Sweet second serving
It wasn’t exactly a perfect start to the season for the Arellano University Lady Chiefs in NCAA women’s volleyball. Playing in one of the tournament’s opening-day matches, they dropped a five-setter to the superstar-led San Sebastian Lady Stags.
And when the Lady Chiefs finally managed to nail a spot in the championship series, personal tragedy struck their beloved coach, threatening to get all their hard work undone.
Such was the mountain Arellano’s resilient crew had to climb before getting rewarded with a second NCAA title in three years last Tuesday—at the expense of the same Lady Stags, whom they needed to beat three straight times in the finals for the trophy.
Looking back, Arellano coach Obet Javier says that first-match defeat only strengthened the Lady Chiefs’ resolve to triumph in the face of adversities.
“That bothered us, and from then on we set a goal which is not to lose to the [Lady Stags] again,” says Javier, whose caregiver-wife died in Spain as the team prepared for the title series.
The heavily favored Lady Stags had everything going for them. They swept all their 10 games in the eliminations to land an automatic finals slot. And they were led by Grethcel Soltones, the tournament MVP of the last three seasons who was looking to cap her collegiate career with a first-ever title.
Also, San Sebastian was looking for redemption. After sweeping the eliminations the previous year, the Lady Stags came to grief by losing the same thrice-to-beat advantage to St. Benilde.
All the while this season, Arellano worked under the radar, winning all their next nine matches to quietly secure a semifinal berth. “What St. Benilde did last year was impressive,” says Javier. “I said to myself, there’s nothing wrong if we follow in its footsteps.”
The Lady Chiefs eventually did. They defeated the Lady Blazers in the stepladder semifinals to arrange a title duel with the undefeated Lady Stags.
“We never thought it possible to sweep San Sebastian in the finals,” says Javier. “They had high morale and the momentum. But during practice, I saw the players’ dedication. So I thought we might as well give it (sweep) a try.”
The Lady Chiefs handed the Lady Stags a 25-18, 25-20, 25-16 thrashing in Game 1 and prevailed again in a titanic five-setter in Game 2, 18-25, 25-16, 25-11, 26-28, 15-13. Then last Tuesday, they sounded the death knell for San Sebastian with a 25-15, 22-25, 25-23, 25-16 win.
Finally, everybody paid attention to the Lady Chiefs’ narrative, one that turned out to be far more dramatic and compelling than it looked.
All along, nobody knew that Javier’s wife Amy Marie, with whom he has a daughter, had died from lung cancer two weeks before Arellano’s title win. By Game 2, her remains had yet to be flown back to Manila.
“We never thought that coach was going through something,” says Arellano’s Finals MVP Jovielyn Prado. “He never showed it, he was very tough. So when we learned what happened, we used it as motivation to work very hard. We didn’t want him to worry about us.”
Javier realized that he had all his players behind him when they stepped up in the title series. “They told me that their motivation was to play their best for Tita Amy,” he says.
Pete Cayco, Arellano’s representative to the NCAA management committee and the acting president of the Larong Volleyball sa Pilipinas, says the victory meant a lot to the school.
“That is something big for us,” Cayco says. “We showed remarkable courage and strength to achieve our goal.”
Inevitably, the Lady Chiefs have drawn the attention of top commercial squads. Prado, Regine Arocha, Andrea Marzan and team captain Rialen Sante —all graduating this school year—are reportedly being eyed by Foton’s Serbian mentor, Moro Branislav.
For Javier, the win was something personal: “I know my wife was with me in every game. I know she was guiding me because I asked her to guide us. And I promised to win the championship for her.”
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