-4 that left us tied for third. I thought at that point that we had settled down and tuloy tuloy na to. Instead, we lost the next three to drop to 4-7. Medyo nag-panic na ako. Baka hindi na umabot kahit Final Four, I thought. There was a two week break because of Undas. The following game was UE who is a contender; NU and La Salle were one and two respectively. Then there was UE, UST and us. If we lost to UE patay na talaga kami. we prepared for that game and the girls played really well and we won. If you assess the standings you will know we needed that game. So in some ways, that was the first of our do-or-die games. They came out fighting. Sabi ko lalaban 'to pag-push comes to shove na. This is not a team that will run away from big games. We lost to La Salle but UST and UE lost to UP. All we needed was to win versus Adamson to force a playoff. When we won against Adamson sunod sunod na."
"When we got into the finals versus La Salle, I hugged Danica and told her, ‘Ayan wala na akong utang sa yo.’”
Dy wasn’t the only one to get a word in edge-wise. Kat Quimpo, who had played on Ateneo’s '05 and ’07 champion teams and had also come on board as an assistant to Dy kidded her, “Ayan makaka-relate ka na sa amin.”
"I never got to play in the Finals,” laughed Dy. “When we got in, I teased our players, 'Ayoko na kayo i-coach buti pa kayo maglalaro sa finals ako hindi nakapaglaro.' I’d rather play than coach. There were a lot of times I wanted to put myself inside the game."
With the strong showing by defending champion National University, the talk around the league was everyone else was playing for second. The Lady Bulldogs had not dropped a match in two seasons thus far and they didn’t look like they were going to slow down anytime soon. “Even with the odds stacked against us, we went into the Finals playing to win.”
The Lady Eagles dove for lose balls, scrapped for every possession yet came up short in the Finals against a tough NU squad bannered by several national players. “I think that the Ateneo community is proud of us because even if we were outmatched, we kept fighting up to the very end and that is what people want, giving it that one big fight to the very end."
During the Thanksgiving Mass for the Lady Eagles, Fr. Kit Bautista, S.J. noted that this was the first time that he saw a second place team this happy.
Wondered Erika, "Did we lower our standards? Are we saying that we overachieved? Hindi naman sa ganon. We set our goals, we wanted to win a championship. We fell short of our goal but we are not ashamed. We fell short very graciously. I am happy not because we have the opportunity to play in the finals but the girls have something to look back on. Later on in life they will have challenges and they will look back at this journey and use their experience to deal with their own challenges.”
Game Two was Dy’s last match as head coach. She’s moving up to the University Athletics Office while John Flores, after spending several years coaching the La Salle Greenhills high school team, returns to the Lady Eagles’ bench. "Because of the movements in the athletics office, as early as March, I knew I was moving to another position. My first reaction was, ‘Ayaw niyo na ba ako mag-coach?' I felt that way at first. It turned out that they wanted me to do both. But I refused. I thought the girls deserved my full attention. If i wasn’t giving my 100% why would they?”
“When it was all over, I didn’t feel too bad. I think I am more nervous about moving into the position where now you look at how to help all the varsity teams. It’s a good challenge though."
When Erika Dy first came over to the Ateneo, the Lady Eagles weren’t winning. Although they didn’t win a championship during her four playing years, she left them in good shape and they eventually won two in three years’ time.
When she returned to Loyola Heights, first as a supporter in the stands and then as team manager and ultimately as head coach, the Lady Eagles weren’t winning either. She stepped down after guiding them to their first finals appearance since 2007.
Just as she did in 2004, Erika Dy is leaving the Lady Eagles in good hands.