International experience lifts Jaja Santiago to a new level
MANILA, Philippines – With her extraordinary height and spiking power, Jaja Santiago was already considered as one of the best volleyball players in the country even before she made it to the international front.
After playing for Japan V-League Ageo Medics for close to two years, Santiago believes she has grown to be a completely different player both in skills and attitude.
"Kasi di ba before sa college team ko and sa Foton, parang lagi nilang sinasabi na ako lang yung madalas go-to nila sa pagdating sa loob ng court. Parang doon (sa Japan), natutunan ko na maging kumbaga trust sa lahat ng teammate ko and parang hindi selfish," said Santiago, who became the first Filipino to land a podium finish in Japan's top-tier volleyball tournament.
(Before in my college team and in Foton, they always say that I'm the go-to person inside the court. But in Japan, I learned how to trust my teammates and not be selfish.)
"Parang noong una iniisip ko: 'Bakit hindi ako binibigyan ng bola? Bakit parang walang trust sa akin 'yung setter ko? Import din naman ako dito.'"
"Pero noong tumagal-tagal, ako na 'yung nagtanong sa sarili ko: 'Bakit ganoon 'yung attitude ko na hindi lang naman ako 'yung dapat nakakascore kung hindi dapat lahat kami so natutunan ko na magtrust sa teammates ko."
(At first I was thinking: 'Why are they not giving me the ball? Why does it seem that the setter doesn't trust me? I'm also an import here. But as the days went by, I was the one asking myself: 'Why is my attitude like this? I'm not the only one who should be scoring. It should be the whole team. That's how I learned to trust my teammates.)
Santiago, though, did not expect to have these realizations as she only dreamed of playing abroad.
Midway through her UAAP stint with National University (NU), the 6-foot-5 middle blocker was highly recruited by international teams like US NCAA squad University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA) in 2013 and Thailand League team Bangkok Glass in 2017.
But she turned down the offers to complete her full UAAP eligibility with the Lady Bulldogs and wait for a better time to take her talents to the international stage.
"Pinakamahalaga kong natutunan 'yung professionalism kasi sobrang focused sila lagi sa ginagawa nila walang ibang other activities talagang volleyball ganon," said Santiago.
(The most important thing I learned is professionalism because they are so focused here. They don't have other activities. It's just volleyball.)
But in order to attain a certain level of growth, Santiago had to skip several national team tournaments, the last during the country's hosting of the 2019 Southeast Asian Games, where the Philippine women's volleyball team wound up last place.
As the regional biennial meet fell on November, she was not given the go-signal to represent the country as it coincided with the Japan V-League season.
"Sobra ako nalungkot na hindi ako nakapaglaro ng SEA Games kasi siyempre ibang opportunity pa rin naman iyon and iba rin kapag nakalaro ka para sa sarili mong bansa pero iyon nga, it happens talaga," shared Santiago.
(I was really sad that I didn't get to play in the SEA Games because of course, that's still another opportunity and it's different when you represent your own country, but things really happen.)
Instead of dwelling on her missed opportunity, Santiago made sure that she would bring glory to the Philippines as she chipped in 9 points to propel Ageo Medics to a 3rd place finish in the V-League.
"Kahit hindi naman ako nakalaro ng SEA Games, dala ko pa rin naman 'yung pangalan ng Pilipinas noong naglaro ako sa Japan, so malungkot man pero malaki pa rin naman 'yung naging kapalit like nag 3rd," added the Filipina international.
"Hindi man para sa Pilipinas pero nakapag 3rd naman 'yung team namin sa Japan, meron pa rin naman from Philippines, di ba?"
(Even though I wasn't able to play in the SEA Games, I still represented the country when I played in Japan, so although I was sad, it still turned out for the better because my team won 3rd place.
It wasn't for the Philippines, but winning 3rd place with my team in Japan, there was still someone from the Philippines who was part of that, right?)
Santiago last donned the country's colors in the 2018 Asian Games, where the team wrapped up its campaign with an 8th place finish.
Life in Japan
While Santiago spent her season break in the Philippines – she wasn't able to fly back to Japan as tournaments were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic – she recalled the many times she wanted to give up on her dream and settle back in the Philippines.
It was great that she's finally improving her skills, she said, but there were times when frustrations got the better of her as she tends to compare herself to her teammates.
"Pag naglaro ka sa kanila, walang pressure pero parang ikaw na lang maglalagay sa sarili mo ng pressure tapos siyempre magagaling 'yung mga kasama mo. May isa ka pang import na kasama pero parang for you, 'yung skills mo parang naglalaban pa rin sa galing ng teammate mo na local."
(When I play for the team, I don't feel the pressure, but it's like I'm the one putting pressure on myself because my teammates are good. There's another import with me, but I have to make sure that my skills are competitive enough against the local members.)
But Santiago is grateful that her teammates are caring and thoughtful enough to keep her company, even putting effort to communicate with her despite the language barrier. She is also close to Katarina Barun, the Croatian import of her team.
"Mahirap 'yung communication ng Japanese to English. Hindi sila ganoon kagaling talaga mag-English, pero makikita mo sa mga teammates ko na willing talaga sila matuto. As in Google translate hanggang sa unti-unti natututunan nila ['yung language] rin at unti-unti natututunan ko na rin yung language nila," shared Santiago.
(Japanese-English communication is difficult. They're not as well-versed in English, but you can see how willing they are to learn. As in they use Google translate until they are able to learn the language and I also slowly learn their language.)
One of Santiago's highlights in her Japan stint that made her feel closer to home was when she faced her sister Dindin Santiago-Manabat, who is also seeing action in the Japan V-League with the Kurobe AquaFairies.
The twin towers' teams have faced each other many times, but the younger Santiago recalled a moment last year when they got fielded on court at the same.
"Noong nasa loob ako ng court na pinasok siya, sabi ko: 'Ah ito na'. Parang kinakabahan ako for her, masaya ako for her pero hindi, focus ako, kalaban ko siya. Pero every time nakakapalo siya, parang gusto ko mag-cheer para sa kaniya pero hindi."
(When I was inside the court then they subbed her in, I said: 'This is it.' In a way, I was nervous for her and happy for her, but no, I had to focus because she's my opponent. But every time, she was able to spike, I wanted to cheer for her, but I couldn't.)
While waiting for their league to resume, both Santiago sisters can train together anew at home before parting ways again. – Rappler.com