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Lady Eagles serve up a timeless lesson about heart

MANILA, Philippines – You’ve heard how kids say the darndest things. Well, how about a group of teenage girls and young adults teaching us some of the most incredible things. You know… like believing, not giving up, and snatching victory from the jaws of defeat in a game for the ages.

You can be forgiven for thinking that the Ateneo Lady Eagles were dead in the water after they fell behind two sets to none and La Salle ready to wrap this up for their ninth UAAP Women’s Volleyball championship. After all, they coughed up a huge three-point lead late in the second set and La Salle looked imperious in the early goings of the third set.

Yet come back they did. They reached deep into that reservoir of hope they call “Heartstrong” for a massive comeback win in five sets that not only evened the series at a match apiece but could have possibly reversed the tide against a very good and frightening volleyball machine.

READ: 3-time MVP Valdez takes over as Ateneo forces decider

However this series ends, these Lady Eagles will have served up another lesson in that creed that all who went to the Ateneo hold dear — giving it that One Big Fight. Game One lacked it but they sure made up for it in this match.

As for this Lady Eagles squad of Anusorn Bundit… they seem to make a knack out of comebacks. They pretty much wrote the book on that in that daydream miracle of a Season 76. This season, where they are, their record aside, is incredible considering who they’ve lost by the wayside.

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They were supposed to have Michelle Morente, Kat Tolentino and Maddie Madayag.

Mich was knocked out because of academics. Kat was lost during the V-League to a knee injury. Maddie… well, you all know what happened to her. During the aforementioned V-League, they had Gizelle Tan playing setter while Ella De Jesus plugged the huge hole left behind by libero par excellance, Denden Lazaro. That role was supposed to go to heir apparent Pam Dungo. Except she showed up before the season way out of shape. Now Gizelle, without even a pre-season to aptly learn the ropes on a position she’s not even the best at, is holding her own.

So how’s that for a bad hand? In spite of that look at where they are.

And speaking of bad hands, one game and two sets down… Ara Galang was pounding away, Mika Reyes was staring everyone down, Kim Fajardo was conducting a symphony of destruction, Kim Dy was finding holes in the Ateneo wall… They were doing everything right and scoring on incredible shots. In short, it was bleak.

But there was that sliver of hope.

I said this during the first game of the Season 76 Finals and I mentioned it again during the second round match this Season 78 — La Salle had a chance to bury the Lady Eagles but they didn’t.

This Game Two, Ateneo finished that first set strong. The Lady Eagles should have won the second set but hitting errors hurt them. But they were slowly finding their groove, like a diesel engine. And then they turned the heat on La Salle.

In an incandescent performance, Alyssa Valdez, on the day she was crowned the league’s Most Valuable Player for the third straight year, carried her team in true Jordanesque fashion -- doing something, anything, and everything. She played defense, served some mean ones, killed that ball dead, scored on those incredible backrow attacks, and perhaps more importantly, pulled her teammates together during huddles. That is why she has this massive following and is the game’s face. She brings it like no one else. Those 34 points? I will paraphrase former Utah Jazz head coach Jerry Sloan who after his team was skewered by Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls 96-54 in Game 3 of the 1998 NBA Finals, “I thought she scored 134 points.”

Sometimes, newly crowned MVPs play bad on coronation day. No such luck for La Salle. Valdez was Jordanesque.

Following her lead, Jia Morado, injury and all, battled the game’s best in Kim Fajardo. In spite of her youth, you know she’s special. And she finished with 70 excellent sets.

And the rest of the team like Jhoana Maraguinot, Bea De Leon, Amy Ahomiro and Kim Gequillana did their part chipping in here and there. Even Therese Gaston made good in her cameo appearance.

Now, the Lady Eagles are in a good position to win it for a third straight year.

Once more, however this championship series ends, the Lady Eagles should give us pause to be thankful for their incredible efforts that have resulted in great victories, historic championships, and stories we will revisit forever in our lifetime and maybe the next. They’ve brought pride and restored it some. Plus, they’ve fought that One Big Fight.

And that is all Ateneans and their supporters ever ask of them.

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