The original Askals

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By Ramon Dacawi

Benchwarmer

Friday, July 4, 2014


(THE world is again hooked on soccer football, through the World Cup in Brail. I was hooked to the beautiful game in 1991, when the Baguio Cinderellas, out of the blue, took me in as their manager. From them, I learned what an off-side is and what humility it took for them to sustain their love for the world’s most popular game, in a country of midgets fallen heads over heels for basketball. It’s been a privilege to have been part of the original Askals.)

The Azkals, now a byword in Philippine sports, are two decades or even light years shy of the grit and sacrifice of the original “Askals”. Correctly spelled with an “s”, not a fancy “z”, the term is an abbreviation for “asong kalye”, the Pilipino term for “street dog”.
The original Askals are not even called that, partly because the team’s on the distaff side. “Pusakal”, short for “pusang kalye” (alley cat), would have been more fitting, observed fellow newsman Domcie Cimatu who, like my brother Joe, played football in college.
They were and still are the Baguio Cinderellas. It’s partly for the fact that, during their prime, Baguio was then more fluent in English than in Tagalog. It’s a sobriquet well-earned by a team that, more often than not, had to scrounge for funds just to reach the playing venue.

Almost always, the girls would come home the champion, often in the middle of the night, unnoticed and ignored by a community that, like the rest of this country of midgets, had fallen heads-over-heels for basketball. If it were another country, each victory over the 20 years or so of their glorious campaign would have been reason for singing on rooftops and dancing on our streets.

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With the sudden interest in the beautiful game of soccer football, I go back to an item I wrote on the Cinderellas this month last year:
While this country continues to feast on the games of the NBA, the unending PBA conferences, the NCAA, the PBL Liga and whatever there is in basketball, a so-tiny segment within our fractured sports culture is trying to be abreast with the latest in football.

Among the few oddballs are the Cinderellas, Baguio’s women’s squad whose collective and individual names hardly ring a bell despite their close to two decades domination of the on-and-off national and invitational leagues of the world’s most popular sport.

Over twenty of the Cinderellas’ trophies are rusting in my cubicle.

They’re mementoes only to Peewee Agustin, Randall Dampac, Gabby Soriano, Petronio Dacoron, Dan David, Tino Tizon and a few others who used to drive them to playing venues if and when the fuel would warrant, then bring them home tired and triumphant.

The girls had missed some tournaments– not so much for the trophies but the joy and art of playing. Those were times when they failed to find sponsored transport or to collect and convert enough empty bottles and old newspapers into coins for food and registration fees.

Billeting had never been an issue. They slept in classrooms or were taken in to the houses of friends or rivals for the regular tournaments. To save on billeting costs, they would travel midnight straight to the playing venues for the blitz, seven-a-side one-day tournaments, lugging water jugs and a few kilos of “adobo” (which doesn’t easily spoil) for breakfast, picnic lunch and supper then sleep the long drive back home – almost always with the championship trophy.

Blame this passion for soccer on Manny Javellana, a football fanatic and no-nonsense Brent School coach. In 1986, he knocked on schools and assembled high school and college girls that he trained into a most formidable team. Two years later, they began making a mark in national tournaments. Knowing they were ready for competition, he bade them goodbye and returned home to Bacolod.

In summer 1991, the girls pooled their stipends and hired a jeepney for the YKL-Fuji National Cup played on week-ends in Quezon City. With the driver as their only fan, the girls just kept on winning with the barest of resources outside the field.

“At lemon time, we’d quench our thirst with tap water while the other teams were popping bottles of Lipovitan,” recalled skipper Monique Jacinto, standing at four feet and 11 inches with fellow striker Annaliza Umoc.

In-between classes, the girls would raise the round-trip jeepney fare in time for the next week-end games. One night before summer’s end, they quietly arrived home with their first-ever championship trophy, with Umoc establishing a record of 13 goals in a single tournament. The feat would have triggered community celebration were it in basketball or were they representing a city of any other country.

The Cinderellas then convinced then city prosecutor Erdolfo Balajadia to spearhead preparations for the 1992 First Baguio National Women’s Cup. They downed tough Polytechnic University, 1-0, in the final, then repeated on the same team, 4-2, with a nerve-wracking shoot-out the following year in the First National Ladies Cup at the Burnham Park.
For lack of airfare, the Cinderellas missed their 1994 title-retention bid. Host Davao won that one, the same team they would face in the final of the 1995 Cup in Sta. Cruz, Laguna.

By then, eight of the Cinderellas were in the national team, and only four of them were allowed to play at a time in Laguna. With only nine or 10 in the field due to the rule, they breezed through the preliminaries and semis in Sta. Cruz. For the final showdown against Davao, however, they needed to complete the 11-member line-up.

From the crowd, the girls yanked in Roberta Sandejas, a lanky 16-year old who was training for the La Salle high school squad. She came to watch and suddenly found herself wearing the Baguio colors.

Newsman and men’s coach Peppot Ilagan, whose ward Jimmy Eslao eventually played in the Australian national league, rushed to Sta. Cruz to chart the game plan against Davao.

With the Davao side marking strikers Anna Umoc, Richelle Ranchez and Cheng Mendoza, regulation play on Friday the 13th ended in a 0-0 draw. On the 13th minute of extension, a scramble before the goal mouth sent the ball flying towards Roberta, whom the Davao side ignored for her awkward beginner’s stance.

The comely high school senior just tipped it in for the golden goal – her first in her first tournament. The Davao belles dropped to their knees, in tears. The Baguio side rushed to Roberta, lifting their instant heroine as she raised her fist in jubilation.

Roberta went on to join La Salle’s college team. The Baguio squad went on collecting more championship trophies with unbreakable regularity, mostly seven-aside and beach football titles for lack of regular, 11-a-side tournaments in a country of midgets in love with basketball. (to be continued on Monday; e-mail: mondaxbench@yahoo.com for comments).

Published in the Sun.Star Baguio newspaper on July 05, 2014.

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