Beyond the court: Soaring higher with the Taft Towers

Sharma and Gagate made a huge comeback last season. With fans raving over them in the stands and on social media, the two have become megastars of the collegiate volleyball scene.

After two years of longing, anticipating the time they would finally get to represent the Green and White again, the Lady Spikers fell short in the UAAP Season 84 Finals and settled for a silver medal. However, this was not a setback for the women’s volleyball team. To them, that was only the beginning of a new story.

Mereophe “Fifi” Sharma and Thea Gagate made a huge comeback last season. With fans raving over them in the stands and on social media, these two have easily become megastars of the collegiate volleyball scene. The two players—dubbed the new embodiment of the “Taft Towers”—showcased not only their star talents and superb skills, but also their ability to be the quintessential student-athletes.

Weathering the storm

The middle blocker pairing first entered the UAAP in Season 82 but their maiden run was canceled. Many, including Sharma and Gagate, were caught off guard by such a turn of events. While the situation with the pandemic did not seem to be a long-term ordeal at first, the ever-changing lockdowns put the sporting world at a standstill. 

What they went through just to remain game-ready was far from ideal, but the towering duo refused to succumb. None would question that they were hungry to return to action. Sharma asserts, “Nasasayangan tayo but what [could] we do? We just [had] to make the most out of it.” While they were unable to play volleyball competitively, the two standouts expressed that they took the opportunity to put time into other pursuits off the court. For Gagate, she was grateful to have been able to return to her home province. The NU Nazareth product expresses, “Naging thankful din ako kasi I [got] to spend time with my family more.” Sharma also shares that her newfound free time allowed the AB Psychology student to focus on her studies and to dive into other passions, such as reading.

New breed of green

When the UAAP Women’s Volleyball tournament returned in Season 84, Sharma and Gagate were among the relative newcomers expected to continue the team’s legacy of greatness. The former details, “Halos lahat kami rookies, it’s so cool. It’s a great achievement for the team [to reach the Finals]. Syempre, we kept that in mind noong Season 84 na we [had] a lot to prove.” 

(Almost all of us were rookies.)

Fortunately for the youthful Lady Spikers, legendary DLSU volleyball head coach Ramil de Jesus still stands at the helm—continuing his patented winning ways. This was a huge factor, as Sharma shares, “For me, he was the team’s prime motivator. Syempre, almost all of us are new; ako, first time talaga maglaro sa UAAP na seryoso talaga. Coach Ramil provided security sa loob ng team kasi always niyang ina-assure kami [and] gina-guide niya lang kami palagi.” Through his support, the Season 84 Lady Spikers finished in second place, tenuring the team with championship experience.

(It was my first time playing in the UAAP seriously. Coach Ramil provided security inside the team because he always assured us and guided us constantly.)

For the rookie standouts, however, they are going all in with coach Ramil. The veteran coach aims to instill a winning culture for this batch, says Sharma, “Everyone’s new to the UAAP environment. We were so grateful to him kasi he guided us talaga all throughout the season and he was the reason why we pushed talaga to grow and to do our best. All for him talaga.

Students first

While the powerful pair proved to be stars on the court,  dealing with classes, group projects, tests, and assignments just like other students poses a challenge to their lifestyle. Sharma recalls how limited her time was during the season, “Mahirap din kasi [twice-a-day] din ‘yung training namin. Siyempre, [if you’re an] athlete, you need to get good sleep or else you’re not going to be able to perform. So mga ilang hours lang kami pwedeng gumawa ng school work.” Despite the grueling Season 84 schedule, bidaily training, and the difficult bubble setup, the two blockers made it a point to put their best foot forward even academically. 

(So we only had a few hours in a day where we could do school work.)

Gagate—who Sharma describes as “super sipag mag-aral”—discussed the struggle of managing a UAAP athlete’s hectic schedule and trying to coordinate with classmates, “Most of the time, gabi rin kami nagcall about groupworks.”

However, coordinating with her classmates’ schedules was difficult given that the Lady Spikers’ evening training would end no sooner than 9 pm. “Pero ang hirap din kasi madalas akong wala sa call since may training kami tas’ super late na natatapos,” Gagate comments. 

(It was hard because often, I wouldn’t be able to join calls since we had training that ended super late.)

Gagate reveals how she tackled the challenge, “Time management lang talaga. ‘Wag din hayaan na magtambak [ang school work]. So if kaya nang gawin agad, gawin na agad.”

(Don’t let the school work pile up. If you can do it right away, do it right away.)  

Back in action

After their stint last season, both Lady Spikers were proud of their volleyball accomplishments. Due to their immense success, fans were understandably raving about the team. Both Gagate and Sharma stood out to the crowd, with social media full of praises for their performances throughout the season. The former expresses gratitude to those who continuously support her and the entire team,

Kahit noong pandemic, may mga nagmemessage na they’ve seen my highlights [kahit dati pa ‘yun]…‘di pa ako masyado kilala tapos may mga ganun na tao na naiinspire sa amin.” 

(Even during the pandemic, people message me that they’ve seen my highlights even if it was from the past. I haven’t been discovered yet but there are people who get inspired by us.)

Meanwhile, Sharma was surprised at the immense response fans had at their UAAP stints. “I wasn’t expecting that kind of reaction kasi akala ko coming from the pandemic, parang kailangan ulit magbuild [ng volleyball]. Pero…it’s like volleyball never stopped so nagulat talaga ako,” she reveals. Nonetheless, she similarly feels grateful for all the support she has gained even before the seasons started. 

(…I thought, coming from the pandemic, volleyball needed to rebuild its popularity. But it’s like volleyball never stopped so I was really surprised.)

This definitely will not be the last time the Lasallian community will see them. “[Lasallians] should expect more, actually, next season—more of everything we showed last season,”

Sharma teases, excited for the team’s performance in UAAP’s 85th iteration, “Super tagal ng preparation namin for next season and everybody’s pushing, everybody’s hungry, syempre, to prove na we can do better.” With the rest of the team at their side, Gagate confidently proclaims, “Ibabalik namin uli.

(We’ll bring the crown back to Taft.)

It is this promise that excites many to root for the Lady Spikers. With Gagate and Sharma’s prowess, the championship may surely return in favor of the Green and White, cementing the Taft towers’ place in UAAP history. 

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