The word “greatest” has always been attached next to the La Salle women’s volleyball program.
And why not, after winning eight of the past 13 UAAP crowns, the Lady Spikers have grown larger than life, evolving from a meek lamb into a powerful lion that wreaks fear and havoc in the jungle of the country’s premiere collegiate league.
Those victories – and the star power that went with it – enabled Manilla Santos to become the only volleyball player to have her jersey number retired; Michelle Gumabao and Mika Reyes to transform into sweet-smiling commercial endorsers; Aby Marano to evolve into a defensive beast in the Philippine Superliga (PSL); and Kim Fajardo to be regarded as one of Southeast Asia’s rising stars.
More than anything else, those victories gave Ramil de Jesus a reputation of being a no non-sense mentor capable of leading the country in its campaign in the FIVB World Club Women’s Championship.
Few months ago, La Salle claimed yet another UAAP crown when they crushed rival Ateneo in an epic three-game duel. Fajardo, Reyes, Ara Galang, Cyd Demecillo, Dawn Macandili and finals Most Valuable Player (MVP) Kim Dy and the rest of the team were given a red-carpet treatment as the school opened its doors for a colossal crowd to cheer them on in what was billed as a grand fans day.
Some reporters were also there. A veteran sportswriter reported that the crowd was so massive that they needed to have the strength to avoid collapsing in suffocation.
True enough, La Salle is the darling of the crowd.
All the accolades, the affection, the respect showered on these Lady Spikers have opened a lot of doors for them. They have their own team in the PSL in F2 Logistics and their fans are scattered all over the world, even up to the deserts of Qatar where they were invited for a series of exhibition games.
Everybody loves a winner.
But little did we know that before the glamour of Santos, Reyes and Gumabao, before the beast-mode-don’t-care mantra of Marano, before the fans’ day and out-of-the-country gigs, there was a La Salle team sitting quietly in the oft-forgotten corner of UAAP history.
They may not have the super popular players, but they also got the job done. They also overcame the juggernauts of the UAAP and awarded La Salle its first UAAP crown.
They kicked the door wide open for other players to enter, for the entire country to notice the greatness of this women’s volleyball program.
They are the trailblazers of La Sallian volleyball.
They are the members of the 1999 La Salle squad.
If we want to trace the history of La Salle volleyball, we have to travel back to summer of 1998 when basketball great Ramoncito Campos – a revered guy in La Salle sports community – recruited a young mentor from FEU.
De Jesus came in as quiet, strict and straight as an arrow. He has zero tolerance for non-sense behavior, carefully chooses his words but barks order from the sidelines like a drillmaster from the Cold War era.
Since he learned at the feet of legendary coach Kid Santos at FEU, he is used to Spartan-like training condition and has an old-school approach to the game.
Iris Ortega-Patrona, the prolific open spiker who emerged as MVP in that unforgettable 1999 season narrated:
True enough, a lot of things changed overnight.
The Lady Spikers went on a rampage, slicing their opponents like a hot knife to a butter, prompting sideliners to believe that they are capable of clobbering everybody – even the era’s most dominant forces in FEU and UST.
But in the middle of the season, something happened.
La Salle’s starting setter, Valerie Bautista, got pregnant, creating a huge void in its roster. De Jesus looked closely at his players; he saw Sally Macasaet, Demelle Chua, Sheryl Magallanes, Ivy Remulla, Hollie Reyes and Patrona.
He has an important to make a decision with their season on the line.
It was a stroke of a genius. With Reyes running the show, La Salle went on to advance to the finals against UST, a team roaring for redemption after FEU foiled its bid to complete a rare three-peat.
The sudden-death finals match was held at the UP Human Kinetics Gym before the very eyes of their friends, family and relatives. The game was open to everyone, but fans during those days were still clueless about the beauty of women’s volleyball.
UST was led by national team mainstays Rosalyn Labay and Joan Botor with August Sta. Maria as head coach. The Tigresses were also hungry. They were ready to go for the kill.
But La Salle defeated UST in a thrilling five-set battle to finally clinch its first UAAP women’s volleyball crown. It was such a magical night, a moment when everything – even their sweat and tears – tastes sweet.
La Salle threw a victory party, but the celebration was completely overshadowed by the title-clinching performance of its men’s basketball team. The Green Archers also escaped the Growling Tigers by the skin of their teeth through a Hail Mary three-point bomb by Dino Aldeguer.
So instead of the Lady Spikers, it was the Green Archers who were the toast of the crowd.
The Lady Spikers were left in one corner, lighting up silent fireworks in the dead of the night.
Season of frustration
Ortega-Patrona, who was on her fourth year when La Salle won the title, believed that the Lady Spikers still have the gas to launch yet another championship run.
The core of the championship team remains intact and the young guns gained more experience. Everybody was ready for the tough battle ahead.
But fate has its own, brutal way of making its presence felt.
During the University Games in Bacolod, Patrona had a falling out with de Jesus over her behavior and some simple house rules. It was such a small issue that had a massive consequence to a team designed to win another title.
Ortega-Patrona stayed away from the team for a while.
Few weeks later, she resigned.
La Salle’s best player — the reigning UAAP MVP — was gone.
And the Lady Spikers’ championship goal was up in smoke.
Patrona sat out the season while the Lady Spikers watched the Lady Tamaraws win the first of their three consecutive titles.
The following year, Ortega-Patrona made another drastic move, a decision considered as a mortal sin for a La Sallian during that time.
La Salle wasn’t dethroned by either UST or FEU.
It was beaten by stronger, more dominant force — pride.
The frosty relationship between Ortega-Patrona and de Jesus didn’t last long.
When Ortega-Patrona was settling her school documents in preparation for her enrollments in the Master’s program of Ateneo, she found herself standing in an elevator next to a man who looks very much familiar.
Ortega-Patrona suited up for the Lady Eagles and led them to their first ever victory in the UAAP.
Meanwhile, La Salle faded into oblivion and would not win another title again until the nucleus of Maureen Penetrante, Carissa Gotis, Desiree Hernandez, Shermaine Penano and Santos arrived at their Taft campus in 2003.
Ortega-Patrona, now married to another volleyball player in Vic Patrona, saw action for Ateneo, Air Force and FEU in the V-League. Her last club team was PCSO Bingo Milyonaryo during the maiden season of the PSL. She also competed during sportsfest of her company, Ayala Land.
Right now, she’s took a breather from volleyball as she expects their second child.
Yes, the story of La Salle’s 1999 team is truly one for the books.
It is a beautiful tale about humility, forgiveness and moving on.
And with the lessons of the past getting absorbed by the stars of today, it is now understandable why La Salle shines brighter than other UAAP squads.
After all, time heals all wounds.