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The first time I saw Aiza Maizo play was back in 2007, during the 4th Season, and the 2nd conference of the Shakey’s V-League. At the time, she was a bench player, playing second fiddle to another lefty opposite, Joanna Torrijos. If my memory serves me right, she came in the fifth set for Torrijos, in the third and final game between the powerhouse UST Tigresses and San Sebastian, in a Championship series that had gone down the stretch.

Maizo against San Sebastian. Photo courtesy of the Digital Photographer

Maizo against San Sebastian. Photo courtesy of the Digital Photographer

She almost clinched that winning point, in a massive smash that was eventually dug, but in the end, was crushed by another volleyball legend, Venus Bernal to seal the title for UST. That single spike from a then unknown lefty stupefied me. Who was this girl? And why was she just a bench player? No offense to Torrijos – who was a capable opposite spiker in her own right – but Maizo, during that brief moment of a well-orchestrated offense, was love at first spike.

Of course, it was hard to make a name in a UST team overflowing with talent. The great Mary Jean Balse was the centerpiece of the España-based volleyball squad, along with the aforementioned powerhouse, Venus Bernal. There was also the feisty open spiker Angeli Tabaquero, and fresh-faced setter Denise Tan. It was a mammoth team, which boasted of an equally talented guest player in Suzanne Roces.

The powerhouse UST Women's Volleyball Team. Photo courtesy of the Digital Photographer

The powerhouse UST Women’s Volleyball Team. Photo courtesy of the Digital Photographer

Latigay against a UST triple block. Photo courtesy of the Digital Photographer

Latigay against a UST triple block. Photo courtesy of the Digital Photographer

San Sebstian’s own squad was brimming with talent. A perennial title contender, SSC had the prized Thai import, Jaroensri Bualee, now a fixture of the local volleyball tournaments, as well as the Jodi Sta. Maria-dead ringer, Laurence Ann Latigay. They were two titan teams of the local volleyball echelon.

The popular Thai import, Baulee. Photo courtesy of the Digital Photographer

The popular Thai import, Baulee. Photo courtesy of the Digital Photographer

Months before, UST had won the championship in their mother league, the UAAP, against a scrappy FEU team with a similar, championship tradition. During the collegiate tournament, Maizo was still a back-up setter. Recruited by the legendary Coach August Sta. Maria more for her height than her volleyball skills at the time, Maizo was a footnote against her teammates, with occasional appearances in a few games.

The following UAAP season, UST relinquished its title to FEU in the Final Four, and dropped to third place. Aiza Maizo was nowhere to be found. I later learned she was focusing on her studies, thus seldom seeing her even in a tight-knit UST campus, as she worked on her academics.

Battle of the MVP's: Maizo and Alarca. Phot by Cesar Bailan Jr.

Battle of the MVP’s: Maizo and Alarca. Phot by Cesar Bailan Jr.

When UAAP Season 71 came into view, all talk was on the DLSU women’s team, and deservingly so. They had the phenomenal Manilla Santos to lead their offensive prowess, and a blocking system like no other in the local volleyball scene. UST lost key players in Bernal and Balse who graduated, while the lone veteran left, Tabaquero, decided to focus on the beach volleyball tournament instead. August Sta. Maria suffered a health setback, and had to be replaced by his assistant coach, Shaq Delos Santos. There were new faces. There was a new system in place. But she was, at least, back. Aiza Maizo. Jersey number 8. Infinity, I thought. A rising star in my heart.

With no Balse and Bernal to guide a relatively young team, Maizo took the cudgels and led a rebuilding UST squad to finish third. In the process, she was molded into an all-around player: her offensive skills combined physical prowess and incredible court sense; her reception was commendable; her blocking made her a threat among powerhouse open spikers. She received, she blocked, she spiked, she finished long rallies, executed combination plays, and scored the crucial points. Joined by the prodigious Rhea Dimaculangan, and a young yet promising Maika Ortiz, they fought hard as an underdog team.

Powerhouse volleyball team

Powerhouse volleyball team

A year later and the UST Women’s Volleyball Team found itself renewed as a formidable force in the sport. Tabaquero was back to indoor volleyball for her last playing year. The towering Din Din Santiago, and pint-sized phenom Maruja Banaticla – both from UST’s Girl’s team – joined the now more experienced Maika Ortiz, future beach volleyball MVP, Judy Caballejo, and a much improved libero in Jessica Curato.

With so much offensive talent, only a cerebral Rhea Dimaculangan could orchestrate volleyball plays that caught the tall, lean, and equally athletic defending champions – the DLSU Lady SpikerS – off guard. They won Season 72, and a slew of other tournaments. It was, as they coined it, a grand slam. While it was a team effort, Maizo’s role could not be discounted. She was the centerpiece of the UST offensive and defensive arsenal. As fans fondly call her, she was (and still is) Kapitana.

We all know what happened after the seemingly glorious year for both the women’s and men’s team of the UST Volleyball Program. Players graduated. Other transferred. Crippled by the sudden loss of key players, Maizo and company could only do so much to defend their crown. DLSU took it by Season 73. And they’ve had it ever since. Of course, the petty talk was Maizo not being awarded by the Most Valuable Player in her last year, when barring statistics aside she was truly, so valuable, and in fact too valuable to the UST team. She was a scoring machine in almost every department. She was a true captain who led by example. Not once was she fazed, not even when they saw themselves losing to lower-ranked teams. Failure was part of the business of sport. Maizo knew it. But she never dwelled on it. Instead, she played the game the best way she knew she could – with heart. She graduated with a silver medal. Not too shabby, I said to myself.

Maizo against the powerhouse DLSU Team

She played a couple more tournaments in Manila before she returned to her province. It was strange seeing her in different teams. But it was the only Maizo fix one could enjoy, so who was I to complain. In the last year or so, I never thought Maizo would be back. After all, she found love outside volleyball. And with that love, was a beautiful fruit. She had discovered motherhood, and she was blessed. How could she return? How would she return? To be on top of volleyball, you had to be in condition. I was happy for her, of course. But I was secretly frightened all that talent would end up in a rut.

But what can I say? Maizo has always proven the naysayers wrong, even if she has nothing left to prove.

She finally returned to the volleyball court this year, and joined her former team, this time as a guest player. She changed. Many of these changes were physical. But she still had it. And with each game played, she regained her confidence, her fitness, and her volleyball heart – which to be quite honest, I doubt she ever lost. She once again led her team by example, passing on to the younger UST players her experience, her confidence, and her love for the game. UST finished third. Not bad for a team which was shut out of the UAAP Final Four for the first time in years. It was all about working hard to be on the top, and the new team had to start somewhere. Maizo was only there to teach and to guide. She won’t be playing in the UAAP any longer, so the players had to take their lessons seriously.

Maizo playing as a middle blocker in the Philippine Superliga

Maizo playing as a middle blocker in the Philippine Superliga

Thanks to a series of other local tournaments, Maizo once again, became a fixture of the volleyball scene. In every set and match, the lefty opposite from Iloilo showcased the talent that had carved her name in Philippine volleyball. Veterans admired her. Her teammates loved her. And the young phenoms of today know she has set a standard that has yet to be matched.

The phenomenal Valdez against Maizo. Courtesy of the Philippine Star

The phenomenal Valdez against Maizo. Courtesy of the Philippine Star

It’s this respect and love other players give Maizo which warms my heart. People speak in superlatives, but I guess only Maizo has ever deserved them.

Now, the centerpiece of the UST team is the main arsenal of the recently formed Women’s National Squad. Finally, I thought to myself. Her talent deserves a spot in the international competition. After all, she has been the biggest threat even to the best import players in the local tournaments, and the closest we could get to a true, international-caliber volleyball player.

Up against the world's best. Photo courtesy of the AVC.

Up against the world’s best. Photo courtesy of the AVC.

Of course, others will argue. Today’s taller, leaner, and meaner college standouts and their slew of hysterical fans will argue. But I’ve always let the story, and the game, speak for itself. In its first stint since god knows when at the Asian Volleyball Championship, Maizo has been leading the national team. Against a top-ranked Chinese squad, she found ways to score despite inexperience in the global volleyball arena. She aptly scored that winning point in our nation’s first victory in the AVC against Sri Lanka. It was a fitting accomplishment for Maizo.

The historic match against the powerhouse China

Who cares if the opponent is a 6’5 Chinese superstar? Who cares if she gets roofed by the fast middle blockers of stronger national teams? Maizo played her game, stood her ground, and brought pride to her nation along with the other fearless Pinays in the team. She demonstrated the true heart of a champion.

Tabauqero, Soriano, and Maizo celebrate at the AVC. Photo courtesy of Yahoo PH News

Tabauqero, Soriano, and Maizo celebrate a point at the AVC. Photo courtesy of Yahoo PH News

Along with the feisty and tough Angeli Tabaquero (who endured a sprain and kept on playing), the strong and powerful middle blocker Tubino, and the charming Chi Saet for setting duties, the national team made sure the other teams will not take them lightly. The old school volleyball heart will always hurdle an obstacle. The task for the women was Herculean. And yet, they have succeeded, in ways beyond what the scoreboard tells you.

I remember during the Season 72 finals a fan holding out a sign as the UST crowd erupted in cheers when Maizo – and the rest of the team – strung a series of points to catch up, and leave the DLSU Spikers behind, and eventually clinch the UAAP Women’s Volleyball Crown. It simply said “Mighty Maizo”.

Today, more than ever, the adjective rings true. Here was a woman who was never scouted as a prized rookie for the big teams. Here was a woman who had to sit on the bench as a substitute player in her early playing years. But Coach August Sta. Maria spotted something in her, something we all know by now – the passion to play.

Through hard work, unimaginable dedication, and sheer heart, she earned her spot not just in the starting six, or in the scoring leader boards, or individual awardees, or a chance to represent the country. She earned her spot in my heart, a little niche especially carved for the woman who is undoubtedly the Queen of Philippine Volleyball.

Most Valuable Player. Photo courtesy of GMA News

Most Valuable Player. Photo courtesy of GMA News

And I’m sure, if you’re reading this, she has earned a spot in yours. Mighty Maizo isn’t only the most valuable volleyball player we have in the country right now. She’s also, for most of us who love the sport, a valuable person we can look up to and say, hard work never goes unnoticed. It will always be rewarded in ways beyond the tangible.

God bless Aiza Maizo! And God Bless the Philippine women’s national volleyball team!