Up and down the hill with Alyssa Valdez

Rick Olivares - Philstar.com

MANILA, Philippines – There are anywhere between three to six games left for Alyssa Valdez in Ateneo blue and white at the UAAP.

“I don’t want to think about it,” she says.

Except she does.

Six years ago, when the choice for where to go for college came up, she elected to stay at the University of Santo Tomas. Her parents on the other hand, wanted her to go to Ateneo. “There were only two choices for me,” she recounts. That’s UST and Ateneo. I only took two entrance exams for college. For Ateneo, I wondered, ‘kaya ko ba diyan?’ Why not, di ba? Who doesn’t want to go? But I wanted to stay in UST because it was my comfort zone. It was the only place I knew in my time in Manila.”

There were quite a few arguments between parents and daughter, however, that changed on a trip to Blue Eagle Gym to meet the Fab Four of Fille Cainglet, Jem Ferrer, Dzi Gervacio, and Gretchen Ho. She had played against them and with them yet she never truly knew them. However on that visit, the four Ateneo players, going on their junior year, made her feel truly welcome. “I didn’t know anyone but sila Fille did to a certain way. Ateneo is different from what I was used to in UST pagpasok pa lang sa campus. So immediately, I looked for that comfort zone. And I found it in the volleyball team that also helped me adjust to life at the Ateneo.”

Six years later — and Valdez sometimes has to pinch herself to realize that time has truly passed — she’s a veteran in the team. “I got old,” she protests at the “old” 23-years of age.

Of course, Alyssa means that in a volleyball sense. Middle hitter Amy Ahomiro is the only left from that journey she took when she entered Ateneo in 2010. Ella De Jesus was the other but she’s done playing in the UAAP. Ahomiro stayed behind a year because of an injury while Valdez had to sit out a year because of the residency rules in place at that time. “It worked out for the best,” she points out with that winsome smile.

“I got to play with the Fab Four. we won a couple of V-League championships and now, two UAAP championships. I got to play with my teammates on the national team. Ngayon, lumalaban pa tayo for a third championship. Grabe yung experience. Minsan hindi ako makapaniwala sa lahat ng ito,” she tells. 

However, the two-time defending champions Ateneo Lady Eagles are under siege. The aura of invincibility has been stripped by virtue of those horrific and painful back-to-back losses to La Salle and UP. The Lady Spikers are dangerous and they can win it all. The FEU Lady Tamaraws are flush with confidence and are peaking at the right time. The UP Lady Maroons are deep and talented. 

In Season 76, they were just happy to be there (although it was for the third consecutive year with not much expectations). In Season 77, they were happy happy. This season — as Ateneo alumnus Mhel Garrido said, "happy pero hapitan na."

It has been the most challenging for Valdez and her teammates. It seems extended with the change in the scholastic calendar this Season 78. In seasons past, they’d be resting at this time like everyone else. But they’re right at the door of the semifinals. It hasn’t helped that some of their battle-tested veterans are gone — Denden Lazaro, Ella, Mich Morente, and Bea Tan. And there’s that season-ending injury to Maddie Madayag that hurt the rotation. Furthermore, the entire UAAP league that has leveled up. 

Two-a-day practices seem now common for other teams that have really worked on their conditioning. And that backrow attack (that was taught to her by Roger Gorayeb) that the Lady Eagles have used quite a lot in the past few years, well, now everyone seems to be doing them.

After those consecutive losses, there wasn’t much time to dwell on them either except for that moment. “There’s always that next killer practice, school, and other things. You just do what you have to do for the moment and move on,” Alyssa explains.

There are the expectations of being a defending champion and there’s that workload in school that never seems to ease up. There too is that status of being the face of the game of volleyball -- she protests this though and says that there are many others too who are doing their part to make the sport popular -- that has grown by leaps and bounds in the past few years. And because of that, there's that commitment of trying to uphold being a role model with a bevy of commercial endorsements. 

With all of this, one wonders, is there a burden to this young girl? Everyone seems to want a piece of her and her time.

“I don’t think it is a burden,” she dispels. “It’s a blessing. Sometimes, I think that people forget that I am still young and trying to process a lot of things. I wish I can say the right things all the time or even do the right things. I wish I can block out all emotions and do something else right away. I’m really an introvert so it isn’t easy.”

She wishes she could accommodate every request for a picture, a fan sign, a selfie, an interview, an appearance or whatever. Except it isn’t humanly possible. But she tries.

“When you hear the stories of the fans, you have to reach inside and give it more. I wish I could. During games, I focus and zone out. I don’t want anyone to think I am ignoring them. It’s just that I am trying to focus on what I need to do.”

“It’s strange,” she admits. “Sometimes, I think it’s crazy when all I do is hit a volleyball. But if I can brighten up a person’s day or give them a reason to smile and be happy then okay na sa akin. I wish I could do more though."

Valdez cites the story of a mother who lost her daughter at a young age. While channel surfing one time, the mother came across a Lady Eagles match. The mother thought of her lost daughter who played volleyball and she gravitated towards Valdez and her teammates to cope with her loss. As much as possible, the mother never misses a match. 

There’s this person who has to find extra work like do the laundry in order to buy a match ticket. And this person has to make that long commute as well. 

There’s Alyfinity, that massive booster group that never fails to make her smile. “Those people,” points out Alyssa. “are incredible. It’s such a nice feeling to have them cheering for you from Manila to Singapore (where many of them traveled for the Southeast Asian Games to watch the national team of which Alyssa was a member).” 

As the seemingly interminable season winds down, Alyssa hopes that she can go out and win one more. “The team and I will give it our best. We don’t know what will happen. All we can try to do is get ready and play hard.”

It’s a moment where the young girl is struggling to express herself. She pauses and reflects. I get the sense that she is processing things.

“I think my Philosophy and Theology subjects have really helped me get through my life in Ateneo. Sometimes, I can only understand things after it’s done. But it helps. Who would have thought me, a young girl from Batangas would survive Ateneo? It’s really hard. You try to balance playing and studying. Tapos yung expectations every time you wear the jersey. But no regrets.”

Six years ago, Alyssa Valdez left her comfort zone in UST for Ateneo. “I was still not sure even during my first year. I told my parents, ‘Sige, subukan natin yung Ateneo. Kung hindi ko gusto eh bahala na kung saan tayo pupunta.’ Now, I’m almost done with school. I’m almost done with my UAAP career. When I went to UST, hindi ko love yung volleyball. I grew to love the sport. Now, it’s also my life. Ganun din for Ateneo. I love everything about the school, the community, my teammates and coaches, the campus. And I can’t imagine myself not wearing the blue and white… Ateneo has become my comfort zone.”

After allowing herself a moment of reflection and revelation, she pulls back. “I don’t want to think about that now because I might cry.”

“Focus muna. We have a championship to defend."

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