Alyssa Valdez & the domination of Philippine volleyball

In the last 15 years, Philippine women’s volleyball went from UAAP campus craze to pro league-flaunting national obsession. Many would argue that one Batangueña led the sport to its astronomic ascent, where it boasts the kind of arena-packing fan hysteria that foreign volleyball nations are envious of. To spike a phenomenon, after all, a “phenom” is sometimes necessary.

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Relentless as it’s been, the rain will have to work a little harder to keep Filipino volleyball fans at bay. Despite the downpour and the gridlock that’s formed around Pasig’s PhilSports Arena, a sizable crowd has gathered, spilling past the steps that lead up the entryway.

“Ito, galing pang Samar,” says Edz Tabacon on the lengths her fan club has taken to support their idol, player Jema Galanza. Their all-female group ranges in age from 19 to Tabacon’s 54. Huddling the furthest from the arena doors, they await just a few more members. “Yung iba, galing pa ng Korea,” Tabacon proudly declares. “Kanina pang madaling araw sila lumipad.”

Like Tabacon and her companions, the majority who’ve gathered here at least two hours before the next match sport the colors of Galanza’s team, the Creamline Cool Smashers. Dominating a sea of masked faces and umbrellas is the color pink, from team merch spanning face towels and windbreakers, to a blush-toned hijab and hair streaked in various shades of Barbie.

Among the 11 teams that make up the Philippine Volleyball League (PVL), our nation’s top volleyball league, the Cool Smashers are its reigning homegrown team. An earlier match between the Petro Gazz Angels and F2 Logistics Cargo Movers draws a decent turnout, with lower box seating as patchy as an unfinished puzzle. But right before Creamline’s game against the PLDT-sponsored High Speed Hitters, the audience builds to the height of a tsunami, cresting toward the arena’s upper reaches.

Across three unnervingly close sets, PLDT commands roars from the crowd as it threatens the Cool Smashers’ lead, but Creamline ignites something wilder in fans. From Galanza’s effortless saves to Tots Carlos’s blitzkrieg moves, ice-blue hair like lightning with every swift block or spike, the crowd becomes positively feral. The drum line erupts. Foam noodles flicker. The PhilSports Arena becomes a pulsating mass of pink.

How a Philippine volleyball game reached this level of attendance and hysteria is due largely to one figure on the court. Even as she recovers from injuries that have trailed her in her late 20s, Creamline’s team captain, Alyssa Valdez, has remained a steady source of power.

On Alyssa Valdez: dress by TOQA, vintage bomber jacket from JONES ARCHIVE. Photo by JL JAVIER

Beyond sheer athleticism, it’s Valdez’s demeanor that continues to captivate. Just a couple weeks ago, she turned 30. And while half of her time on earth has been spent competing on courts like this, her entire being still vibrates glee for the game. It’s a declaration that for as long as the game will allow her, she’ll make every second on this court count.

More impressive than every spike Valdez continues to land like a missile is her unfaltering smile. Often, it’s so wide that it causes her cheeks to crinkle. When the other team gets the point, that smile only intensifies, drawing her teammates in for a reassuring flurry of high fives and thumbs up.

Valdez seems to have a calming effect on Creamline; an ease so transportive, it’s as if they’re playing a breezy, lighthearted game on the beach. Long before the final buzzer declares they’ve won, their solidarity has already stood victorious.

To someone in the audience, the team’s warmth is so palpable, it’s as if you’re part of their hopeful huddle. So that even as the rain rages outside, you, like the thousands who’ve attended today, feel like you belong to something.

“If you need inspiration and motivation, grabe sila,” Alyssa Valdez says of Filipino volleyball fans. “We always say they’re our seventh man, the supporters.”

“If you need inspiration and motivation, grabe [yung fans]. We always say they’re our seventh man, the supporters.”

A week has passed since her game with PLDT, where even in the midst of intense gameplay, Valdez occasionally took the time to wave to the frenzied crowd. “Honestly, hindi pa rin ako sanay. It’s still weird for me that people really take the time to watch us play volleyball.”

Valdez still remembers when her games drew just a handful of spectators. What started as a way to kill time as a kid became a preoccupation at the University of Sto. Tomas, when her name lured scouts as early as the fifth grade. “In my high school or early college days, hindi rin talaga namin napupuno yung arena,” she remembers. Back then, even her basketball-loving family barely followed the game.

Soon, however, "the timing was perfect,” she says. In her sophomore year of college, Valdez was snapped up by the Ateneo de Manila varsity women’s volleyball team amid its growing reputation in the sport. With an elite crop of players dubbed the “Fab 5” including Fille Cainglet-Cayetano and Gretchen Ho, Ateneo finally had a chance at besting its longtime rival, De La Salle University.

In 2008, ABS-CBN began broadcasting the UAAP’s volleyball tournament after noticing the competition intensifying at the collegiate level. But it wasn’t until 2011, when La Salle’s indomitable team clashed with Ateneo’s Fab 5, that the sport attracted the kind of mania comparable only to men’s basketball. “When there are more competitive Ateneo-La Salle games as opposed to previous years, there’s more talk,” says Boom Gonzalez, who was a commentator for ABS-CBN at the outset of its UAAP volleyball coverage. “When there are more conversations, there’s more coverage. A rivalry spills from basketball to volleyball, the fans start watching, and it creates a following.”

When Valdez began playing in UAAP Season 74, a burgeoning following witnessed the debut of her spiking supremacy. But no matter how close she and the Fab 5 clawed their way to the championship, the team would still lose to La Salle. Season 75 concluded with the Lady Eagles wrapped in a consoling embrace, their tears captured live on national TV. “It was like a teleserye and we were the underdog,” Valdez says, citing the combination of Twitter commentary and television coverage in setting public interest for volleyball ablaze.

On Alyssa: Top by TOQA. Photo by JL JAVIER

Like any good drama, of course, new characters and trials are only bound to capture more viewers. The Fab 5 soon graduated, Valdez became team captain, and Ateneo would ratchet up its training program by hiring a coach from Thailand. To this day, Valdez refers to the training she endured then as “traumatic.” From the meager English that Coach Tai Bundit spoke, what came through to Valdez and her teammates were jabs at their lack of skills and conditioning, but also a curt command that became her life’s mantra: “Heart strong.” It served as their coach’s reminder that no matter how tough he made their lives, and in turn, how grueling a competition could get, only sheer love and gratitude for the game draws the strength necessary to win.

To the players, Coach Tai’s tough training program was mainly a source of exasperation, where their locker room rants strengthened their camaraderie. But by UAAP Season 76, Valdez and the Lady Eagles demonstrated exactly what “Heart strong” meant. “That was the first time that we heard people driving or flying in from provinces to watch her play and go against her fiercest rival then, La Salle,” remembers Gonzalez, estimating that UAAP women’s volleyball drew up to 70% of spectators with no collegiate affiliation, as opposed to UAAP basketball audiences that consisted mainly of alumni, friends of alumni, and students.

Volleyball was on its way to becoming a national phenomenon. Through the next UAAP seasons, it was clear who its most visible star was. “If Ateneo had a phenom basketball player in Kiefer Ravena, Alyssa Valdez was the phenom in volleyball,” says Gonzalez, who christened her the title as she and her Lady Eagles ended La Salle’s rule and won the championship in 2014.

Ateneo would dominate the next two collegiate tournaments, showcasing a team that moved like a six-headed beast, as if its members were hyper-aware of each other’s moves. Mostly, the matches were a glorious showcase of spikes and serves by Valdez, the game’s merciless MVP and top scorer. “[The Fab 5] had their own strengths individually, but Alyssa took it to the next level. The way she flew, the way she was very focused, the way she never seemed to be nervous. And she was humble, which I think is her number one trait if you ask me,” says Gonzalez. “She was super relatable. Even opponents loved her, or at least wanted to take pictures with her.”

On Alyssa: Swim top and pants by TOQA, vintage Miu Miu harness vest, socks and sneakers by NIKE. Photo by JL JAVIER

By now, fans were well aware of Valdez’s modest rural upbringing, growing up in a rickety home surrounded by dusty fields. To see a gangly girl from San Juan, Batangas soar while striking down any odds pelted against her? That can be intoxicating to someone who comes from similar means. And if she remains wide-eyed and gracious no matter her countless triumphs, even more so.

Valdez’s charm even managed to attract the only other person who truly shared her celebrity: Kiefer Ravena. Following Ravena’s admission of love on “Tonight with Boy Abunda,” their romance wasn’t just crossover gold, it was public relations platinum, throttling the couple to the sort of Filipino fixation only showbiz love teams enjoyed.

In its 78th season, UAAP women’s volleyball saw its highest turn-out yet. An estimated record 22,000 spectators came to see Game 1 of Ateneo versus La Salle at the Araneta Coliseum. “That broke Ateneo-La Salle basketball records. It broke PBA records,” says Gonzalez. Valdez’s final year in college competition saw her team lose to La Salle, but she exited with her third MVP title and a massive fanbase eager to follow her next move.

Once she’d wrapped up her time at the UAAP, the big leagues were ready to welcome her. Alongside Valdez’s journey to becoming a household name, the competitive tiers that once bolstered professional volleyball in the Philippines were making a comeback. Shedding its prime sponsorship, the Shakey’s V-League reintroduced itself as the Premier Volleyball League (PVL). While its games had been televised since 2013, the PVL’s rebrand asserted the sport’s national significance, brandishing a slew of club teams backed by major sponsors like Chery Auto and Rebisco’s Choco Mucho and Creamline brands. From the latter was one of the league’s most exciting new acquisitions: Valdez.

“Before, you’d give your all in the UAAP, then you get a job and work your ass off after college, diba?” Valdez says of the dead end that college athletes once met after graduating. “Now, there’s a professional league and volleyball is a career—a sustainable career for the next years, or decades.”

“Now, there’s a professional league and volleyball is a career—a sustainable career for the next years, or decades.”

Off the court, Valdez had also kick-started a new industry for players. “A lot of the volleyball players who now have endorsements have her to thank,” says Gonzalez, likening Valdez to Michael Jordan in mining advertisements, be it Gatorade or Popeye’s Chicken. “It wasn’t unheard of for an athlete. But for a volleyball player, it just never happened. Alyssa was the one who opened that door.”

Spurred by greater income streams and an increasingly dynamic volleyball calendar, players could evolve locally in the sport. Beloved athletes who’d built their followings through past collegiate conferences reunited in the PVL. Old rivalries were rekindled; new alliances were formed; and each season gave longtime fans more opportunity to witness all the action.

“When the PVL was broadcast on TV, the fans followed,” says the PVL’s commissioner, Tony Boy Liao. “Whether it’s in Mall of Asia or PhilSports, you’ll really see the fans go wild from players just entering the court. Wala pang ginagawang maayos [ang players], nagsisigawan na yung mga fans.”

Before forming three fan clubs dedicated to PVL team Choco Mucho, Kim Regio’s interest in the sport sprung from watching the UAAP on TV. Support for Ateneo grew into fascination with the team’s Season 80 “Best Setter,” Deanna Wong, a rookie when Valdez first led their team to the championship, and one of numerous proudly queer women in the league.

On Alyssa Valdez: dress by TOQA, vintage bomber jacket from JONES ARCHIVE. Photo by JL JAVIER

The fan club she founded for Wong now boasts 125,000 members and has since become a shrine to the entire Choco Mucho team. “Bakit hindi na lang suportahan lahat ng players instead of isa lang na player, para ma-appreciate ng players na lahat sila, mahal namin?” says Regio, encouraging fan groups to unify in raising the overall profile of each team, and of Philippine volleyball itself.

The 39-year-old former sixth grade teacher has found even greater upliftment from her sport. Last year, Regio organized Wong’s first meet-and-greet, which not only sold out within 24 hours but also donated a portion of sales to schools in dire need of sports equipment.

Often, the cut Regio gets from selling merch or reserved tickets goes to a team’s cheering needs, be it hiring drummers or crafting player bobble heads to spin to their beat. Paraphernalia aside, real fandom happens on the court, she declares.

“Hindi pwedeng wala ako dun sa game,” she says of the role she’s assumed in raising pep among fans, especially when Wong and the rest of Choco Mucho’s Flying Titans need it most. “Lalo na ‘pag apektado ang score. ’Pag sinabi kong tumayo, tatayo. ‘Pag sinabi kong hiyaw, kailangan nating humiyaw.”

“More than just cheering, now alam na nila yung rules,” says Valdez of how spectators from the UAAP days have deepened their knowledge in the sport. In some cases, however, fans have gone a little further in digging up information than what a player might be comfortable with.

“I think sometimes lang, mas-involved sila sa personal lives ng players,” Valdez observes.

These days, simply Googling a player’s name can lead to a rabbit hole of Twitter threads and YouTube accounts dishing on everything from feuds to love triangles. Of course, Valdez herself has been a prime topic of conversation, especially after she and Ravena called it quits on their relationship last year.

While publicity, even of the unwanted sort, is further proof of the sport’s significance, everyone from Liao to Regio share the hope that Philippine volleyball swells from national obsession to international recognition.

Liao recalls glimmers of Philippine volleyball greatness as far back as the 1970s, when the women’s national team bagged five gold medals at the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games through the late ‘80s. Then, finally, in 1993, where he stood proudly as the team’s manager.

The last time the Philippine women’s team placed in the SEA Games was the bronze it won in 2005, a good decade before the sport picked up public interest once more.

“Hopefully in 2025, we’ll get a podium finish,” says Liao, who this year was elected chairman of the national team by the Philippine National Volleyball Federation Inc. (PNVFI). According to him, volleyball’s popularity through the UAAP and PVL sparked the revival of the national team, which since 2015 has made Valdez its flag bearer. More time spent on international courts will aid the national team, no doubt, such as the training it recently underwent in Japan. Even better: more time to prepare for the SEA Games, as Valdez has urged the federation in recent years.

On Alyssa: Top by TOQA , leather skirt by Raf Galang, shorts, and leggings by NIKE. Photo by JL JAVIER

When it comes to the Philippines’ international renown in volleyball, the SEA Games has at least witnessed the brilliance of our national men’s team, albeit on sandier terrain. In May, the Philippine men’s beach volleyball team bagged a bronze medal for its third straight year. Valdez, who recently became president of the Spikers’ Turf, the semi-professional league for Philippine men’s indoor volleyball, hopes the sport’s appeal broadens past the walls of an arena, and beyond women’s competitions. “Fans should see kung gaano ka-intense and saya din ng men’s volleyball natin,” she says, rattling off a list of athletes who’ve long deserved the spotlight, including indoor volleyball greats like Marck Espejo and Brian Bagunas. “Women’s volleyball didn’t take off naman in just a snap. [It took] great volleyball stories, as well, na hindi natin ma-script-script, so with more opportunities to showcase their talent, I believe lalaki din ang men’s volleyball.”

Gonzalez, whose sports coverage on Cignal TV now includes professional men’s league, The Spiker’s Turf, believes a bustling men’s volleyball realm in the Philippines may even give rise to its own version of Valdez. “Maybe, just maybe, there will be that one guy — or even a group of players — who will grab people’s attention,” he says. “That’s where it starts.”

As Philippine volleyball gradually gains global acclaim, it is Filipino fervor for the sport that’s caught international curiosity. In the past two years, the Philippines has hosted the Volleyball Nations League (VNL), bringing in world-class teams accredited by the sport’s global governing body. At a recent Italy vs. Japan match held at the Mall of Asia arena, attendance reached up to 12,000 spectators, piquing even the interest of the first lady and Manny V. Pangilinan. “It was a big surprise for them to watch the fans. It shows that we’re the craziest, most enthusiastic volleyball fans in the world,” says PNVFI president, Tats Suzara, awed by the fuss that even foreign men’s teams can cause among Filipinos.

“It’s great that the fans support other countries,” says Slovenian star player Rok Možič, reveling in the rapturous response to his team. “If your fans are this good, maybe the [local] leagues can also be developed so that they can get to a higher level each year.”

At this year’s VNL press-con, Suzara was confident in the Philippines welcoming global volleyball talent as well as producing it. “We are bidding to host the first-ever Women’s World Championship in 2025,” he said, adding that he’d set his sights on a new breed of UAAP players to compete at the event. “Ang problema sa professional players ng PVL is that they have their own calendar, so it’s better to focus more on college players who can commit for the next two years.”

The PVL alone will only continue to usher in new talent, and with it, fiercer competition, especially with the federation’s plans to add one more club team to its roster. “We’re only in the infancy stage of what volleyball and appreciation for the sport could be,” says Gonzalez, thrilling at a battleground now pitting legends like Valdez with a fresh crop of phenoms who grew up watching her, including Eya Laure and Faith Nisperos. “Idol ni Faith si Alyssa, diba? And you can’t tell me that Eya was not inspired by Alyssa. So now you have two generations playing in the same league. Marami pang mangyayari.”

Just last night, the PVL awarded its first foreign champion. Though Creamline dominated the conference and Valdez was back to scoring double digits, a tight game led to Japan’s Kurashiki Ablaze snatching the crown.

Back when the pandemic put a pause on sporting events, Valdez had considered an alternate, if inevitable reality — one where playing was no longer an option. “That’s the first time na sobrang tagal na walang sport na nag-define sa akin,” says Valdez, who found calm in candle-making, even launching a line of scented candles last year.

On Alyssa Valdez: dress by TOQA, vintage bomber jacket from JONES ARCHIVE. Photo by JL JAVIER

Whether it was recovery from dengue or a knee injury, the past few years have seen Valdez fighting to play more than soaring above the net. As she embarks on her 30s, Valdez is eager to see how much further she can take her time on the court. Just as fulfilling, however, is witnessing volleyball reach new heights in her homeland.

If anything, she’ll double down on the youth volleyball camps she’s organized for almost a decade now, ensuring that more kids across the nation get to learn the sport. At least if a gold medal continues to elude her generation, the next one should have a better chance at grabbing it.

“We used to just always see basketball rings on the streets before, diba?” Valdez remembers from her childhood. “Ngayon, kahit walang net, nagvo-volleyball yung tao. Kung basketball kasi, kahit mag-isa ka, pwede kang mag-dribble. But in volleyball, it’s just so much fun if you can volley.

“That’s the point — to volley it to other people. You get to interact, you get to know other people. That’s the beauty of volleyball for me."

Erratum: An earlier version of this article mentioned that Spiker's Turf is the semi-professional league for Philippine men’s beach volleyball. We apologize for this oversight.


Photos by JL JAVIER 
Additional reporting by GERIE MEDINA
Hair by MJ RONE assisted by DONALD LAPEZ
Produced by GABY GLORIA
Special thanks to VMG ASIA