Words By: Naveen Ganglani
Photos by Karl delos Santos and Judean Mari Tirazona
Desiree Cheng was using her left hand to relax the goose bumps standing out on her right arm. In front of her are a pair of cameras waiting to record what she has to say weeks before her DLSU Lady Spikers embark on a quest to win a fourth straight UAAP women’s volleyball title. The challenge ahead of them, although always daunting, holds a little more weight in 2019.
After all, history is on the line.
The past three years have been monumental for the leader of these young Lady Spikers. Through will and resiliency, Cheng transformed herself from injury-prone recruit to UAAP Finals MVP to collegiate superstar in what feels like a snap of a finger. No matter what happens in her fifth and final year of playing eligibility, Cheng will forever be one of the most popular student-athletes the university has ever had, and in a school with many standouts like De La Salle University, there’s no overstating how significant that is.
So, what drives the 22-year-old to keep wearing green and white?
While many of her peers have moved on to the next stages of their respective careers, Cheng opted for one last ride. A lot of people, both in and out of La Salle, wondered for months whether or not the veteran would make that choice. Once she did, the thought of La Salle making history became more realistic.
No team in the Final Four era has won four straight women’s volleyball titles. La Salle has come close more than once in the past, but ultimately fell short each time. Ramil De Jesus, arguably the GOAT coach in Philippine volleyball, has the opportunity to add another legendary feat to his nearly spotless resume, and it’s no secret that with Cheng that becomes more reachable, mainly because what she brings to this team goes beyond her killer services that have haunted opposing teams for years.
“If ever we get the championship, syempre that’s history, it’s history dito sa La Salle,” Cheng says with a smile on her face. “Sobrang nakaka-kababa na nakaka-excite na parang ang sarap sa feeling na maging part ako, if ever sana, hopefully talaga…”
That sentence stopped prematurely, as did the smile curving on her face. As human beings, it’s easy for us to get caught up in success and believe that once it takes place regularly, then it will consistently be around. Cheng, who’s had her fair share of trials and tribulations, knows better. She’s been through the heartbreaking defeats against Ateneo, and in some of those battles, was powerless to contribute due to injuries which threatened to derail her career before it really got going.
That’s why when asked about the immediate objective she needs to accomplish, her shy and gentle nature is replaced by a more serious and straightforward tone.
“Iniisip ko lang [na] this year, personally, ako mismo, kailangan ko maging mature as a person,” she admits. “Hindi ko sila male-lead if hindi ako sa sarili ko, hindi ko kaya i-overcome yung mistakes ko sa loob ng court.”
She then asks, “Paano ko sila ma le-lead if ako mismo naiinis ako pag nagkakamali ako, nag ta-tantrums ako?”
Cheng, of course, is referring to the fact that more than half of La Salle’s roster is composed of student-athletes who have not been seasoned by the bright lights and pressure of the UAAP stage. As Season 81 progresses, so will the difficulties that the young Lady Spikers will have to face if this team is to defend its crown against opponents who are more than eager to take down La Salle. Just ask UP and UST, both of whom showed no hesitation in upsetting DLSU in the first round.
The good news for Cheng is that she isn’t alone. Michelle Cobb, who played remarkable in her first year as DLSU’s full-time setter last season, is now in her junior year and will also provide guidance to her younger teammates. Ditto for girls like May Luna, Tim Tiamzon, Aduke Ogunsanya, and more.
“Nag-usap kami lahat na hindi ko kailangan angkinin lang yung burden or yung challenge or yung pressure, yung responsibilities,” says Cheng. “Mag tulong-tulungan kami lalo na kaming seniors talaga.”
Make no mistake about it, however: Cheng is the undisputed leader of this team. Her abilities on the court – on-point service aces, deadly cross-court attacks, steady floor defense – are complemented by her relentless pursuit to keep improving both as a volleyball player and person. It sometimes feels as if Cheng doesn’t see what many who watch the Lady Spikers unconditionally believe: that she is the prototype leader for a program as distinguished and accomplished as De La Salle’s.
That’s why it should come as no surprise that De Jesus himself was the biggest advocate for her return. In fact, thanks to multiple injuries and the massive workload of being a Lady Spiker – don’t forget, these girls practice for hours after actual games if their coach isn’t pleased with their performance – Cheng made the decision to not come back. But just as she was about to break the news to her “father figure” here in Manila, she changed her mind at the final second.
“Bigla nalang ako napa, ‘oo’ nung sinabi niya na somehow, kailangan ka pa namin. Parang ako, ‘shocks.’ Yung sasabihin ko na coach pwede ba, ganon, sinabi niya yun, tapos sabi ko, ‘Ay coach, sige, I’ll play na po, I’ll help po.’ Tutulong ako sa team kasi sayang naman if ever may chance,” she recalls.
“Hindi pa sapat yung nabigay ko sa La Salle na sobra-sobra yung binigay nila saakin. Honestly talaga. Sobra-sobrang support and hindi nila ako binitawan.”
Ultimately, Cheng acknowledges the conversation with De Jesus drove her back to La Salle, but listen to her speak, and you’ll realize there’s more underneath the surface.
Each time Cheng spoke about guiding her young teammates, excitement manifested in her tone. “Excited ako mag laro for my last year and excited ako makasama sila, kasi iba eh, sobrang iba talaga from my role last year to this year.”
At the end of the day, after all the awards, championships, and fame, Cheng remains the down-to-earth, happy-go-lucky kid who loves the game, looks up to her mentors, and admires being part of a team.
That’s why she’s more of an MVP than any trophy can ever say.
And that’s why La Salle should consider itself lucky to have her.
Article was originally published in Vol. 17 No. 1 of AnimoMagazine.