After the Ateneo Lady Eagles failed to advance to the finals last season, Bea De Leon considered foregoing her fifth year.
With encouragement from the Ateneo community, however, De Leon decided to give it one last shot. Now, she ends her collegiate career with two championships and a Finals MVP award.
"It's the best decision I ever made," De Leon said after Ateneo swept UST in Game 3 of the finals. "I'd choose this over anything. First and last. That's a Cinderella story, that's a fairy tale."
De Leon began her UAAP stint on a high note, immediately clinching the title in her rookie year. That was the second of Ateneo's back-to-back championship runs.
The next three years, however, proved to be challenging. De Leon and the Lady Eagles lost the crown to La Salle in Seasons 78 and 79, then succumbed to FEU in the semifinals last year.
With a burning desire to bring Ateneo back to the promised land, De Leon gave it her all in her final season.
"I'm happy that coach O [Oliver Almadro] still called me up. He had a choice to replace me but he really called me up. I still remember that day when he did," De Leon said.
Almadro said he and De Leon promised each other that they would reach the finals once more.
"Indeed, we reached the finals and she even has an extra," Almadro said. "She's not just a champion, she's also the Finals MVP."
The Lady Eagles topped the elimination round with only two losses, but it was never an easy journey. They had to survive multiple close calls to retain their hold of the top spot.
In the Final Four, the Lady Tamaraws pushed them to their limits.
"When we lost to FEU, Kat [Tolentino] reminded us that it's not really how many times you fall down but it's how many times you get back up. That really pushed me to just continue going," De Leon said.
It was a similar story in the championship stage. UST pounced on a hapless Ateneo squad in the series opener. Always the emotional leader, De Leon did not hide her frustration after that loss. She constructively channeled her emotions and used them to motivate her teammates.
"I think it was a good use of my emotions," she said. "I really wanted to use this to inspire my teammates, make them really feel how much I believe in them because I do. I really wanted to use it to make them play their best and be at their best."
Almadro noted how De Leon provided the team with a different kind of intensity.
"Playing a fifth year, it's really hard, it's a sacrifice," Almadro said. "But she wanted to give back to Ateneo, she wanted to share the Lord's gift to her, so she stayed for her fifth year."
Many questioned if the Lady Eagles had enough in their tank to counter the Tigresses, powered by the league's best spikers in Sisi Rondina and Eya Laure. Despite the odds stacked against them, De Leon continued believing that her team could make it through.
"Of course there was doubt because UST will come at you, and you're going against the two best wings," De Leon said. "That was really hard for us, but again, we just wanted to come together."
De Leon's decision to stay became one of the driving forces that helped Ateneo reclaim the throne.
"We said whatever happened, we shouldn't forget to be grateful that we're here," she said. "It was really the best decision I ever made. It was such a risk, but we're here and we did it."