It’s May 14, 2018 and voters nationwide are in their respective precincts, trying to decide which candidates among those who are running for village (barangay) chairman and councillors (kagawad) they want to lead their community. For one Desiree Wynea Cheng, her pending decision, whether to play out her fifth and final year for the DLSU Lady Spikers or not, has as much effect to the Lasallian community, easily the size of an small barangay on game days, and the rest of the UAAP as well.
Much like former team captain and one of the best and finest setters to ever don the La Salle colors, Kim Fajardo, two years ago, Desiree’s participation next season remains in the air and will not be known by the public anytime soon (at least, officially and as of writing).
The Season 79 Finals MVP explained: “Nandoon pa ako ngayon sa process na decision-making, hindi pa sure kung maglalaro. Yung reason naman ng decision is not because na ayaw ko (na) sa La Salle but maybe a different reason which is for me nalang muna.”
And further added: “Hindi naman kasi na nape-pressure ako, (na) kasi ako yung senior. It’s not about the pressure, it’s not about the coaches (or) my teammates. It’s because of me.”
Indeed, as the Lady Spikers said goodbye to three pillars this season, middle blocker Majoy Baron and Cheng’s batch mates Kim Kianna Dy and Dawn Macandili, Des, as the most senior member of the team, immediately inherits the leadership and “ate” mantle on the four-peat seeking squad next Season 81.
First two years and ACL injury
It’s actually been five year since Cheng, fresh off an MVP performance for powerhouse NCR at the 2013 Palarong Pambansa, joined a Lady Spikers team that just won their third title in a row (second three-peat) and was seeking a fourth straight title with a blue chip class of rookies.
Expectations, both from outside and within, easily got the best of the Hope Christian High School alumnae in her first two playing years and things spiralled quickly. “The first two years na nag-play ako sa La Salle and kahit sinong makakita, I was really, really a bad player, not that standard La Salle volleyball player. Hindi ko nami-meet yung standard ng mga kasabay ko (like Cyd Demicillo, Ara Galang, and Mika Reyes). Sobrang hirap ako mag-catch-up.”
“Yung first two years ko, very pressured ako to play. Very pressured in terms of na-hype ko (sarili ko) na ‘you (were) a superstar in high school, dapat ganito yung galaw mo’, high expectations yung mga tao sa akin, tapos hindi ko na-convert. Lahat ng mga sinasabi ng mga tao and then hindi pa ako maka-perform, parang nagsama-sama lahat. Wala akong nagalaw, wala akong nagawa. Then, yung morale ko pababa nang pababa.”
To add injury to insult and poor play, Desiree tore the ACL on her left knee during an exhibition game in Ozamiz City, Misamis Occidental in the middle of 2015. The injury and subsequent repair and rehabilitation forced her to miss the entire Season 78 and La Salle’s championship campaign after being beaten by the Ateneo Lady Eagles during the previous two finals.
However, coach Ramil de Jesus never stopped believing in Cheng’s potential and abilities, still showing confidence on his player even when Desire felt like she had little trust and faith in herself.
“Always na sinasabi ni coach (RdJ) na kaya kita kinuha, kaya kita napansin is because may potential kang tao, may potential kang player. Bihira lang magkaroon ng talented (player) talaga, sobrang konti lang ng mga noon. Siguro potential player ako kaya ako kinuha ni coach. Nasa sa iyo naman iyon (kung) gagaling ka o hindi, so kapag sinabihan ka ng coach mo na may potential ka, it’s up to you kung papaano mo gagawin iyon (live up to potential); kung paano mo gagamitin papunta roon sa peak mo.”
Even at her lowest point, de Jesus, who most of the team look up to and treat as their second father, always had Cheng’s back. “Noong na-injure pa ako, tapos ‘pag balik ko, (part) pa rin ako ng first six. Every year na mala-line-up ako, nandoon ako sa first six. Hindi niya ako tinatanggal. Doon palang (na)kita ko na yung trust ni coach sa akin, which hindi ko nakikita sa sarili ko noon pero si coach pala nakikita niya sa akin iyon. So very thankful talaga ako kay coach kasi hindi niya ako pinabayaan.”
From setback to comeback
Fast forward to the finals of Season 79. The Lady Spikers won Game 1 against the Lady Eagles and overcame a two sets to one deficit to win Game 2 and the school’s tenth championship.
Aside from Fajardo’s excellent leadership and orchestration of La Salle’s sets, Cheng was also a difference maker on the attacking, digging, and receiving skills. Averaging 10.66 points during the three-game series, Des even posted a “triple-double” of 12 points, 12 excellent digs, and 13 excellent receptions during the title-clinching game, a performance that earned her the finals MVP award.
For this past UAAP season, Desiree added another hardware to her trophy case, winning the Best Server award after tallying 0.66 aces/set during the two-round eliminations. Her elimination round total of 35 helped DLSU lord over the team serving department (2.72 aces/set) and easily became one of La Salle’s most feared weapons in Season 80.
“Very thankful talaga ako sa coaches niyan. Hindi naman namin hinahangad na magkaroon kami ng individual awards this year. Wala sa isip namin iyan, ang gusto namin is championship, ang gusto namin is three-peat. Sobrang thankful ako sa coaches lalo na kay coach Noel (Orcullo). Si coach Noel yung ka-one-on-one ko sa service.”
In the best of three finals, the three-peat seeking Lady Spikers found a familiar but at the same time, new co-star in the championship round. Numerous DLSU and FEU teams fought for volleyball supremacy during the early 2000’s, the most recent being in Season 71. The past six finals however, were all La Salle-Ateneo affairs, making the Season 80 pairing feel like a breath of fresh air and presented a new challenge to the two-time defending champions.
“Kung mapansin mo this year, makikita mo sa stats na FEU and DLSU are almost (neck-and-neck) sa serving and receiving. This year, labanan ng service receive yung game. Kapag sinong team ang wala(ng) service receive sa game, sure na mahihirapan to win. Nakita namin na FEU yung second sa amin (on most skill categories), so sinasabi na namin na baka FEU yung makalaban (sa finals). Tapos sobra rin iyong intensity nila sa laro; gusto talaga nilang manalo at makikita mo sa faces nila yung eagerness na pumalo ng ganyan, tapos puro utak din sila, hindi (lang) puro lakas.”
Pushed to fives set games during the two elimination round games, La Salle posted a pair of three set sweeps during the just concluded finals but don’t let the final scoreboard fool you into thinking that it was an easy task for Cheng and the rest of the team. “It was a relief (sweeping the Lady Tamaraws) kasi kapag nakakuha ng set ang FEU tataas yung morale nila, mahihirapan tayo. Minsan kung kelan sa dulo na ng set, doon sila nagpu-push, nagbabakasakali. Buti nalang noong finals, naging consistent din yung team (in terms of sticking to) coach’s gameplan.”
“This year nga, kung mapapansin mo may mga time na sobrang layo na ng team, sobrang layo na ng (lamang ng) kalaban sa score and then nahahabol ng team isa-isa. Nagulat din kami na may ganoong kaming (ability), na may ‘kapit’ factor this year na hirap na hirap kaming i-solve nung pre-season. Lagi ‘yun, wala kaming panapos. Kami yung mauuna and hindi kami mananalo kasi nahahabol kami. Noong UAAP naman, nabaligtad. Kami yung nagkakahabol.”
Ending the finals series early proved to be beneficial not only to the team but also on Cheng herself. Photos of her raising and crossing her arms at the baseline just as La Salle clinched the championship showed jubilation as much as relief to finally end a tiring and trying season.
“Thank you Lord. Thank you Lord, we’re done. You know why? Seriously, pa-end ng season, pababa na yung laro ko. Na-feel ko sa sarili ko na pababa na (yung level) ko. Kasi nag-peak ako noong end ng second round. Nafi-feel mo iyon e, kahit anong laban na gawin ko, yung (performance) ng katawan ko pababa na talaga. (Both on offense and defense) off na. Tsaka aminado ako na napagod talaga katawan ko. Before the game (Game 2), kinausap ko yung team, sabi ko ‘guys, please, whatever happens, tapusin na natin ito, this game. Ito na yung end, kasi kapag darating pa yung Game 3, feeling ko wala na talaga akong maitutulong.”
Favorite target per team and #AskDes
On a lighter note, despite invoking her right against self-incrimination when asked who her favorite service target is on each UAAP team, or favorite team to serve against for that matter, Cheng admits that a certain incident really fired her up mid-way through the season.
It was reported that her Twitter account (and turns out Instagram account too) got hacked just as DLSU was facing their worst stretch of the season: a five-set loss against the NU Lady Bulldogs, a lackluster win against the UE Lady Warriors, and a baffling, straight-sets loss versus the Adamson Lady Falcons.
However, it was still Desiree who got the last laugh as the incident served as a motivation. “Oo, oo talaga. Napansin niyo ba na after ma-hack yung accounts ko naging consistent yung laro ko both on offense and defense. Hyped talaga ako, na inis na inis ako na ‘bakit niyo akong kailangan i-hack e naglalaro lang naman ako.’ Sobrang stressed ako noong week na iyon. Kung hindi ako nagkakamali, the day na nahack yung accounts ko was (the) NU game na natalo kami ng five sets.”
For now, the most senior member of the now three-time defending UAAP champions is taking her sweet time. Enjoying the down time afforded to the team after a gruelling season marked by two-a-day practices and intense finals showdown. While the decision to play her remaining year in the UAAP seems to be the furthest from Desiree’s mind, playing volleyball continues as the Season 79 Finals MVP suits up for the F2 Logistics Cargo Movers for an invitational tournament in the Philippine Superliga (PSL).
The truth is, after five years of service and four years of putting on a La Salle jersey, asking her to decide to play in Season 81 now would sound selfish of us. She has earned the right to take a breather, ponder things and even joy the one of the perks of being of a 21-year old: social media (just search for recent tweets with #AskDes).
Whatever reason/s she may have of keeping the decision for herself at the moment, we are sure that it/these are valid and with a purpose. Unlike the millions who probably voted blindly and were misinformed/uninformed this past barangay elections, we are certain that Desiree will decide (vote) wisely; with a clear mind, a calm heart, and with her future in mind.