"Si-si! Si-si! Si-si!"
That was what rang around the Mall of Asia Arena just moments after Ateneo de Manila University reclaimed the crown in UAAP Women's Volleyball two weeks ago.
Mind you, Sisi - Cherry Ann Rondina, as her full name goes - is not a Lady Eagle.
In fact, it was her who fronted University of Sto. Tomas' resistance to Ateneo.
Still, Rondina's was the name that the jam-packed crowd chanted first - and truly, after several others were also yelled, the loudest.
"Sobrang saya ko dun sa nangyari. That time, ang sarap sa feeling na ang dami mo palang taong napapasaya through your passion na volleyball," she narrated after making history as first Volleyball Player of the Year in the 2019 Chooks-to-Go Collegiate Awards last Monday. "Kaming lahat, hindi lang ako, happy kaming naibalik namin yung UST community. Nagsama-sama ulit sila, nagtiwala ulit sa amin."
That outpouring of support for one particular player, though, actually felt like déjà vu - only, the first instance was five months ago in a different sport.
In December of last year, the Blue Eagles had just wrapped up a dominant season for back-to-back championships in UAAP Men's Basketball.
And yet, when the dust settled, the Araneta Coliseum rocked with impassioned cries of "De-si-derio! De-si-derio! De-si-derio!"
Paul Desiderio, heart and soul of the University of the Philippines team that had to settle for a runner-up finish, remained the most beloved player on the court.
"Ako, kung naaalala ko yun, sobrang saya ko pa rin kasi kitang-kita talagang yung community, nagkaisa para dun, para sa akin, para sa amin," he recalled.
Just like Rondina, Desiderio was at the losing end of the blue and white champions.
But just like Rondina as well, Desiderio had already won the hearts of just about everybody long before the Finals even began.
KING AND QUEEN OF HEARTS
Paul Desiderio is not the fastest, not the strongest, not the tallest, not the most athletic, not the best shooter, not the best ball-handler, and not the best playmaker on his own team.
Still, he is and will always be, the primary protagonist in UP's Cinderella run in Season 81 which saw them end a 21-year Final Four drought and then end a 32-year Finals absence.
The very same can be said about Rondina - an open hitter who stands at just 5-foot-6, but nonetheless defies gravity with her hops and how she contorts her body from doing down the line spikes to crosscourt attacks and vice versa.
Following her lead, the Golden Tigresses barged back into the land of the elite in Season 81 where they made their first championship round in eight years.
"Si Desiderio kasi, pareho kami ng pinaglaban. Nilaban namin yung mga team namin and we love our sport," she said, talking about the striking similarities in what they had accomplished.
No doubt, those two weren't gifted with the greatest of physical tools, but more than made up for it by having the greatest of hearts.
And that did nothing but inspire their teammates and, more importantly, re-energized their sleeping giants of fanbases.
"Isa lang naman talaga gusto ko e - ang makita yung UST community na nakangiti lahat," Rondina said, referring to the Espana-based school which currently houses over 40,000 students and has educated for 408 years. "Yun yung deserve nila e - na nakangiti at the end."
At the other end of Quezon Avenue lies UP Diliman which is home to more than 20,000 students at present and has educated for 110 years.
Now, just imagine those sleeping giants of fanbases waking up and finally getting up to cheer for their teams.
Their teams who were, without a doubt, the underdogs in both their Finals series.
And hey, who doesn't love rooting for the underdogs?
WHO LET THE DOGS OUT?
Indeed, Rondina and Desiderio have long been underdogs themselves.
Rondina rode the bench of the indoor volleyball team in her first few years as a Golden Tigress and had to make her name as queen of beach volleyball.
On the other hand, Desiderio was a relatively recognized recruit from his days in Batang Gilas, but still had to trudge through the mud in his first seasons in then-directionless UP.
Once their moment came, however, they did nothing but seize the day and with two words apiece, inspired their communities as well as captivated their sports.
For State U, that was "Atin 'To!" - a state of mind that was shockingly confident for a program that had long languished at the bottom of the standings for two decades.
As it turns out, though, that was just what the Fighting Maroons needed as they completed their climb to a return to relevance.
"Never give up na talaga kami. Ang problema namin dati sa UP, nilalamangan kami tapos nawawalan na ng gana tapos tuloy-tuloy na yun," Desiderio said. "Happy ako na nabago yun. Ngayon, lagi na nilang sinasabing 'Atin 'To!'"
And for the Royal, Pontifical, and Catholic University, that was "Kami Naman!" - also a shockingly confident proclamation for a once storied program that had gone nine years and counting without a championship.
As it turns out, though, that was just what the Golden Tigresses needed to remember that, not too long ago, it was they who ran the show.
"Sabi nga ni coach Kungfu [Reyes] na ang ganda ng battle cry namin kasi pagpasok pa lang, pinag-uusapan na," Rondina said. "Ikaw sa sarili mo na 'Kami Naman,' nakaka-boost siya ng confidence. Lumaban talaga kami kasi nasa isip namin na kailangan, tayo naman."
Motivated by those words, they and their team persevered - very much like how the two of them persevered back in Cebu.
CLOSE TO YOU
Interestingly enough, just a half hour of travel by land separated the future legends when they were just youngsters.
Liloan, where Desiderio was born and bred, lies 13km to the south of Rondina's hometown of Compostela.
Both small towns are far from the city center of Cebu - meaning, just about everybody there has to work doubly hard.
Clearly, both of them brought that work ethic wherever they went. "Pinakita namin talaga kung paano lumaban ang mga Bisaya. Nalabas namin lahat ng passion at diskarte namin," the UST skipper said.
Even funnier, the UP team captain said he already knew Rondina by face when they were just youngsters. "Si Sisi, from Cebu rin diba tapos nung high school, nakikita ko siyang naglalaro sa Liloan kasi dun siya nag-aaral. 'Di kami magkakilala nun, pero nagkikita na rin kami," he shared.
He then continued, "Dahil dun kaya 'di na ako nag-doubt na handa siyang makipagpatayan para sa team niya. Ganun talaga ang mga Cebuano."
It takes one to know one, as they say.
Fast forward some few years and their hard work in Cebu opened a door for being a student-athlete in Manila.
There, they kept working until they became legends - undisputedly, Desiderio will always be an icon for UP while Rondina will forever stand among all the greats in UST.
Both lost out on their respective championships, but at the end of the season, were still the biggest winners in the eyes of just about everybody.
"'Di ko talaga in-expect na ganito yung outcome ng lahat ng paghihirap ko at ng team ko. Kahit ako, speechless kasi multiple yung awards na natanggap ko," Rondina, also the Season 81 Athlete of the Year for Team Sports as well as MVP for Indoor and Beach Volleyball, said. "I gave my best, I gave myself sa lahat ng ginawa ko sa UST."
"Sobrang proud lang talaga ako sa ginawa namin. Ako talaga, sinacrifice ko lahat, pero para sa UP lahat ng sakripisyong ito," Desiderio said. "Start pa lang yun ng journey ng UP. Kahit wala na ako dun, at least kami yung nag-start. Sana, magtuloy-tuloy."
And the striking similarities between the King Maroon and Queen Tigress don't end there just yet as they have only jumped on their collegiate success onto greater things.
Desiderio was the surprise no. 4 pick in the 2019 PBA Draft and now showcases his skills as a key cog for Blackwater.
For her part, Rondina is poised to continue wowing for Petron in the PSL.
Through all they have gone through, there is no doubt that Paul Desiderio and Sisi Rondina have made Cebu and all Cebuanos proud.
And at the end of the day, it will never be forgotten that in Season 81, a couple of Cebuanos fell short of their respective titles, but most definitely came away with all our hearts.
This story was originally published on the ABS-CBN Sports website.