La Salle: The empire that never was

In sports, there are good teams; there are great teams; and there are teams like La Salle.

The Lady Archers have always been the toast of the UAAP women’s volleyball tournament. Aside from its impressive recruitment program, outstanding organization and airtight camaraderie among its players and coaches, La Salle also has a winning tradition that is the envy of other collegiate squads.

In fact, La Salle nearly crushed the seven consecutive titles etched by University of Santo Tomas (UST) from 1985 to 1991 if not for a very unfortunate event that happened 10 years ago.

La Salle could have been a great UAAP team; probably the greatest to have ever built a championship empire.

But fate had a cruel script.

From hero to zero

The year 1999 was such a special year for La Salle.

After 13 fruitless seasons, the school gambled on a young coach by the name of Ramil de Jesus to run its women’s volleyball program. The risk paid a handsome reward as de Jesus immediately steered the Lady Archers to their first UAAP women’s volleyball crown.

Four years later, de Jesus was able to assemble a rock-solid team.

Bannered by Maureen Penetrante, Desiree Hernandez, Carissa Gotis, Sher Penano and Chie Saet, the Lady Archers took the UAAP by storm and completed a gem of a three-peat by winning the 2004, 2005 and 2006 crowns.

It was such a joyous moment.

Players were getting rock-star treatment, coaches were turned into overnight sensations and sponsors were scrambling just to attach their brand to the champion squad that brandishes a rare brew of beauty and power.

But the celebration turned into gloom.

La Salle’s entire varsity program was suspended the following year after a pair of second-string players from the men’s basketball team was found to have competed with spurious academic records.

The school immediately called for a press conference and presented its players from other sports, including the Lady Archers, wallowing in sadness, begging the UAAP board to reconsider its decision and allow them to see action in the 2006-07 season.

[quote cite=’Cha Cruz, La Salle (2006-2012)’]”We were all excited and the euphoria of winning a three-peat was still fresh when we learned that we will not be competing the following year. We were all shocked. It was such a sad day for us and the entire community.”[/quote]

Cruz, together with Jacqueline Alarca and Stephanie Mercado, was a rookie when La Salle won the 2006 title. She’s now playing for F2 Logistics in the Philippine Superliga.

Alarca, Cruz and Mercado bridge the first three-peat team to the second

Added trouble for La Salle

After being slapped with a one-year suspension, the Lady Archers stormed back with a vengeance.

They took the 2007-08 season on a sizzling note and started to re-impose their dominance over their foes. Finally, La Salle was starting to get back on track.

But again, winning the title wasn’t meant to be.

La Salle was slapped with another penalty after Alarca continues to compete despite filing a leave of absence from school.

With that, the UAAP board decided to nullify all of its victories, leaving La Salle with a lowly win-loss mark of 3-11 after the double-round eliminations.

Far Eastern University took home the crown.

La Salle bounces back

But no amount of frustration can stop the Lady Archers.

The following season, La Salle breezed through the eliminations like a hot knife to a butter, winning all but one game to march to the Final Four beaming with confidence.

The Lady Archers crushed Adamson in the semifinals before winning over FEU in dominant fashion.

They, however, suffered minor turbulence the following season as UST, led by Maika Ortiz, Rhea Dimaculangan and Aiza Pontillas, was simply too powerful to overcome.

[quote]”UST was on a rampage. They had the talent and the best team on the court. We know that we couldn’t stop them that year.”[/quote]

The following season, blue chip recruits started to enter La Salle’s door while Alarca posted an impressive performance to win the Most Valuable Player (MVP) crown.

La Salle won the crown and will not relinquish the throne for the next couple of seasons with Aby Marano, Melissa Gohing, Michelle Gumabao, Ara Galang, Mika Reyes and Kim Fajardo bravely taking the cudgels.

What could have been?

Exactly 10 years after that fateful suspension, this question still hangs over the heads of the Lady Archers: What could have happened if La Salle wasn’t suspended during the course of the 2006-07 season?

[quote]”If not for the suspension? I think we could have won our fourth straight crown.”[/quote]

[quote]”We still had the desire and hunger to compete. Our senior players were also still around and very much capable to defend the crown. I think it could have been a different story if we were not suspended.”[/quote]

Yes, La Salle was the toast of the UAAP for the past decade.

La Salle’s dynasty would have been much solid if not for some misfortunes that rolled its way. It could have won a total of eight or nine out of the 10 titles from 2004 to 2013. It could have been the most successful squad with the most number of successive titles.

Again, it wasn’t meant to be.

And La Salle would go down to UAAP history books as the greatest empire that never was.