(THE multi-titled Baguio Cinderellas took me in as team manager in 1991, a year after the July 16 killer quake. Never mind that I didn’t know what an off-side rule is and the fact that pro bono family Doctor Julie Camdas-Cabato had just confirmed then that I was a sugar magnate without a hacienda, translated to being a football team manager without money and experience. Ignorance and poverty were of no moment throughout my romance with the Cinderellas. After all, the girls had earned the sobriquet for their having to scrounge for funds just to reach the playing venues of tournaments they were a cinch to win. More often than not, they would come home with the champion’s trophy. In some rare occasions, they would end up the runner-up, If it had to be, their worst finish would be at third place.)

Last week, we were talking about Roberta Sandejas. She was that lanky, good-looking 16-year old from La Salle High School who ventured as a spectator into the 3rd National Ladies Open Cup in October, 1995 in Sta. Cruz, Laguna.

As eight of the Cinderellas were then members of the national squad, only four could be fielded at a time. So the girls were playing and winning in the preliminaries with only eight or nine players, two or three short of the 11-a-side standard.

After breezing through the eliminations with a clean slate, they were to face equally tough Davao for the championship. From the crowd of spectators, they just picked out Roberta, asking if she would like to play for Baguio.

The 90-minute regulation play ended in a 0-0 draw. On the 13th minute of extension on a Friday the 13th, the girls suddenly struck a golden goal. Roberta, who was ignored by the Davao team for her awkward play, suddenly found the ball coming to her in the course of a scramble at the goal mouth. She tipped it in for the victory. It was her first goal in her first tournament.

The Cinderellas never heard of Robera Sandejas again.

Until one morning, when a front-page feature item appeared in The Philippine Star. The boxed story was headlined “Roberta’s blind courage”. Somebody had thrown acid on Roberta’s face, disfiguring and rendering her blind. Accordingly, she was undergoing a series of skin-graft surgery, even as she expressed optimism about her eyesight being restored – and, perhaps, hope that she would be able to play football again.

After the hand-wringing, nail-biting and eye-welling, the Cinderellas knockked on doors as they used to when raising funds for their next tournament. They collected empty bottles and old newspapers they converted to cash at the junkshop. At Christmastime, they came up with a little over P20,000 which they asked Peewee Agustin and me to deliver to the girl’s home in Paranaque. Roberta’s brother and sister told us their mother had brought her to the United States for a series of tests and surgeries. The siblings phoned their father, who dropped his work and rushed home to meet us.

Somebody from La Salle told us later that Roberta had married and later passed away. A check on the internet somehow confirmed the transition.

“We are deeply saddened to report the death in the early morning of Sunday, November 7, of Roberta Sandejas Shroyer, who volunteered for many months at the National Center before joining the national staff in May of 2004,” said a news item posted on Braille Monitor.

“She was born in Manila, Philippines, where in high school and college she was a talented soccer player.

“After being badly injured and blinded in a tragic incident in her home, she left Manila and moved to Baltimore , where she graduated from the rehabilitation program at Blind Industries and Services of Maryland (BISM). There she met her future husband, Justin Shroyer. Before recently requesting to be assigned the job his wife had done. Mr. Shroyer worked in the Materials Center.

“We enjoyed Mrs. Shroyer’s easy laugh and great sense of humor, her excellent cooking at various chapter functions, her enthusiastic participation in our many activities, and her positive outlook in life.”

With the story is her photo, her eyes covered by dark glasses, her face bearing the scars of her ordeal. Another photo of her in black and white before the tragedy sent memory swirling back to that image in September (her birth month), 15 years ago, of the Cinderellas sweeping the comely 16-year old off her feet and raising her up their shoulders in triumph in that Cup in Laguna.

Some of the girls eventually faded out to pursue careers, - sisters Monique and Julie Jacinto to vegetable trading, goalie Luz Pacubas to medical technology practice, her sister Mian and Virgie Tibaldo Bungay to business, Cheng Mendoza to teaching. Sisters Anna and Vangie Umoc played for a while with the sepak takraw national team. Some fell in love, married but continued playing in tournaments, bringing along their babies to be watched by the second or third-generation drafts and those who drove them to the venues.

To them, football is art, winning secondary. Instead of blasting from a distance, they would shepherd the ball - as in a slalom – as close to the net as possible before tipping it in. It’s a practice too agonizing for their handful of fans to watch. Because of their adherence to the truism that the Baguio boy or girl is marked by a sense of fair play, more often than not, they would come home with the MVP and Fair Play awards to add to the team title.

They take wins almost as a matter of course, for, almost always, there’s not much to celebrate a victory with. Driving them home from a seven-a-side victory, Randall Dampac of the Benguet Electric Cooperative just couldn’t take it. He stopped beside Jollibee in Tarlac, counted what he had, woke the sleeping girls and announced he was treating them to supper.

They were dead tired on the ride back home last week-end, after their second-place finish at the Luzon leg of the Beach Football in Subic. No use trying to wake them up for a celebration along the way.

The modest placement will be marked quietly later, when they visit their “muyong” at the Busol Watershed and add new seedlings, as they used to after those previous glorious campaigns. (e-mail:mondaxbench@yahoo.com for comments.)