Four top Pinoy athletes bringing act to Japan

MOZZY Ravena, being Thirdy's mother, saw the rise of his son as one of the best amateur basketball players in the country.

As a volleyball analyst, she witnessed Jaja Santiago blossom as one of the country's  top hitters.

She also saw Marck Espejo and Bryan Bagunas develop their skills and  become the best in men's volleyball.

Ravena was happy to watch them make  huge strides in their respective sports and  seeing  play in Japan pro leagues is an encouraging sign that their talents are  finally being noticed overseas.

Thirdy is set to play for San-En NeoPhoenix in the B-League for the 2020-21 season, while Santiago will have her third tour of duty for Ageo Medics in the Women's V-League soon.

In the Men's V-League, Bagunas is currently linked with Oita Miyoshi Weiss Adler, the same club team that Espejo played for two years ago.

"Of course when Filipino athletes talents are being recognized abroad, it means the our sports programs are slowly getting better. It takes a lot of guts and will power to be in another country alone, but these athletes are hungry to get better and that's their fuel to be mentally tough," saidMossy,  a former national women's volleyball standout in the late 80s.

A former National University star, the 24-year-old Santiago helped Ageo Medics win the bronze medal  in the 2019-20 season of the Women's V-League last January in her second season with the club - the first Filipina player to do so.

Santiago's exploits was noticed by the FIVB website last February, during which the Cavite City-born middle hitter talked about her experience of playing in the country's top-tier tournament.
"It was quite an enriching journey for me. It included many challenges along the way, but it was a rewarding one to cap off my first two seasons as a professional athlete," said Santiago in the feature article.

"My first year in Japan was very difficult and somewhat frustrating. I dealt with so many things like adjusting to a new environment, the culture and the people, and also adapting to harder training sessions," she added.

"I struggled a lot in practice because I could not really apply some of the basic skills, which I believe I am equipped with. I was afraid of committing basic mistakes, which made it harder for me to cope because my team are really keen on the basics. So each practice was a challenge which I needed to survive and surpass every single day."

Being away from her family is indeed a challenge for Santiago.

"There was also that struggle that you are away from your loved ones. I could not really vent about problems, and I could not even hug anyone or even cry to someone. However, these kinds of struggles made me stronger as an athlete because they taught me how to be more independent and mature," said Santiago.

"In my second year it was easier to cope with all the difficult situations that I encountered. I became more comfortable, happy, well-focused in practice and I felt I had a better connection with all the players in the team. I learned a lot from my teammates and my coaches," she added.

Santiago, who also played in the 30th Southeast Asian Games last year, has learned a lot from playing in Japan, which is one of the top volleyball nations in Asia.

"My coach (former USA coach Toshiaki Yoshida) would spend time on me with one-on-one sessions in blocking, just to get the right form and speed. He really dedicated his time to improve every single skill that he thinks I am capable of improving," said Santiago.

"The best part comes when it’s time to play because our coaches don't make us feel pressured on the court. They will just guide you and coach you in the best possible way. They are very calm and smart during the matches and it is up to me to apply everything I have learned from them through my performance," she added.

"Above all, I learned to be a professional athlete by becoming more disciplined, being more focused and prepared for each match. I have learned a lot from this experience, but I will not stop here. Every opportunity is a challenge to conquer and every challenge is a chance to learn something new."

After receiving the Mr. Volleyball award from the Philippine Sportswriters Association last March, Bagunas immediately flew back to Japan to continue his commitment with Oita Miyoshi.  Bagunas returned to the country last month after a pre-season tournament was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A native of Balayan, Batangas, Bagunas plans to fly back to Japan in August or September to resume his commitments.

Like Santiago, the 22-year-old Bagunas was also featured in the FIVB website.

Conspiring with Espejo in leading the Philippines to a silver finish which ended a 42-year medal drought at the SEA Games, Bagunas credited his learning from playing in the Japan Men's V-League.

“Playing for Oita Miyoshi Weisse Adler in the Japan V-League was another exciting experience in my career. It was incomparable to the local leagues I have been in and even to international competitions I have participated in. It offered a similar but different experience, in a sense that I am familiar with the place because our university trained a lot there and got accustomed to the programmes, but different because I got the chance to play with Japanese and other foreign players," said Bagunas.

“There are differences in training techniques because there is more focus on the physical aspect from strong to slow hits in the Philippines, while there is more focus on playing techniques like in serving, receiving, spiking, digging and blocking in Japan," he added.

“I learned a lot from my Japanese coaches and trainers. I have to be mindful and patient with every point, down to not compromising the basics skills like being in proper receiving position and having good service fundamentals. I also developed a good mindset and focus in the match. I learned that I should always be alert and have the presence of mind on each and every move of the opponent."

The first Filipino player to suit up in the Men's V-League, Espejo admitted that it takes a little time for him to fully adjust not only in the level of play but also with Japan's culture.

“Sa pag-adjust naman siyempre mahirap sa start pero kung gusto mo naman ginagawa mo makaka-adjust ka naman kaagad di ba?” said Espejo in a 2018 online interview.

“Sobrang saya siyempre pero mahirap din, first international club league ko. Masaya and very approachable ang team,” the Marikina native.

Older brother Kiefer has a simple advice to Thirdy, the first Filipino basketball player to be signed in the B-League.

"He told me to just play my game. I have to make sure I represent the Philippines in the best way that I can," said Thirdy.

Filipino sports fans hope that there will be more athletes aside from Thirdy Ravena, Santiago, Bagunas and Espejo to play and succeed in the international stage.

"For Filipinos, we should feel proud and support these athletes because they are a source of pride for us. We should pray for their safety and success," said Mozzy.