Editor’s Note: As the decade draws to a close, FOX Sports Philippines relive the moments that defined volleyball in the country.
From classic rivalries to player highlights, volleyball in the 2010s is definitely one for the books — a chapter in the sports that will be remembered in the next decade and, most probably, the decade after that.
This article is part of FOX Sports PH’s Defining the 2010s series.
A decade ago, Ateneo de Manila University was not among the volleyball elites in the UAAP despite its modest success in the NCAA. Traditionally, Far Eastern University, University of Sto. Tomas and De La Salle University were the powerhouse teams in the league.
But this has changed for the past 10 years.
Now, Ateneo’s volleyball program, both in women’s and men’s, is tipped as one of the strongest in the UAAP.
The Blue Eagles, whose best performance prior to the 2010s was their Finals appearance in Season 44, collected three straight championships from Season 77 to 79 — the only three-peat feat this decade in the men’s division.
The Lady Eagles coveted three titles as well: in Season 76 (where they made a Cinderella run en route to first UAAP championship), in Season 77 (highlighted by a 16-0 tournament sweep) and in Season 81.
It was, for Ateneo, a golden age in volleyball.
And if there are two players who made all of these possible for the Katipunan squads, it would be Alyssa Valdez and Marck Espejo.
Prior to her arrival to the Eagles’ nest, Valdez was already heralded in the junior ranks. A Palarong Pambansa standout and a multi-titled UAAP junior’s division awardee, Valdez was arguably the class valedictorian of her batch.
At the time, the Lady Eagles were leaning on the FAB5, a quintet composed of Fille Cainglet, Jem Ferrer, Dzi Gervacio, Gretchen Ho and Ailysee Nacachi. While already doing well in the UAAP having reached the semifinals of Seasons 72 and 73, Valdez’ arrival in Season 74 further bolstered the team’s campaigns in the next five years.
With Valdez carrying the bulk, Ateneo reached the finals of the UAAP for the first time in Season 74, followed by four more under her watch. All of those five occasions were against De La Salle University.
In Season 75, the San Juan, Batangas native broke the record for most points scored in a single game in the UAAP after her 35-point eruption against Adamson University during the second round of eliminations.
A year after the departure of the FAB5, Valdez fully inherited the reigns of the Lady Eagles. And in Seasons 76 and 77, the eventual three-time UAAP Most Valuable Player led the blue-and-white to its first two championships.
Every single season that Espejo played for Ateneo was epochal — and this is not an exaggeration.
Unlike Valdez, Espejo entered the collegiate ranks less known and less heralded. This could be due to the fact that men’s volleyball is less popular as opposed to its female counterpart.
Little did everyone know, Espejo will eventually become the greatest male volleyball player the league ever had.
Upon his arrival in the UAAP in Season 76, the outside hitter from Marikina immediately made waves as he bagged that season’s Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards — a first in the history of the league. It was the same season when Blue Eagles ended a 32-year Finals drought.
Ateneo won the next three seasons of UAAP, thanks, of course, to Espejo, who seemed to grow stronger by the season. The 6-foot-3 ace proved too much to handle for National University, who settled for silver thrice in a row.
By his fifth year, the eventual five-time MVP awardee was untouchable. During Ateneo’s do-or-die semifinals game against FEU, Espejo exploded for 55 big points built on 47 kills, six blocks and two aces — the most points scored in a single game by a local player in any tournament in the Philippines.
FLIGHT OUTSIDE UAAP
But Valdez’ and Espejo’s greatness go beyond the UAAP.
After her tenure with the Lady Eagles ended, before she captained Creamline’s ship in the Premiere Volleyball League, Valdez played overseas in Thailand and Chinese Taipei.
Early 2017, she suited up with Thai club 3BB Nakornnont, reuniting with former Bureau of Customs Transformers imports Natthanica Jaisaen and Kanjana Kuthaisong.
From September to December that same year, Valdez took her talents to Chinese Taipei playing for Attack Line together with Vietnam stalwart Trần Thị Thanh Thúy.
Espejo was tapped as foreign reinforcement as well, this time by Oita Miyoshi Weisse Adler of Japan — becoming the first Filipino spiker to play in the highly-vaunted league.
And just this month, Espejo secured a second international stint as Visakha Volleyball Club acquired his services for their campaign next year.
Aside from these, the Ateneo standouts were also vital cogs in the national team for the past half-decade.
Since 2014, Valdez has been representing the country in various international tournaments like the past three iterations of Southeast Asian (SEA) Games, the 2017 Asian Senior Women’s Volleyball Championship and the 2018 Asian Games.
Espejo, meanwhile, recently steered the men’s team to a glorious silver medal finish in the 30th SEAG held here, breaking a 42-year long gold medal drought for the men’s side.
True enough, it was the decade for the eagles.
But it was not their incredible skill sets nor their numerous accolades that earned them the respect and love of the Philippine volleyball community.
Above all these accomplishments, it was their humility that really caught the hearts of the Filipinos.
While they have every reason to boast, Valdez and Espejo remained grounded amid all their success. Because of this, their legacies will live on.
The next generation of volleyball players and fans alike will look back in the 2010s and learn about the two Eagles who managed to soar high while remaining grounded.
That once, Valdez and Espejo roamed the sky.