When the shining moment slips away

column-rick olivaresPEOPLE dream about stepping up to the plate and belting a home run to win a World Series. Or pulling up for a game-winning jump shot just as time expires.

For Jonah Corpuz, middle blocker for the San Sebastian Lady Stags, it was a simple dream—she wanted to play volleyball. Correct that. She badly wanted to get on the floor and help her team win a championship.

You see, since she entered college, her team has been to the finals twice, yet, each time was denied. Now in her final playing year, the Lady Stags were back. They swept the elimination round to earn a thrice-to-beat advantage in the Finals. But that didn’t count for much, as the College of Saint Benilde (CSB) Lady Blazers spotted them a two-games-to-one Finals series lead.

Corpuz has seen her playing time dwindle over the past year as some of the younger players began getting more playing time. During Game One of the Finals, she played a few minutes in a loss. For Game Two, she played even fewer minutes. In Game Three where San Sebastian extended the series, she didn’t even get on the floor at all.

In this fourth game, her team was down two-sets-to-one. In the third set, the Lady Blazers looked like they were going to pull away for a three-set sweep at 14-10. Previously, the Lady Stags’ Katherine Villegas misfired on a shot and San Sebastian Head Coach Roger Gorayeb looked to his bench and called for Corpuz.

Hindi ko alam kung ano iisipin ko,” she recalled as she raced to the officials table. She was half-excited and half-worried as her team was down.

She offered a quick and silent player, “Sana matulungan ko team ko,” while hoping she didn’t screw up and go back to the bench on what could be her last college game.

Instead, she scored in the next possession to triumphantly announce her entry into the match.

In that same set with the score at 22-all, Corpuz scored three consecutive block points to give her side a pulsating 25-22 third-set win. Her teammates gathered ‘round her to congratulate her for her superb and uplifting performance.

“Magic bunot,” quipped San Sebastian Assistant Coach Clint Malazo as the two teams changed courts.

If you stand by the entrance to the court adjacent to the locker rooms of the San Juan Arena, you’ll always find Corpuz looking, glancing at the score of the ongoing match; waiting for the moment when her team could run onto the court for their match. That is how excited she is to play.

Corpuz hails from San Fernando, La Union, where basketball and surfing are big. Yet, the lass chose volleyball. ”’Yun [volleyball] ang gusto ko,” she softly offered. Although her world revolved around the Ilocos region, she did wonder about studying in Manila. She just never thought that volleyball would get her there.

An older sister of Jonah’s was working at a hotel along with former Lady Stags player Sasa Devanadera. She told the latter that she had a sister who was a volleyball player and Devanadera promptly tipped off Gorayeb about a possible find. Gorayeb checked out the prospect during the Palarong Pambansa and decided that she could come to Manila to play for him.

An excited Corpuz made her way to Manila to take up tourism for her college course and to play for Gorayeb’s Lady Stags who were back-to-back National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) champions. Little did she know her school would then fall into a drought while her playing time would go down through the years.

Now in Game Four of the Season 91 Finals, she had a chance to help her team win the prize that had eluded them for five years. Corpuz had chipped in seven huge points with five coming from block points and a couple from attacks down the middle. She had battled CSB’s frontline and gave them fits. At one point, Jeanette Panaga, CSB’s middle blocker who would win Finals Most Valuable Player (MVP) honors postgame, tossed up a high-arcing shot to prevent from being rejected by Corpuz. It backfired as San Sebastian not only received the ball but scored on their next offensive.

With the score 23-22, Corpuz was ready to serve. The serve lacked power and drifted outward where it hit the antenna for a service error; 24-22 for Benilde.

Corpuz couldn’t hide the pain in her face at the crucial error. She went to the bench, her face ashen, and unwilling to make eye contact with anyone. She looked up to the score and offered another prayer. But the Lady Stags were unable to make a kill. Benilde were the champions.

The graduating tourism major couldn’t hold back the tears inside the locker room. She broke down on several occasions. She felt she had let the team down. Her teammates consoled her. One said that had she not played magnificently at the net there would have been no fourth set. It was small consolation.

As she made her way out of the locker room, she hugged well wishers and struggled to hold back her emotions.

Ang masakit nito ay wala na siyang chance to make it up,” sadly noted Gorayeb on the way to his team’s postseason dinner at the Kamayan sa Edsa. “Pero hindi ko siya sinisisi. Ganyan talaga ang sports. Ako hindi ko na kailangan manalo ng championship. Gusto ko manalo para sa mga player ko, kasi mahirap din ’yung mga dinadaanan nila.”

With the NCAA volleyball season done, Jonah has just to finish her on the job training before taking the next step of her young life. She has a couple of options—to tryout for a team in the V-League or Philippine Superliga, or to work either in a hotel or even possibly as a stewardess.

Pero sana may chance na makapaglaro pa. Kahit konti,” she wished.

Is this for herself?

Para makatulong sa team na manalo ng championship.”

Some people dream of hitting big shots that will be immortalized forever. For the good-natured and soft-spoken Jonah Corpuz, well, her dreams are simple. “I just want to play.”

“And to help a team win a championship.”