Ateneo’s title run for the books

Joaquin M. Henson (The Philippine Star) - March 19, 2014 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - There were many things that made Ateneo’s triumph in the UAAP senior women’s volleyball championships a feat destined to happen. The Lady Eagles weren’t even supposed to advance to the finals yet clawed their way through six straight do-or-die playoff games to capture their first-ever trophy. In the process, 5-9 Alyssa Valdez became the first player in history to gain MVP honors in both the regular season and finals.


The journey also meant breaking three-time defending champion La Salle’s 30-game winning streak and the Lady Spikers’ stranglehold on the throne.

 Behind Ateneo’s almost miraculous survival was the chief architect of the varsity’s rise to the top, team manager Tony Boy Liao who never studied at Loyola Heights, graduated at La Salle Green Hills high school and played the same role in engineering the Lady Spikers’ three-peat from 2003-04 to 2005-06. Liao, 57, was invited by his good friend and now Ateneo sports director Ricky Palou to take over the Lady Eagles six years ago. Liao and Palou share a passion for the sport with a long involvement in the Philippine Amateur Volleyball Association and the Shakey’s V League. Liao, in fact, has been the Shakey’s V League commissioner since its start 10 years ago and is a former PAVA vice president and a member of the Asian Beach Volleyball Council.

Liao went to San Beda and St. Jude for elementary then moved to La Salle Green Hills where he was with the aspirants volleyball B squad. He transferred to UST for college, played a year of varsity volleyball then helped out in managing the team as a student. Liao finished with an economics degree in 1979. His love for volleyball took him to different countries and in 1993, he befriended Thai national player Anusorn (Tai) Bundit, a setter, at the Southeast Asian Games. Liao kept in close contact with Bundit through the years, following his career into his retirement as a player to become part of the coaching pool for the Thailand Volleyball Association’s player development program.

“When Ricky asked me to join the Ateneo team, I told him I want to compete, not just participate,” said Liao. “Our first coach was Ron Dulay then we brought in Roger Gorayeb. We set a five-year timetable. Before, we were content to finish No. 7 or No. 8 but when things got going, we made it a habit to qualify for the Final Four. But the last two years, we were bridesmaids, losing to La Salle in the finals. When Roger went back to San Sebastian, our assistant coach Parley Tupaz took over. But during training last May, we thought the team wasn’t taking off, we were soft. We wanted a top-caliber coach but the best candidates were already employed with other teams. So I thought of Tai. I flew to Bangkok to meet him. He asked what level I wanted him to coach and I told him it was a build-up team, inexperienced but with a lot of promise. He agreed to come for a month and if we didn’t want him, he would go right back to Bangkok. So last August, he arrived. From once a day practice, we went to twice a day from 5-8 a.m. and from 5 to 8 p.m. Monday to Sunday. Nobody complained. To gain experience, we brought the team to Bangkok to play top Thai collegiate squads. It was a toughening experience. Tai told me it would be difficult to win the championship this year but next year, our chances will be better.”

Bundit, 47, brought positive vibes to the team. “To him, it wasn’t just one big fight, it was also be happy, united and heartstrong,” said Liao. “Heartstrong was his term for ‘lakas ng loob.’ He knows little English and communicates in volleyball terms. I speak a little Thai so I try to interpret. Sometimes, I consult my dictionary to make sure I get him right. He introduced the team to meditation, to relax, to take away the pressure. Before training, after training, in between sets, he asks the players to sit down, close their eyes and focus. He’s big on physical training because in the collegiate level, he feels stamina and power are crucial. That’s why we were able to win six five-setters. Volleyball requires a lot of quick reaction, sharp reflexes and alertness so Tai worked on physical and mental conditioning. He told the girls if you believe you can win, you will win. And to relieve the pressure during matches, he would do a jig on the sidelines. He always reminded the players if we lose, don’t cry, don’t pout, just smile because there’s nothing to be ashamed of if you do your best.”

Bundit, who is married with three children including twin daughters, left for Bangkok last Monday. Liao said they didn’t talk about a bonus. “He’s not after money, he came to help Philippine volleyball, that’s all,” said Liao. “We paid him $3,000 a month, a trip back home every month, free food and dorm. I’ll have to talk to his bosses in Thailand to allow him to coach Ateneo again. He wants to come back. He loves it here. In Thailand, he told me crowds for volleyball are only 6, 000 to 8,000 so when we played before 17,000 and 18,000 and 21,000, he was overwhelmed. I’ll try to bring him back late April so he can begin training our new recruits.”

Liao said Ateneo had nothing to lose in the finals and the pressure told on La Salle. “Nobody expected us to play in the finals,” he said. “No pressure on us, we just played our game. After we won Game 1, I thought we wouldn’t win another. Then, La Salle won Game 2 and I felt at least there’s one more game. When we won Game 3, that’s when I opened up to the girls. I told them no team had beaten La Salle all season long except us and we’d beaten them twice, so why not thrice? Maybe, La Salle was overconfident and complacent at the start and you can’t blame them for thinking they’re invincible. They beat us easily in straight sets in two matches during the eliminations. But the pressure of getting the four-peat was heavy. With us, if we lost, fine, no problem.”

Liao said he had mixed emotions at the start of the finals. “Of course, I wanted our team to win but I also wanted La Salle to get the four-peat because when I was their manager, we had a three-peat then we were suspended for a year so that broke the streak,” he said. “This was their chance to do it.  But now, I’m with Ateneo and my commitment is with the school. Ricky put me in charge of the team, recruiting, finding the right coach, everything. I’m on my seventh year with Ateneo and finally, we broke through. I still can’t believe we did it.”

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