As the decade draws to a close, the ESPN5.com editorial staff looks back at the sporting figures and moments that stood out and helped define Philippine sports in the 2010s. Check back regularly until December 31 for the latest features in our ESPN5.com Best of the Decade series.
We honor the athletes who excelled in the 2010s, those who made their mark, raised the bar, and collected championship trophies along the way. There is little doubt that volleyball's popularity skyrocketed in the decade thanks in large part to Alyssa Valdez. Her talent, charisma and storybook first UAAP championship created the perfect storm that catapulted the sport to the mainstream.
If you ask aspiring volleyball players in the Philippines about who inspired them to try out the sport, it's highly likely that you'll hear the name Alyssa Valdez.
It's not a coincidence that volleyball's surge in the country happened at the same time that Valdez also started becoming a household name. She became the face of a sport that had lurked in the shadows for so long. Sure, many Filipino kids have experienced playing volleyball, perhaps as a mandatory physical education class in school. But only a handful would make an effort to watch, let alone get hooked on the games.
It became a totally different story in the 2010s.
Volleyball saw a tremendous increase in popularity -- from struggling to reach a hundred spectators to having sold-out matches in venues that only basketball could fill before. Millions of television and online viewers became more and more interested as the growing number of volleyball supporters made noise.
At the center of the spotlight is Alyssa Valdez, a rising star from Batangas whose elite talent and natural charisma made volleyball endearing even to the most casual of sports fans.
At the turn of the decade, Valdez, a multi-awarded high school player from University of Santo Tomas committed to play for Ateneo de Manila University in college. She joined the Lady Eagles during the penultimate year of Gretchen Ho, Fille Cainglet, Jem Ferrer, Dzi Gervacio, and Ailysee Nacachi, Ateneo's Fab Five that helped transform the school's volleyball program.
As it turned out, Valdez was the missing piece that the Lady Eagles needed to earn a finals breakthrough. Upon the phenom's arrival, a fierce Ateneo-La Salle rivalry began brewing in women's volleyball. Valdez steered the Lady Eagles to the championship stage for five straight years, highlighted by back-to-back titles from 2014 to 2015, all against the Lady Spikers.
Ateneo's first-ever volleyball crown in Season 76 was captured in the sweetest way possible. At the time, the Fab Five just graduated and coach Roger Gorayeb was newly replaced by Tai Bundit. The rebuilding squad was left in the hands of Valdez, a third-year player who starred in a fairytale-like campaign that still counts as one of the most unbelievable upsets in UAAP history.
Banking on their "heartstrong" mentality, the Lady Eagles survived three straight knockout matches in the stepladder semis. They carried over their magical run in the finals as they fought through La Salle's thrice-to-beat advantage, spoiling the Lady Spikers' four-peat quest in the process. On top of the title, Valdez received the first of her three straight MVP awards that year.
With Valdez still in charge, Ateneo dominated the following season and defended the throne with a sparkling 16-0 record to boot.
The Lady Eagles did not have a smooth-sailing ride in Valdez's fifth year. They still emerged on top of the standings at the end of the elimination round but their weaknesses got exposed in the finals. La Salle almost completed a clean sweep of the series but Valdez refused to go down without a fight. In front of more than 20,000 fans, she had one last act for Ateneo -- extending the rivalry showdown after a 34-point explosion in Game 2 -- but the Lady Spikers pulled through in the end.
Valdez graduated as a two-time champion, three-time MVP, four-time Best Scorer, three-time Best Server, and a UAAP Athlete of the Year. She continued to showcase her exceptional skills after college, racking up more championships and individual awards in the Shakey's V-League and the Premier Volleyball League.
She expanded her reach when she became the first Filipina import in volleyball leagues overseas, suiting up for 3BB Nakornnont in Thailand and Attack Line in Chinese-Taipei. Valdez also made her mark as a Philippine team mainstay, competing in various international competitions including the last three editions of the Southeast Asian Games.
As volleyball gained a bigger following over the years, more and more players have become household names like Valdez. Different collegiate and club teams have established their own loyal fan bases. But at the close of the decade, the 26-year-old Valdez arguably remains the most influential and revered volleyball athlete in the country.
Her crucial role in the incredible rise of Philippine volleyball stands out among her long list of accomplishments. She revitalized the sport, elevating it to a whole new level while bringing it closer to the hearts of Filipino fans. She transcended the game and touched many lives along the way. The legacy of Alyssa Valdez will live on, not through the trophies that she collected nor the killer spikes that she unleashed on the court, but through the next generation of volleyball athletes that she inspired.