She stood at the top of the local volleyball world last Thursday afternoon moments before Game One of the best-of-three series for the championship of the Shakey’s V-League Season 10 First Conference between the Ateneo Lady Eagles and her Nationa University Lady Bulldogs at the Mall of Asia Arena in Pasay City.
Aleona Denise Santiago, or Dindin, as fans and friends call her, ascended the throne as Most Valuable Player of the tournament much to the admiration of her throng of supporters and followers.
That was actually anti-climatctic of sorts.
Actually, most people knew she would bag the award.
That belief was hatched and reinforced after the Lady Bulldogs routed the Lady Eagles in straight sets, 25-15, 25-12, 26-24 during their quarterfinals encounter. As a result, National University swept the qarterfinals in the same manner it did sweep the elims.
Sure, the Lady Bulldogs dropped Game One of the best-of-three semifinals series with the Lady Falcons of Adamson University. But NU recovered from that setback and won the next two matches to arrange a finals showdown with two-time defending champion Ateneo.
And, having beaten the Lady Eagles, naturally the Lady Bulldogs were tipped as slight favorites.
All that, because the Lady Bulldogs are bannered by Santiago, undoubtedly the best volleybal performer at the moment.
She would have stood beyond the top of the world last Thursday but the euphori of having been crowned MVP died down a bit as the Lady Eagles got back at Santiago ang the Lady Bulldogs with a similar straight sets victory in the championship series opener.
That was big blow to Dindin.
That, however, reinforced the fact that in order to beat NU, Ateneo had to stop Santiago who is the top dog, the lynch pin, the main weapon.
All the defenses of the Lady Eagles were trained on Santiago because they knew she is the do-it-all and the heart and soul of National University.
At that very moment, Santiago was probably thinking that she’d rather trade the MVP trophy for a win by the Lady Bulldogs. But that wasn’t meant to be.
Then again, that setback is definitely an eye-opener and Santiago had learned a huge lesson. She resolved to come back fiercer in Game Two.
Santiago epitomizes the NU story.
From a so-so team in the University Athletic Association of the Philippines, NU hitched its volleyball future on Santiago who was recruited from the University of Santo Tomas where she spent her high school years and played one season in the senior level.
By virtue of UAAP’s rule, Santiago was forced to spend two seasons earning her eligibility before finally playing her first official season with the Lady Bulldogs last December.
But even before she could officially play for NU in the UAAP, Santiago already strutted her wares with the Lady Bulldogs as a guest player in the Shakey’s V-League where she quickly made her presence felt. To prepare Santiago for the UAAP wars, NU began participating inthe Shakey’s V-League three seasons ago.
That scheme worked well as Santiago showed everyone what she could do. At 6-2, Santiago is a force to reckon both on offense and defense.
Of course, even before all these, everyone already knew what she was capable of. Her exploits with the UST junior squad earned her a berth on the Phiippine Youth team.
With Santiago finally on its official line-up, NU made it to the Final Four of the UAAP volleyball tournament. And now, NU has made it to the Finals of the Shakey’s V-League.
“Kailangang makabawi sa Game Two,” said Santiago. “Siyempre, masaya ako dahil nanalo ako as MVP. Pero mas masaya sana kung nanalo din kami sa Game One.”
Santiago actually averged 19.3 points in the elims, quarters and semis as she also emerged as the Best Scorer of the tournament. She is one of four NU players who were cited, the others being
Best Setter Rubie de Leon, Best Digger Jen Reyes and Best Attacker Myla Pablo.
Whichever way the ball turns in the Shaey’s V-League finals, Santiago surely deserves the award. And she’ll probably continue winning not just games and awards but championships in the future.