Delivering the good news

Sports Staff - The Philippine Star
Delivering the good news
Meggie Ochoa, Alex Eala, and Alyssa Valdez

Last of two parts

MANILA, Philippines — A gold rush in the Cambodia Southeast Asian Games during the hot and humid month of May provided another bright spot in the year that just came to a close.

And yet there were others who delivered the good news in the wonderful world of sports – from hard-hitting jiu-jitsu champions Meggie Ochoa, Annie Ramirez and Jenna Kaila Napolis to young tennis sensation Alex Eala. In team sports, you can’t miss Creamline’s remarkable title sweep in the PVL as well as the De La Salle Green Archers, San Beda Red Lions and UST Growling Tigresses, the kings and queens of college basketball.

It was truly a great year that ended with the promise of an even greater one up ahead as the Filipinos brace for the Paris Olympics, hoping to nail another gold – or golds – in sports’ grandest stage.

Here’s hoping for more in 2024.

6. Jiu-Jitsu Ladies Strike

While all eyes were glued to other sports, Philippine jiu-jitsu made quite a loud statement in a magnificent year highlighted by winning half of the country’s gold-medal harvest in the Asian Games.

The Philippines nabbed four Asiad golds in Hangzhou, China, with jiu-jitsu delivering two courtesy of seasoned bets Meggie Ochoa and Annie Ramirez.

At the jaws of adversity, Ochoa and Ramirez roared to a pair of glorious stints to add the Asiad supremacy to their growing treasure chests.

And it did not come on a silver platter.

Apart from an Olympic stint, the Asiad gold was the only medal left for the 33-year-old Ramirez to conquer after a first-round exit in her debut in 2018 in Indonesia.

It’s a fitting follow-up to Ramirez’ brilliance months before after also winning the gold in the Southeast Asian Games in Cambodia.

Overall, Ramirez has won it all with three golds in SEAG and a pair of golds in the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games and the Asian Beach Games. She’s a world champion, too.

Then there’s Ochoa, who needed to buck off a bevy of injuries to avenge her bronze-medal finish in Indonesia.

Fresh off a knee injury in the SEA Games finals that relegated her to a rare silver medal, Ochoa once again grimaced with a hip injury and the flu in the Asiad only to thrive and grapple against it all.

The Asiad gold now added glitter to Ochoa’s stacked resumé highlighted by two world titles, one Asian Jiu Jitsu Championships crown and two Southeast Asian Games golds.

Jenna Kaila Napolis, gold medalist in the World Combat Games in Riyadh, also won an Asiad bronze and a gold in the SEA Games.

An epitome of heart and resilience, Ramirez and Ochoa and the national jiu-jitsu team showed that the Philippines could stand toe-to-toe with the world’s best – against all odds.

7. College Hoops

With young kings leading the march, old houses regained their foothold in the collegiate realms.

Mentored by first-year head coach Topex Robinson, La Salle snapped a seven-year title drought in the UAAP as San Beda returned to the NCAA throne under the watch of sophomore tactician Yuri Escueta.

The two budding mentors stood their ground against seasoned counterparts in the University of the Philippines’ Goldwin Monteverde and Mapua’s Randy Alcantara, anchoring the Green Archers and the Red Lions to the top of the UAAP Season 86 and NCAA Season 99, respectively.

La Salle, which last ruled the UAAP in 2016, captured its 10th title while San Beda, after relinquishing the title to rival Letran for three consecutive seasons, returned to its rightful NCAA throne for a league-record 23rd title.

But it wasn’t a walk in the park.

The Green Archers absorbed a 97-67 shellacking in Game 1 for the UAAP’s most lopsided finals defeat in the Final Four era before pulling off a reverse sweep in the last two games, 82-60 and 73-69.

“Our players never gave up,” said team manager Terry Capistrano.

San Beda did the same feat, winning the last two games of the NCAA finals, 71-65 and 76-66, after a 63-68 loss in Game 1.

Starring for La Salle was Kevin Quiambao who captured both the UAAP Season MVP and Finals MVP awards as unheralded James Payosing rose to the occasion to hoist the NCAA Finals MVP for San Beda.

Clint Escamis was the NCAA Rookie of the Year-MVP.

Not to be left behind was the University of Santo Tomas Growling Tigresses, who regained the UAAP basketball queendom after 17 long years by unseating the mighty NU Lady Bulldogs from their seven-year reign.

The wards of coach Haydee Ong, led by Finals MVP Tantoy Ferrer, erased a 15-point deficit in Game 3 to escape with a thrilling 71-69 comeback win for their league-best 12th title.

They truly saved their best for last.

8. Créme De La Créme

Creamline’s emergence as the greatest Premier Volleyball League team of all time was crystal clear for all to see.

There was no secret to its success.

It was an open book that the wide-eyed Philippine volleyball fandom witnessed from the start as the Cool Smashers etched an indelible mark that made them the champion of champions bar none.

Just this December, Creamline had a magnificent 15-game title sweep of the PVL All-Filipino Conference that was capped by a two-game disposal of younger sister Choco Mucho in the finals that set a new attendance record of 19,157 at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.

It was the proud franchise’s seventh title and 13th straight podium finish that included three runner-up finishes and three third-place efforts.

This league of extraordinary gentle ladies never missed going home with a trophy since it joined six years ago.

And everyone knows Creamline did it the old-fashioned way – chemistry, familiarity with each other and collective team effort.

With the exception of a few new additions recently, the club has kept its core – Alyssa Valdez, Tots Carlos, Jema Galanza, Michele Gumabao, Pangs Panaga, Risa Sato, Kyle Negrito and Kyla Atienza.

Heroes came in abundance for this team.

9. Gold Rush in Cambodia

Team Philippines fielded a star-studded 840-strong delegation headed by the world-class Carlos Yulo, EJ Obiena, Nesthy Petecio, Carlo Paalam and Meggie Ochoa to the 32nd Southeast Asian Games in Cambodia.

The Pinoy and Pinay aces fought their Asean rivals tooth and nail and collected 58 gold medals, 85 silvers and 117 bronzes after two weeks of action in various fronts.

Serving as highlights were the six-gold, two-silver, four-bronze collection in arnis, the sweep of the four events – all in world record times – in obstacle course racing, Obiena’s SEAG mark-breaking triumph in pole vault, Yulo’s two-gold, two-silver collar in gymnastics and Gilas Pilipinas’ return-to-the-throne redemption in the sport Pinoys hold dearest – basketball.

It represented the country’s best overseas performance in the regional showpiece since 1987, when it captured 59 golds in Indonesia.

In the final count, Team Philippines wound up fifth overall with Vietnam (136-105-114), Thailand (108-96-108), Indonesia (87-80-109) and first-time host Cambodia (81-85-127) finishing ahead.

It was a one-rung downgrade from the No. 4 placing in the previous SEAG in Hanoi but POC president Abraham Tolentino considered it “a strong performance.”

“The medal haul will speak for itself,” said Tolentino, pointing out the fact that the team improved on the 52-mint, 70-silver, 105-bronze output last time.

The Gilas “Redeem Team” of coach Chot Reyes gave Filipinos the best possible ending to this remarkable SEAG campaign as it reclaimed the men’s basketball gold it infamously lost a year ago in Hanoi.

In the final, the Pinoys crushed import-flavored Cambodia, 80-69, overcoming the difficult playing conditions of the linoleum-covered flooring at the oven-hot Elephant Hall.

10. Eala on the Rise

The legend of Alex Eala just keeps on growing.

For the first time in her young career, the Filipina tennis sensation captured two titles and marched into the elite Top 200 of the women’s professional circuit.

Riding on a historic US Open junior championship, Eala sustained her drive this year by claiming her third and fourth pro crowns in Europe to further cement her status as the country’s best and one of the next big stars on Earth.

Eala reigned supreme in the W25 Yecla in Spain in June before ruling the W25 Roehampton in England two months after for a rare double-crown feat in her young career.

The 18-year-old wunderkind previously copped her first two mints in the W15 Manacor in Spain in 2021 and the W25 Chiang Rai in Thailand in 2022 to ignite her rise in the Women’s Tennis Association.

From No. 214 to start the year, Eala zoomed into the Top 200 and as high as No. 189 in October before settling to No. 190 to end her season – thanks to a bevy of commendable campaigns worldwide.

Aside from Spain and England, the budding star duked it out in the Australian Open, Thailand, Slovakia, United States, Switzerland, Portugal, Japan, Tunisia, France and Luxembourg.

Eala shone brightest outside the pro circuit, announcing a roaring Asian Games arrival in Hangzhou, China.

Carrying the Philippine flag, Eala notched two bronze medals to end the country’s 17-year medal drought in Asiad tennis since Cecil Mamiit’s two-bronze feat in the men’s singles and doubles.

She won her first bronze in women’s singles before teaming up with Philippine team veteran Francis Casey Alcantara in the mixed doubles.

Eala became the first Filipina to win an Asiad medal since Patricia Yngayo and Desideria Ampon clinched a doubles silver in 1966.

Many believe that she’ll do it again, and again, and again.

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