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The Great 1993 DLSL Palarong Pambansa-Winning Girls’ Volleyball Team

The 1993 DLSL-led STRAA team posing in front of quarters.
February 1988 in Calapan, Oriental Mindoro. DLSL’s girls’ volleyball players sat forlorn inside their quarters after failing to qualify for the finals. They were the only team of the three that DLSL sent to the Southern Tagalog Regional Athletic Association (STRAA) that failed. The other two, the football and boys’ volleyball teams, went on to win their respective championship matches comfortably and thus qualify for the Palarong Pambansa (the national secondary games) scheduled in Cagayan de Oro City the following month.

Seen in the light of history, perhaps that failure, abject as it was at the time, had to happen first. It was probably inside that dark public school elementary classroom in Calapan, with her girls in tears brought on by the pain of defeat, that DLSL’s legendary girls’ volleyball coach Emily Tangcora-Babasa steeled her resolve to build a powerful team capable of achieving great things.

Janelle Hernando, a member of the DLSL 1993 team, recalls the famous maxim by which Babasa had started to prepare her teams: “It is better to endure the hardships of training than to suffer the bitterness of defeat.”

Five years later and the scenes were no longer funereal inside the quarters of the DLSL girls’ volleyball team. Instead, they were celebratory after the girls had won the STRAA held in Santa Cruz in Laguna and had, thus, qualified for the Palarong Pambansa due to be hosted by the city of Ilagan in Isabela.

Babasa had a fulcrum of battle-scarred seniors around whom her team was built: the tall Angela Abendan, who was like a concrete wall in front of the net; the deceptively fragile looking but lethal Ritchie Quitain; the powerful Lady Pearl Bautista, whose style was reminiscent of the 1991 star Lovella Agno; the defensive gem Marianne Lozano, shy off the court but a warrior on it; and another spitfire in the relatively small but athletic Hernando. The plays were set by the junior Barbie Macaraig.

Apart from these, Babasa also included the DLSL freshman Joan Amante from her STRAA-winning team to the one she was forming for the Palarong Pambansa. She also drafted, as was required by the STRAA, players from the divisions of San Pablo City, Palawan and Rizal Province.

The road to the Palarong Pambansa was littered with obstacles.
But the road to glory was littered with many potholes and unwanted obstacles. Even before the team left on the long trek up north to Isabela, disaster already struck. Abendan was struck down with measles. When she did travel, upon arrival at the STRAA quarters, she had to be in a separate room from the rest of the team. Babasa recalls that even she was also infected so that she had to share the same room with Abendan.

Finally, though, the 1993 edition of the Palarong Pambansa got under way, and the team was eager to put to good use the months and even years they had spent training exactly to get to this occasion. There had been so many sacrifices that each player had to make just so the team could get to where it was.

Hernando laughingly recalls, for instance, that she and her teammates would all enviously look at the NCR players and their fair skin. Meanwhile, theirs was burnt almost to the color of chocolate from the hours upon hours spent training under the blazing sun.

Each player had to make countless sacrifices in training.
Typically, Babasa turned even this into a motivation. The fair skin, she told her girls, simply meant that the NCR girls were not used to playing outdoors and were, therefore, at a disadvantage. Her words would ultimately turn prophetic as the NCR did not even fight for top honors.

Unfortunately, her team would suffer a defeat to Western Visayas and be relegated to the dreaded losers’ bracket in the idiotic double elimination format so favored by the Department of Education at the time. Under this format, winning teams were rewarded with more time to rest and recover while those who lost had to endure playing more matches to stay in contention.

That loss to Western Visayas was contentious. Babasa recalls, “I protested in the second set because they had two more points on the scoreboard than there was recorded in the scoresheet.” Unfazed, she told her girls that if they got to play Western Visayas again in the competition, she wanted them to step on the court “with tiger looks and to soar like eagles.”

Despite the burden of having to play additional games, the girls went about their business of beating other teams until they got to the final day of competition. The team had to play the quarterfinal early in the morning, and if it was successful, the semi-final just an hour or so later.

If the girls successfully hurdled both engagements, their reward would be a slot in the final and a chance to get back at their earlier tormentors Western Visayas, who incidentally enjoyed a twice-to-beat advantage. Effectively, if the girls were to win the title at all, they had to play four matches in one day.

STRAA management, Babasa recalls, was not too optimistic about their chances. The night before, a meeting of coaches was called, and STRAA officials were practically counting their chickens because the softball, basketball and sepak takraw teams all enjoyed twice-to-beat advantages in their respective finals. They all felt that even if the girls’ volleyball team reached the final, it would be a bridge too far.

But get to the final, the girls did! The team had to wake up as early as four in the morning because the quarterfinal was at seven o’clock. After overcoming Central Mindanao in a grueling five-set match, the girls rested for a while before taking on Southern Mindanao in the semi-final. The match went all the way to five sets as well but despite the odds, the STRAA girls prevailed.

The team needed to rush back to quarters to rest for a bit and get something to eat, but unfortunately no STRAA vehicles were available. Babasa recalls having to plead with a dump truck driver to take them to quarters where the girls had a few minutes to recover and eat something light.

In the final against Western Visayas, the girls were expectedly sluggish and conceded the first set. Hernando recalls, “Ma’am Emily told us during a time out that it was better if we all just went home since what we were doing was embarrassing, anyway. Everyone was surprised that the tone of her voice was not angry but, instead, weary. If her intention was reverse psychology, it worked! Western Visayas stood no chance when we returned to the court!”

The closing ceremonies were already ongoing, but the girls were still playing against Western Visayas.
The two matches against Western Visayas took so long, Babasa laughingly remembers, that the closing ceremonies of the Palarong Pambansa were already ongoing but they were still playing. Ironically, all the teams that the STRAA management was counting on to bring home the bacon were all twice beaten.

It was left to the girls’ volleyball team to deliver the STRAA’s final gold medal, in so doing also handing Southern Tagalog its first-ever general championship in the Palarong Pambansa. DLSL-led girls’ volleyball teams would, in fact, win four straight Palarong Pambansa titles from this first one won in Isabela.

The greatness of this 1993 team, built around a core of DLSL girls, was in refusing to die despite the many travails of competition, it was the first to break the psychological barrier to winning a national title. In a sense, it made it easier for succeeding teams – not just of the STRAA but more relevantly those of DLSL – to win at any level and establish the school’s fearsome volleyball reputation.

How the team did so, Hernando explains, “If we could all have eaten from off one plate, we would have done so.” This 1993 DLSL and STRAA team was way more than just that – it had become a family. And one always fights tooth and nail for one’s family.

[Thanks to Janelle Hernando-Pasion and Emily Tangcora-Babasa for the information contained in this article.]

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