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Directors’ Cut: the making of a Champion

“It was a long time coming.”

Those were the words that Russell Balbacal, sports director of Akari Lighting & Technology Corp., spoke when asked about the recent success of the Adamson women’s volleyball program. Late in 2019, the Lady Falcons rose to relevance as they dominated the competition in the PVL Collegiate Conference. The win ended the team’s nine-year title drought. But the events that led to this magical run was nothing like a five-minute short story. It was more of a climax to a full-length film, one that was directed by two gentlemen who worked behind the scenes.

Prior to the PVL crown, Adamson struggled in recent years. They missed the Final Four in the last five UAAP seasons, two of which they fell at the bottom of the standings. This academic year should have been the rebuilding phase of the volleyball team, with nine rookies in their PVL lineup.

Even their high school counterparts performed well. A team that’s accustomed to hovering around the middle of the pack, the Baby Falcons made a Cinderella run to the UAAP Juniors’ division finals for the first time in the school’s history, which ended in a second-place finish.

Akari first served as a sponsor for the Soaring Falcons in 2014, with the company’s logo plastered on the team’s jerseys. In 2015, Fr. Aldrin Suan became the director of Adamson’s Office of Athletics and Recreation. It was supposed to be a temporary role for him since he was also the chair of the university’s social sciences department at that time.

Even with the difficult task of juggling two roles simultaneously, he took the challenge head-on. He knew that Adamson was presented with a golden opportunity to uplift some of its sports programs. “Before Akari, our men’s basketball, women’s volleyball, and cheerdance teams were at the lower half of the standings [in the UAAP]. With Akari on board, we knew that a lot of things would change,” he said. In 2016, he assumed the role as Adamson’s sports director full-time.

That’s how the partnership of Russell and Fr. Aldrin began. Together, they were set on a mission to change the course of Adamson’s sports programs. They kicked things off with a bang with the hiring of coach Franz Pumaren as the head coach of the men’s basketball team.

The situation improved quickly for Adamson men’s basketball team, thanks to the arrival of a decorated coach. However, the women’s volleyball team took a longer path towards success. “Unlike in basketball where we got an established name in coach Franz, we knew that volleyball would require more effort both on Akari and Adamson,” Russell said. He knew that for Adamson to win, they had to work from the bottom up. They started the rebuilding process by bringing in a coach that could build a winning culture within the team. “We really needed to hire a talented coach in order to push the kids to perform well and to be familiar with the international standard,” Fr. Aldrin stated.

They also had to recruit players for the team. “Hindi naman pwedeng hintayin na lang namin yung mga tao na lumapit at mag-try out sa amin. We have to be aggressive in looking for them if we want something to happen here,” Russell said.

Unfortunately, both parties didn’t have the wide connections to reach as many talents as they could, so they had to build the network on their own. “Kung saan-saan kami nakakarating para makahanap ng coach saka players,” Russell added. From Palarong Pambansa to inter-city leagues, they followed every lead they could find in search for the best talents in the country. Akari even organized a nationwide tournament in 2018 called Akari Nationals.

Finding the right players was half the battle though. They still had to convince them to come over to Adamson. “In recruitment, we are not just dealing with the players but also with the parents,” Russell said.

The players and the parents should believe that it’s in their best interest to move to San Marcelino. With this in mind, Adamson and Akari worked hand-in-hand to provide meal allowances and housing to the players so that they could live comfortably as student-athletes. “We explored different options for housing. Now, we settled with a dormitory within the campus which is near the gym. Akari donated the fixtures for the building,” Fr. Aldrin stated.

The path to the Lady Falcons’ success was a roller-coaster ride.  “A lot has changed in the way we handle things. Dati akala namin basta tama yung lineup, okay na. Ngayon, naintindihan na namin na pati equipment kailangan,” Russell said. Just this season, Adamson tapped Mozzy Ravena as team consultant to monitor the team’s needs. Tai Bundit also came in as skills and training consultant. With them came the flurry of equipment, from volleyballs to athletic tapes to massage gun, to ensure that everyone in the team will perform at their best.

One thing remained constant in the midst of the changes: their relentlessness in recruiting the top players in the country. Over the past years, highly coveted players like Trisha Genesis and Louie Romero committed to Adamson. “Dito ako nagpunta kasi alam kong aalagaan talaga nila kami,” Louie exclaimed.

Aside from recruiting the top high school players to come over to Adamson, player development was also streamlined to the program with the strengthening of the juniors’ team with the likes of Lorene Toring playing for the Baby Falcons and is set for her UAAP seniors debut with the Lady Falcons in Season 82.

Everything finally fell into place for Adamson. By the end of the PVL Collegiate Conference, a rookie-laden squad in blue and white raised the trophy after sweeping UST in the finals. Suddenly, all those memories of the team’s struggles for the past decade were pushed aside. Happiness was all over the huddle as the team that once suffered one heartbreak after another successfully came back to the spotlight of collegiate volleyball scene.

But even as they enjoy the fruits of their labor, the duo of Russell and Fr. Aldrin never ceases to set the team up for success in the coming years. To prepare for the upcoming UAAP season, the team is currently in Bangkok for an eleven-day training camp. Adamson will also experience an influx of youngbloods next year as they already secured the commitment of six graduating players from their juniors’ team: Kate Santiago, Rochelle Lalongisip, Ella Toring, May Nuique, Jen Villegas, and Ckyle Tagsip.

For years, Adamson tried many things for their women’s volleyball program to soar greater heights. The path they took towards success was long and difficult. The competition won’t get easier for Adamson though. The UAAP volleyball tournament has always been a grand battle royale on television, and it will always be. Every team will be ready to contend for the crown. But now that they are finally on the right track, there’s no stopping the Lady Falcons from soaring even higher.

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