MANILA, Philippines – The Ateneo de Manila University tandem of Marck Espejo and Ish Polvorosa has been a thorn on the side of National University (NU) since UAAP Season 76, when they conspired to lead the Blue Eagles to the finals as fresh-faced rookies.
From Season 77 to 79, Ateneo's "Ish-pejo" combination was unstoppable, as they led the Blue Eagles to three consecutive UAAP championships – all at the expense of NU. Their last title, in Season 79, was the culmination of a perfect season that saw them win all 16 of their matches.
In their final season, however, the Bulldogs finally got one over the Blue Eagles when they dethroned Ateneo in the UAAP Season 80 men's volleyball tournament. NU swept the defending champions in the best-of-3 Finals, denying the Katipunan spikers a four-peat.
"Lamang kami sa tao eh. Every time na may ikot, lumalamang kami. Tapos 'yung Espejo, medyo na-control na namin eh. 'Di tulad last year na pag si Espejo na-control namin, 'yung mga kasama niya nagko-contribute eh," NU coach Dante Alinsunurin said.
Alinsunurin knew that the Blue Eagles desperately wanted to give a winning send-off to Polvorosa and Espejo, especially after the latter won Most Valuable Player honors for the fifth year in a row in Season 80.
Indeed, the NU coach had nothing but gracious words for Espejo, who became one of only three players in the history of the UAAP to win the MVP award in all five of his playing years.
"Alam mo 'yung batang 'yun, siya talaga ang nagdala ng volleyball sa men's division talaga. Mapa-club team, ang laking impluwensiya na dumating siya diyan sa volleyball," said Alinsunurin of Espejo.
"Alam mo 'yung bata, talagang masipag, kita mo na lahat ng ginagawa niya, talagang bigay todo, every time na naglalaro siya. Maraming mga batang na-inspire para sa kanya," he added.
However, the Bulldogs were simply determined to give Espejo a measure of payback for all the hurt that he had caused them in the past three UAAP seasons.
"Pero sabi ko nga ngayong taon, siguro kung limang taon siyang naging maayos ang kanyang ano, siguro sabi nga ng mga player na, 'Coach, minsan patikimin naman natin si Espejo ng mapait para 'yung last exit niya, mas memorable sa kanya,'" Alinsunurin revealed.
That was exactly what happened in Game 2, as Espejo labored to score 30 points and was repeatedly turned back by the NU blockers. He still gave the Bulldogs fits, particularly in the closing stretches of the fourth set where he scored four points to stave off NU's celebration.
But Espejo was in the backrow for the final rallies of the match, and his UAAP career ended when younger teammate Ron Medalla badly misfired on an attack, giving the Bulldogs the winning point.
NU defeated Ateneo in its last three matches of Season 80. That winning streak came after the Blue Eagles reeled off 13 consecutive victories against the Bulldogs, starting in Season 77 until the finals of Season 79.
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