MANILA, Philippines -- The Ateneo de Manila University Lady Eagles had been looking forward to their match-up against University of the East last March 11. Still stinging from a loss to arch-rival De La Salle University in their previous game, it was an opportunity to bounce back and get back on the winning track.
The opportunity did not come, however. On March 10, the UAAP announced that it would suspend its activities until March 17, as the country started feeling the impact of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Two days later, President Rodrigo Duterte put Metro Manila on community quarantine, which was extended to the entirety of Luzon on March 16.
The enhanced community quarantine included a ban on public gatherings, which ensured that the UAAP -- and other sporting events -- could not continue in its traditional format. On March 14, the league announced that it will be shelving its high school events, and the current format of its collegiate tournaments will be cancelled as well.
"Well, yes, this is disappointing," Ateneo coach Oliver Almadro told ABS-CBN News of the stoppage in play. "Kasi nga, we've prepared for more than a year."
The Lady Eagles managed to play two games before the league suspended its activities: they beat University of the Philippines in straight sets in their season-opener, then dropped their next game to La Salle in four. The Lady Spikers, seeking a return to the finals after last season's semis exit, played just one game.
National University (NU) currently tops the league standings with a 2-0 win-loss record.
Almadro's players are all currently at home with their families. The coach said they are "doing our part" to help in flattening the curve, while still keeping themselves fit and ready for when the tournament resumes.
Amid the disappointment of seeing their campaign halted, Almadro is keeping things in perspective. "What's more important is our social responsibility," he said.
"This too shall pass," he added. "The Lord will not forsake us. There is a reason for this. So now, wala nang school-school. We all have to help end this pandemic."
Almadro also pointed out that while the Lady Eagles -- and other UAAP players -- have been preparing since last year, other athletes are in even more dire straits. There are Olympic hopefuls who have prepared their whole lives for the Tokyo Games, only to see it postponed to 2021.
"Mas mahirap nga 'yung sa Olympic athletes," he says. "Hindi lang one or two years they prepared."
Also losing out with the UAAP stoppage is the men's volleyball tournament.
The league decided to shine a spotlight on the men's division in Season 82, after the national team's sensational run in the 30th Southeast Asian Games last December where they won the silver. The schedule was changed so that men's and women's games would alternate, giving them equal airtime.
That momentum is now halted as well, and NU head coach Dante Alinsunurin -- also the coach of the national team -- could only express his dismay at the development.
"Sobrang nanghihinayang," said Alinsunurin, who like Almadro sent all of his players home before the community quarantine was implemented.
"Pero mas iniisip ko 'yung kaligtasan natin ang importante," he added.
He gave the Bulldogs, the men's defending champions, a program to keep their conditioning on point. His players would send him and his coaching staff videos of their progress, so Alinsunurin can keep track of his team.
"Lagi ko sinasabi, 'yung kundisyon ng katawan lagi, 'yun ang nagpapanalo sa amin," he explained.
The Bulldogs are tied with Far Eastern University at the top of the league standings, with both teams winning two games before the UAAP ground to a stop.
Extending a helping hand
Volleyball was not the only sport affected by the UAAP stoppage. Men's football was also halted. Women's football, baseball, softball, athletics, lawn tennis, and 3x3 basketball did not even start.
The powerhouse Adamson University softball team was supposed to open its campaign for a 10th straight title on March 17. Instead, some of the players found themselves stranded in their dormitories after the tournament was suspended.
"May mga players kami na hindi nakauwi sa kanilang probinsya kasi nagmahal 'yung pamasahe at 'yung iba naman inabot na ng community quarantine," said head coach Ana Santiago.
They saw it as an opportunity to extend a helping hand. The Lady Falcons volunteered to help pack goods that will be distributed in Metro Manila -- something that Santiago expressed pride in.
"Sa part namin kahit small things na puwede kaming makatulong sa mga pamilya rito sa Metro Manila na nangangailangan lalo na sa panahong ito na kailangan atin ang isa't isa," she said.
"We are very happy to be part ng program na ito at patuloy namin gagawin ito sa abot ng makakaya namin," she added.
Current and former UAAP athletes have been vocal in their intent to help, especially when it comes to contributing personal protective equipment (PPEs) to frontliners. There are several initiatives by UAAP athletes that are in progress, including a raffle by the Volleyball Community Gives Back organization, and an auction by former Lady Eagle Jia Morado.
Others feel impact
The UAAP's absence is felt not just by the players and the coaches, however.
UAAP executive director Atty. Rebo Saguisag won't deny that he feels quite disheartened at what has happened. He noted that they had been very excited to unveil new developments, particularly for the volleyball tournaments, only for their work to be shunted to the side by the pandemic.
"A year and a half was spent preparing for the first ever joint press conference for volleyball, the video challenge, and the new schedule for UAAP men's volleyball," Saguisag said on Twitter.
"Imagine the pain to be told to stop," he added. "But COVID-19 is bigger than sports."
"We are all hurting."
Boom Gonzalez, the veteran ABS-CBN Sports+Action commentator, admits that he is "extremely bummed" about the pause in UAAP action -- especially as the volleyball tournament holds a special place in his heart.
"It's not just the work," Gonzalez told ABS-CBN News. "It's just watching the games and observing the buzz all over that goes with the season. I look forward to the season so much that I intentionally take a two-month 'sportscasting break,' so that I come to the season really excited and fresh."
"So yes, it's very depressing to me," he said.
For Gonzalez, the season has already been quite strange. The UAAP basketball tournament had to be "sped up" due in part to the SEA Games, and now the COVID-19 pandemic has irrevocably changed the volleyball tournament as well.
More than anyone else, he sympathizes with the athletes, who waited for a year for the games only to be denied the opportunity to show what they can do, and the fans who are being deprived of the chance to watch their idols.
"I really feel for the athletes," he said. "Rookies wanting to show their stuff. Seniors having uncertainty now, and everybody in between."
"You know, I always thought part of the magic of the UAAP games, or what contributes to the magic, regardless of the sport, is the wait. The wait works for us, fans, and athletes," he said.
"But this is just cruel to them, not that it can be helped," he added.
Anton Roxas, another ABS-CBN S+A commentator, stressed that the UAAP "did the right thing" given how serious the situation is -- not just in the Philippines, but worldwide.
"I believe it was a decision made with the best interest of the league's stakeholders -- the students, the athletes, and fans in mind. And now, seeing how the entire world is affected, with other leagues like the NBA suspending games, we see how serious this situation is," he noted.
The UAAP season, as it stands, is very much in limbo.
The league's last memorandum, issued last March 14, specified that the current formats of the collegiate events are now cancelled.
"If the government declares that it is safe to resume classes on April 15, 2020, and does not prohibit mass gatherings, the UAAP will work towards alternative formats of competition to begin no earlier than May 1," said UAAP president Em Fernandez of Ateneo.
On March 23, Saguisag told ABS-CBN News that they are still very much in status quo, in response to the NCAA's decision to terminate its season.
As of March 31, the Philippines now has 2,084 cases of COVID-19, with 88 fatalities. The number may continue to rise after the country increased its testing capacity.
For the coaches, they stressed that their teams will need time to regain their fitness before plunging back into game action.
"Dapat mga three weeks or one month 'yun," said Alinsunurin. "Kasi ang dami mo dapat i-adjust, lalo na sa part ng bola."
"It will be hard for us," Almadro admitted. "Hindi naman pwede na two weeks, balik na agad sa condition ang players. They don't even see or feel a volleyball court for the longest time siguro."
"We'll see what will happen," he added.
Roxas agreed that regaining their rhythm will be a major challenge for the athletes, once the UAAP does resume.
"How they perform will all depend on what they did during the long layoff. I think conditioning will be one of the major concerns whenever the league resumes play," he said.
Gonzalez, for his part, is simply hopeful that when the UAAP returns, the organizers can find a way to still hold a full season.
"Personally, in my non-expert opinion, I really don't think the UAAP should ever be shortened. Sped up, maybe, but not shortened," he said. "These are not pro leagues where they play three months in a year. This is barely three months."
"There has to be a way to adjust and make it work," he said hopefully.
As disappointed as they are, the UAAP stakeholders know that everyone's health and safety is of paramount importance.
Almadro recalled the words of Ateneo president Fr. Jett Villarin, SJ, when he said: "It's time for us to all 'go home,' in a sense of increasing the love within the family, and increasing the faith of the whole family."
"We have to be safe muna," he stressed. "And help in whatever way we can to inspire people, and give them hope."
In the meantime, volleyball fans have to content themselves by watching the replays of games on ABS-CBN S+A, and tweeting as if the games were happening live. Players are even joining the fun. Earlier this week, La Salle's Mika Reyes, Kianna Dy, and Kim Fajardo, among others, excitedly tweeted while a replay of the UAAP Season 78 finals was shown.
Reyes, in particular, delighted her fans with her pointed commentary, though the former La Salle star made it clear that she was simply having fun.
"Stay safe, everyone. Sana hindi boring 'tong Sunday afternoon niyo," Reyes tweeted after watching a replay of their Final 4 game against Far Eastern University. "Let's keep the positivity. Ang saya na makita kong nage-enjoy din kayo."
(For more sports coverage, visit the ABS-CBN Sports website).