Valdez going around the court, clapping her hands, flashing her trademark smile amidst the tears, and thanking the crowd right after her final UAAP game – this has got to be one of the most memorable sports moments I’ve witnessed this year.

A few grateful waves would have been enough. She could have stayed in one corner and cried with her teammates after that painful loss, and people would understand. Instead, Alyssa felt the need to honor her legion of supporters by applauding them from all sides of the arena.

For this simple and unassuming girl from Batangas, it’s always about giving back to her fans.

It’s quite heartwarming to see a player of her caliber show that much appreciation, and she’s been consistent about this in the last five years. More than the awards and the undeniable talent, it’s her positive attitude and humility that makes the Queen Eagle endearing to so many.

A three-peat championship would have been a fitting conclusion to Alyssa’s decorated collegiate career but the Lady Eagles fell short and succumbed to their fiercest rivals.

For the fifth straight time, Ateneo and La Salle met in the Finals and battled for the crown.

The girls from Taft reigned supreme during the era of Ateneo’s Fab Five, composed of Gretchen Ho, Fille Cainglet, Jem Ferrer, Dzi Gervacio, and Ailysse Nacachi. These ladies laid the foundation and started the transformation of Ateneo’s volleyball program. From being cellar dwellers, the Lady Eagles climbed several notches higher and became regular playoff contenders.

In Season 76, Ateneo lost the Fab Five to graduation, leaving the team at the hands of the Phenom who was then on her third year. She had been an important piece of the puzzle since she began playing for the blue and white. But her biggest challenge came in that season when as team captain, she had to steer her young and inexperienced crew to a magical, fairytale-like campaign.

The La Salle Lady Spikers were in a league of their own and they were the undisputed favorites to win the trophy. They barged straight into the Finals after sweeping the elimination round.

Meanwhile, being at the bottom of the stepladder semis, Ateneo had to win tough do-or-die matches against Adamson and National University to set another date with the reigning three-time champions.

Behind their “hearstrong” mantra, the Lady Eagles made one of the biggest and most unbelievable upsets in the history of the UAAP. They overcame a thrice-to-win disadvantage to cop their first ever championship, with rookie coach Tai Bundit and team captain Alyssa at the forefront. Denden Lazaro anchored their defense, Jia Morado orchestrated their plays, and Ella de Jesus, Amy Ahomiro and Michelle Morente provided the offensive boost.

After getting over the hump, Ateneo women’s volleyball peaked in Season 77. They defended their title in the best way possible – by going undefeated from the eliminations all the way to the Finals.

The Lady Eagles went on a 24-game winning streak dating back to the Season 76 Finals, before bowing down to La Salle in their first round encounter in Season 78. With Denden and Ella gone from the lineup, Ateneo struggled with their service receive and floor defense. It was a wakeup call for them to train harder, maximize their strengths, and learn from their mistakes. They knew early on that it was not going to be a smooth-sailing ride. Still, they managed to finish the eliminations on top of the standings with only two losses.

They faced a gallant UP squad, the only other team that tarnished their record, in the Final Four. They won in straight sets, while La Salle took care of business against FEU, to book a rivalry duel anew.

The Lady Spikers bided their time for this moment of revenge. Ara Galang, Mika Reyes, and Kim Fajardo were all raring to reclaim the crown. The desire to bring back La Salle’s glory days could be felt with every powerful Ara spike, emphatic Mika block, and excellent Kim play. They were a set away from sweeping the Finals when Alyssa Valdez gathered her troops and told them, “This is not yet over.”

The three-time MVP put on her superhero costume just in time to save the Lady Eagles from a nightmare finish. The way Ateneo fought in Game 2 was reminiscent of their Season 76 Cinderella run. They were a tiny step from falling over the cliff but they refused to give up. They rallied back one point at a time.

An emotional Alyssa faced the press after her inspired 34-point performance. Her UAAP career almost ended that day and she couldn’t be more thankful that she was granted an opportunity to give it one last shot.

But things looked bleak for Ateneo in Game 3. They were off to a rousing start but after the first set, they could no longer find their groove. The walls that La Salle built were suddenly unbreakable.

For some reason, Alyssa became Ateneo’s only option on offense with the rest of her teammates struggling to score. This predictability allowed the Lady Spikers to execute better, relying heavily on their superb defense throughout the contest. Finals MVP Kim Kianna Dy delivered the championship point for the Animo squad, ending the short but sweet reign of the Ateneo Lady Eagles.

2016 was the year that the Phenom bid farewell to the UAAP. It’s been five years of ups and downs, of helping Ateneo make history, of contributing to the rise of Philippine volleyball, of representing the country in international tournaments, of being the face of the sport.

Strangers from the provinces have asked me about Alyssa and the first thing I usually tell them is that she is a genuinely nice person. I don’t need to tell them how good of an athlete she is because everybody knows that. What the world needs to know is that behind those intimidating serves, no-mercy attacks, and deadly backrow bombs is a girl who deserves to be admired and emulated.

No matter the ending of her collegiate career, the lasting impact of an Alyssa Valdez to the sport that she loves remains unrivaled at this point. She continues to inspire and touch the lives not just of aspiring volleyball players but even ordinary kids who have extraordinary dreams. And hey, that’s infinitely more important than winning championships.

After a storied collegiate career in the University Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP) for the Ateneo Lady Eagles, which resulted in five trips to the finals, three MVP awards, and two championships, Alyssa Valdez looks forward to her next challenge.

The multi-titled outside hitter said she will play in the upcoming season of the Shakey’s V-League but has yet to join a team. After that, the queen eagle hopes to spread her wings and take her talents overseas, a move which she hopes will help the sport grow in the Philippines.

Also read: Valdez after finals loss: We couldn’t ask for more, we gave our best

“I just want to go outside and see volleyball outside of the Philippines also, so that when I go back here may matutulong pa rin tayo sa volleyball community,” said Valdez. “Not only to get to experience the culture of the other countries, but how they play, the level of competitiveness ng volleyball nila dun.”

[Translation: I just want to go outside and see volleyball outside of the Philippines also, so that when I go back here we can give more help to the volleyball community. Not only to get to experience the culture of the other countries, but how they play, the level of competitiveness of volleyball in other countries.]

According to Valdez, the offers to play for teams abroad came as early as May last year, but she declined them so she can continue playing for the Lady Eagles.

Related: Alyssa Valdez captures third straight UAAP MVP award

But if the foreign teams still wish to acquire her services or if the Philippine national team calls for her name, she is ready to respond.

“If given the chance, and they still contact me, why not ‘di ba? Ready to go din tayo,” she said. “But also, if given the chance to play for the national team here in the Philippines, to represent the country, I would love to do that before leaving the country.”

Filipino fans do not need to worry about looking far beyond the region to see Valdez play if she does start to play abroad. Valdez’ ideal places to play are just a few hours away via plane.

“I really want to go to Thailand, to Indonesia, to Malaysia, to Chinese-Taipei,” said Valdez. “(But) my dream naman is to play against sa mga Japan, China, but their level of competition is super taas naman. So kailangan natin humanap ng stepping stone and foundation so that we can be ready sa lahat ng mga endeavors namin.”

[Translation: I really want to go to Thailand, to Indonesia, to Malaysia, to Chinese-Taipei (But) my dream is to play against Japan, China, but their level of competition is super high. So we need to find a stepping stone and foundation so that we can be ready for all our endeavors.]

Also read: Sports Tweets of the Week: La Salle dethrones Ateneo

Valdez hopes that exposure to volleyball outside the country will help reveal points of improvement for herself and the national program of the Philippines in general.

“When you’re outside, siyempre, makikita mo rin kung ano’ng pagkukulang not only sa sarili mo, but kung ano pang kailangan ng Philippine volleyball community para mas ma-improve natin ‘yung program natin here in the Philippines,” she said.

[Translation: When you’re outside, of course, you will see not only your shortcomings, but also what the Philippine volleyball community needs as a whole to improve our program here in the country.

It is anyone’s guess as to where Alyssa Valdez will ultimately end up playing.

But what is sure: all the experience she gains, Valdez will put to good use back home in the Philippines.

Alyssa Valdez making history as the first Filipino playing in the Thai League.

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