The score was 21-20. The De La Salle Lady Spikers needed only four more points to crown themselves as UAAP season 71 Women’s Volleyball champions. Their opponent, the equally talented FEU women’s volleyball team was trying to claw an escape to a possible set victory and extend the do-or-die match to Set 5. But DLSU’s Manilla Santos didn’t want a Set 5.
It won’t happen. Santos made sure.
And what ensued was a blitzkrieg of plays courtesy of the multi-titled team captain. A kill, a block and a spike off the opponent’s block, all from Santos, in the crucial stretch of Set 4, moved the Lady Spikers to within a point of capturing the crown and consequently, sent the FEU squad into disarray. In fact, the Lady Tamaraws got so disoriented by Santos’ spectacular end game plays that the match point that finally nailed FEU’s coffin came from their very own Cherry May Vivas, whose spike went beyond the line.
As the umpire blew the final whistle, awarding the point to the Lady Spikers, the Green and White Gallery exploded into a raucous celebration as DLSU pockets its fifth UAAP women’s volleyball crown since joining the league. On the court, DLSU Coach Ramil de Jesus hugged his star player, Manilla Santos, and as they locked in a tight embrace, they jumped up and down, celebrating the hard earned and much deserved victory.
Manilla Santos was named after a flower native to Italy which appearance earned it the nickname, puero de fuoco, meaning fireball. Little did her parents know that fireball is exactly what their bundle of joy was to become one day.
Although her name seemed to have chartered her destiny, there came a point when Illa despised it.
“Nung grade school ako, pag uwi ko sa bahay umiiyak ako. ‘Bakit anak?,’ sabi ng mama ko. ‘Ma’, palitan mo na pangalan ko. Tinutukso nila ako manila zoo, manila beer. So sabi ng mama ko, ‘anak ano ba gusto mo pangalan? Sheryl, kasi gusto ko noon si Sheryl Cruz,” shares Illa.
But that was then. Now, we won’t be surprised if fans would name their children Manilla or “Illa”, as the five foot four volleyball hero is more popularly known.
In the beginning
Illa was as unlikely as they come for volleyball players, with her delicate frame and soft spoken and almost timid nature. No one, not even Illa herself thought she would get into the sport. Her exposure to the sport started when she waited for an older sister, Mary, herself a volleybelle, to finish with her training.
“Hinihintay ko ate ko na matapos sa training. Sabi ni Coach Gerry, since hinihintay mo kapatid mo, eh di sumali ka na rin sa training. Elementary ako pero sumasali ako sa High School training,” recalls Illa.
Illa learned more about the sport through her sister, whom she joined during minor league events. Eventually, she tried out for the volleyball team of her high school, Hope Christian High School, where she proved herself a natural athlete despite her height.
This decision to play volleyball became a turning point in Illa’s life. Fifteen year later, volleyball would become her passion. A passion that will lead her to greater heights and to greener pastures.
Seeking the greener pastures
Soon, offers from prestigious universities for a spot in their volleyball teams came. Among all the teams that expressed interest in recruiting her into their fold, Illa chose DLSU. She considered DLSU to be a top caliber team and believed DLSU would pose the greatest challenge for her.
Surrounded by teammates who were 5’10 and taller, the five foot four Illa felt out of place. She was literally dwarfed. Her height has made everything an uphill battle in her athletic career but it was a challenge that she readily embraced.
“Ang La Salle nung papasok ako, alam ko seven players na lang ang natitira at marami pang ga-graduate. Nag-recruit sila ng maraming players, mga 20 plus, tapos isa ako doon sa maliit. May mga kasabayan ako 5’10 or 5’11. Nung first year ako, hindi ako masyado pinapansin ni Coach Ramil, syempre college na, ibang level na yun.”
“So ang nangyari, taga-pulot ako ng bola, dumating sa point na nakaka-down kasi parang hindi ako pinapansin. Pero ng tumagal syempre nagtiyaga-tiyaga at napansin din. Habang tumagal, ayun sinama ako sa line up. 2nd place nakuha namin, hindi ako first six noon,” Illa vividly remembers.
Illa has come a long way. Illa’s spirituality buoyed her determination and her natural abilities earned the respect of the team. Her shyness graduated to quiet confidence and the rest was glorious history for the Lady Spikers. Illa played a major role in the rare three-peat of the DLSU women’s volleyball team. Illa was so content on what she has achieved that she believed she was ready to face other challenges in life.
Ready to work
In 2006 after helping DLSU achieve the rare grandslam feat, Illa was prepared to hang her jersey and pursue a whole new career—in the corporate world. She had reportedly been shown to her office cubicle and was all ready to begin when she received an offer to play more volleyball for DLSU.
“After ko matapos ang undergraduate studies ko, ready na ako mag-work. Natanggap na ako sa work. Nakita ko na work station ko. Sabi ko, ito na yung gagawin ko. Tapos naisip ko balik na lang kaya ako volleyball at mag take ng masteral studies, tutal may scholarship naman. Ang work makapaghihintay ang scholarship ngayon lang ito,” remarked the Business Management graduate.
Passion won over and Illa found herself pursuing an Industrial Organizational Psychology course at the DLSU Graduate School. True to her nature, Illa began training anew for an extended chapter in her volleyball career. She threw herself at practice and in her eagerness, was injured. With a dislocated shoulder and a right arm that was entirely swollen, Illa, for the first time, was in no shape to play. She had to forego last year’s UAAP season while recuperating. It was a long time to be away from court, but it was too short for her injury to heal. But Illa willed herself to recover, and in true Manilla Santos style, she recovered in record time. Illa modestly credits the little miracles and victories in her life as God’s work alone.
As a team captain, Illa was different—quiet, sensitive, and introspective. She veered from the long tradition of team captains who showed strong and intimidating leadership. llla understands how huge a responsibility being the coach’s extension in the playing court, is, but she has another approach of getting the job done. Illa wanted to understand her teammates and instill her own brand of discipline on them.
“Ang pagiging team captain is a big responsibility. Akala ko dati magtaray taray lang ako as a team captain ok na, pero hindi yung personality ng bawat teammate ko kailangan aalamin ko—kung paano ko sila approach, kung paano sila magiging receptive sa mga sasabihin ko, paano ko sila mapapasunod,” Illa explains.
“Ayoko ng sinisigawan ako, ayoko ng tinatarayan ako. Kahit na galit na galit na ako, gusto ko na silang sigawan, hindi ko pwede gawin. Explain ko sa kanila (her teammates), ‘Naiinis ako, gusto ko sumigaw pero ano mangyayari kung gagawin ko yun, hindi naman ako papakinggan,” she added.
Even coach Ramil did not know what to make of Illa’s “soft” approach on her teammates. Yet, it was also Coach Ramil who lauded Illa’s superb personality and leadership style after DLSU won the much coveted crown.
Illa is a very cerebral player. She’s focused in the game and in her goals and wants the same focus from her teammates. “Iba approach ko (with regard to my teammates), ang target ko sa kanila ang utak nila, kasi minsan nawawala sila. Lalo na sa finals…ang kailangan mental toughness. Kailangan i-condition ang players.”
Illa’s influence on her teammates was evident in the Finals series. In a clash between rivals, emotions is expected to run high. Taunting and stare downs become a regular scene in between plays and sometimes, the crowd gets involved. But Illa masterfully controlled the emotions of her teammates, “Sabi ko sa kanila, hindi nyo kailangan patulan, daanin nyo sa laro. Huwag niyo patulan kasi ma-out of focus kayo. Ang number one purpose natin kung bakit tayo nasa loob ng court ay para maglaro, hindi natin kailangan makipagaway.”
Not even negative remarks from the crowd would throw Illa out of her focused stance. “Mag-seserve ako, ‘Hoy! kampanera kuba!,’ Okay lang sa akin. Sinabi ko rin sa teammates ko, dapat i-absorb mo lahat yan, kasi game yan,” said Illa.
The key to victory
Aside from her focused leadership, Illa shares with us the team’s secrets behind its successful UAAP stint.
For the entire UAAP season, the whole team stayed in one dormitory. “Iisang dorm kami. Dahil dun, yung team ngayon masasabi ko na bonded talaga. Although three rooms kami, nakabukas lang pinto namin. Magkakasama kami mag-dinner. Siyempre dyan naming makikilala mga ugali ng isa’t isa. So hindi na sa amin mahirap pagdating sa loob ng court, alam na namin kung gusto niya ito. Hindi na mahirap mag-adjust. Kay kapag game na, konting sign language lang, alam na naming,” remarked Illa.
The team was so much bonded that as a sign of their unity, they unanimously decided to don green streaks on their hair. The team had regular meetings, wherein they talked about the game, what they need to do, the strategy to use against their opponents. Apart from the game, the girls also talked about their interests and other things that girls of their age usually talk about. “Every night talaga nag-uusap kami. Since lahat naman kami sa iisang dorm, after ng dinner namin, parang may meeting kami. Nagkwekwentuhan lang, bonding. Tapos, kung ano dapat gawin bukas,” commented Illa.
Aside from being a high-flying, skillful and powerful volleyball player, Illa is also a devout Christian, who doesn’t miss her day of worship. “Nung kinder ako hanggang ngayon, isang church lang pinupuntahan ko, yung CBCP, every Sunday talaga pumpunta ako,” Illa reveals.
In addition, Illa also likes to listen to praise and worship music. “The more na narining ko yun, mas lalo ako lumalakas. Kasi lahat ng skills ko and talents ko God-given, kaya mas ganado ako.” To inspire her teammates, Illa also quotes verses from the bible.
When not busy training and worshipping, Illa also finds time in girls’ favorite pastime—shopping. Illa also likes to sing, although she admits that her vocal prowess leaves a lot to be desired.
Illa, the Celebrity
With the growing popularity of volleyball in the country, as shown by the jampacked San Juan Arena during the Finals series, Illa does have her fair share of fans, supporters and admirers. She feels flattered about the thought that a complete stranger knows her.
“Sa LRT, sa mall, may mga nagpapa-picture. Nakakatuwa. Marami nag-tetext. Nakaka flatter. Kasi kilala ka. Tapos sasabihin pa nila, “ay ang tangkad mo pala”. Nakakatuwa talaga”
“Minsan sa loob ng mall, may mga grupo ng mga gays na lumapit, “Santos Kabog Ka!” Nagugulat na lang ako.”
When she first came to La Salle, Illa saw the university’s retired jersey numbers on display and wistfully asked what it would be like to see her jersey number up there. She instantly thought of a myriad of reasons why it could not happen. And from what she thought was an improbability, Illa derived inspiration. Years later, the soft spoken youth who used to tag along her sister’s volleyball games is called in the same breath as the great athletes of De La Salle University. Last March 20, her jersey number (14) is the most recent addition to the university’s honored symbols, joining the ranks of basketball legends Lim Eng Beng, Ren Ren Ritualo, and Kurt Bachman.
Illa is the first female, the first athlete outside of basketball and the first volleyball player to receive the honor.
Manilla Santos is an irony of sorts. A big surprise in a neat little package. And owning up to her name, a fireball with the beauty of a delicate flower.