Owa Retamar Builds On His Own Breed of Winning

From Laguna to Being The Philippines’ Best: Owa Retamar Builds On His Own Breed of Winning

Owa Retamar recalls to The GAME the difficult path to volleyball greatness, as well as the next step in his young but already storied career.

If you’ve been in the loop about Philippine volleyball, then the name Ave Joshua Retamar — widely known as Owa — should ring a bell. For starters, Owa was Dante Alinsunurin’s setter in an NU Bulldogs program that completed a “four-peat” in the UAAP men’s volleyball wars (to be exact, Owa was part of three total title runs). 

The 22-year-old was just as accomplished individually — being a two-time UAAP Best Setter, Finals MVP, and Spikers’ Turf Best Setter in their post-Covid triumphs. In between are three national team call-ups, including two SEA Games appearances. 

Owa Retamar championship
Owa Retamar’s last dance led to another win for him, and a four-peat for NU. (Photo Credit: UAAP Season 86 Media Team)

Yet for all his accolades, Owa’s path to being a proven winner was far from rosy. And in an exclusive interview with The GAME, one of volleyball’s brightest youngsters shares a story of redirection, growing pains, and a sudden transition into a whole new world en route to glory on the taraflex. 

Marked by redirections

Owa Retamar actually comes from a “volleyball-loving” family, and had volleyball as his first love. In fact, he also reveals that even his siblings all had a chance to play for UAAP schools during their time. 

But in his words, “Pero ako lang ‘yung natuloy. Ako lang ‘yung kumbaga, nag-push talaga na mag-UAAP.”

‘Yung ate ko dapat magla-La Salle siya, ‘yung isa kong kuya La Salle din. Tapos ‘yung isa ko [pang] kuya mag-Adamson or UP siya, ‘di niya na rin tinuloy so magfo-focus na lang siya sa pag-aaral niya,” Owa shares. 

As for himself, Owa recalls that started playing volleyball as early as second grade, at around “seven or eight” years old. And while he’s best known as a setter, Owa actually started his volleyball career as a libero. 

His transition to a playmaker happened during sixth grade, when he was tapped by Batangas Province to represent CALABARZON in a regional meet. “Then sa high school tuloy tuloy na [maging setter]. Nag middle [blocker] din ako, naging outside [spiker], naging opposite [hitter], lahat lahat na-try ko,” he recalls. 

Why stick to a playmaking role? Owa simply says “Mas nae-enjoy ko ‘yung setter talaga eh.”

Like his roots, Owa’s collegiate path was also marked by redirection. Also through a regional meet, the setter was initially eyed by La Salle, before NU came with a “last-minute offer” as he finished his 11th-grade studies. 

And to be clear, Owa explained that nothing was set in stone yet with La Salle during that time, which meant he still had the right to view competing pitches, NU’s included. 

That development also included some invisible strings. First is Otie Camangian, NU’s athletics director. At the time, he had recently moved to NU following his stint in University of Perpetual Help-Biñan where Owa completed his high school studies. 

So once Camangian got to Jhocson, he immediately vouched for the young setter. “Pinakilala nya ako tas nag-tune up kami sa NU men’s non, sina [Bryan] Bagunas pa ‘yon, [si] Fauzi Ismail,” Owa shares. 

Second is none other than NU’s team manager Jun Abcede, who is an engineer by trade. Apparently, Owa’s grandfather, also an engineer, had previously worked with Abcede’s father, effectively creating some form of connection. 

“So nung nagu-usap sila, sinabihan nasige sa inyo na ‘yan si Owa’ so pinamigay na ako. So napa-oo na ako agad sa NU,” he says, partly in jest of course. 

If it counts too, Owa recalls NU’s coaching staff, including head coach Dante Alinsunurin, was part of the Jhocson contingent who spoke to his family. And the rest, as they say, is history.  

Up and down start

It was in UAAP Season 81 that Owa Retamar made his UAAP debut, winning a title right off the bat. But while Owa had contributed to that championship run, the lead-up was far from a fairytale. 

Off the taraflex, the setter recalls neglecting his studies, as he chose to prioritize his commitments as an NU athlete. “Yung pag-aaral ko, kumbaga, binitawan ko ‘yung gusto kong course na engineering,” recalled Owa, who eventually proceeded to major in financial management. 

As a rookie Bulldog, there were some opening jitters, too. Despite having a hint of UAAP-level competition, Owa was still unfamiliar with the league’s atmosphere, which included university pep squads with their large, booming drums. 

Grabe, unang palo pa lang [ng drums] nagtataasan na ‘yung balahibo ko non eh. So parang grabe, gaganahan ka maglaro tapos first game ko talo against FEU. Dun talaga na-mold ‘yung [sarili ko] eh,” Owa recalls of his first-ever UAAP game.

And ‘yung first year ko na ‘yun, parang nasakin na ‘yun kung matututo o magpapadala ako sa mga bashers din non ganon.

Of course, there was also one Kuya Bry who Owa had the opportunity of playing with as a rookie. That Kuya Bry was none other than Bryan Bagunas, who’s just one of Philippine volleyball’s biggest stars right now. 

As exciting as that sounds, it was a very, very tall task for a young Owa, actually. In general, he explains that setters must adjust to each of their spikers’ strengths and overall play styles already. 

So what more if you have one Kuya Bry on your team?

Okay ba sila sa mabilis na set or saktuhan lang? So napakahirap tas ia-adjust mo pa sa middle. So kumbaga, ikaw ‘yung nagpapatakbo talaga ng team e. So mahirap sya, kahit nakalaro ko na si Kuya Bry. Syempre bawat tournament nagi-improve, bawat great game. So pahirap nang pahirap,” he recalls. 

Owa Retamar SEA Games
Some members of the 2019 SEA Games squad, including Owa Retamar [seated on the leftmost] (Photo Credit: Marck Espejo on Instagram)

Fortunately, Owa’s efforts (and potential) never actually went unnoticed. Months after his rookie season and first UAAP title, the playmaker was tapped by Dante Alinsunurin as a last-minute replacement in the 2019 SEA Games squad that won silver on home soil. 

And for Owa, this call-up was significant for two reasons. First was the trust shown by coach Dante, and second was realizing a dream he only expected to reach after his UAAP career.

All of a sudden, he found himself playing with idols he onced watched on television. “Kumbaga unang set ko pa nga lang si Kuya Marck [Espejo] agad ‘yung pumalo sa national team tas pag set ko, ‘Ay! ‘Di nya napalo nang maayos!’ parang ayoko na mag-set ulit,” he cheerfully recalls. 

“Buti na lang winelcome nila ‘ko tapos ‘yun. Nag-enjoy lang ako sa team, hanggang sa onti-onting nag-ge-gel,” adds Owa, who acknowledged the initial lack of trust by his idols. 

Kuya Owa all of a sudden

Unfortunately, Owa Retamar’s (and every athlete’s) career would be sidelined due to Covid-19 in 2020. While he’d gotten back on track academically, volleyball had taken a backseat for the rising setter out of San Pedro, Laguna for a good two years.

Well, there was a 2021 SEA Games buildup, which took place amid high Covid risks. Even if it was great to play volleyball again, Owa admitted that the virus (and their own bouts against it) prevented the team from focusing on their games. 

It wasn’t until 2022 that Owa would play “normal” volleyball again, starting with NU’s conquest of the Spikers’ Turf Open Conference that year. And in the lead-up to UAAP Season 85, he and his Bulldogs played countless tournaments across Malaysia, Taiwan, Thailand, and many more. 

Owa Retamar Spikers Turf
The post-Covid bulldogs. (Photo Credit: Spikers’ Turf)

By this time, Owa had become one of the kuyas, with his squad having more new faces than OGs. So on top of having to gel with them as a setter, he needed to figure their personalities out too, or as he says, their “kiliti”. 

Paano ko ba mapapasunod ‘to, ano bang pwede gawin? Parang ganon. Kasi at the time rin ako na ‘yung captain ball eh. Tapos sinabihan pa ako ng seniors ko, ayun sina [James] Natividad, sina Kuya Bry ‘Owa kailangan mag-champion kayo ah. Tuloy niyo ‘yan ah. Wag niyong tatapusin ‘yan diyan’,” Owa said. 

That new-look NU went on to dominate UAAP Season 85 as they pulled off a rare season sweep coming right out of Covid. After a three year hiatus, Owa and his Bulldogs again established their position as the gold standard for their side of the sport.

And then came UAAP Season 86. Now reintroduced to the volleyball world, the opportunity was there for NU to capture an elusive four-peat.

But as fate would have it, Owa and the Bulldogs wouldn’t be dominant like they were a year ago. His Bulldogs finished Season 86 with an 11-3 record, and went through a playoff game against La Salle to secure a top 2 (and twice-to-beat) finish.

Apparently, that squad lost a good chunk of its Season 85 recruits, who were young but “veteran-like”. Replacing them were flat-out youngsters who still lacked maturity and mental composure under pressure situations.

‘Di [pa] sila masyadong focus na pag sinabi mong UAAP, ‘yung disiplina, ‘yung focus mo na ‘ah magpapahinga ako after training’. ‘Yung iba nga samin, lalabas labas pa. Pero nung bandang huli naging okay na,” Owa shares. 

There was also the pressure of leaving the UAAP on a high note for Owa. So when they completed the four-peat, he admitted just breaking down on the court. Just like that, he had overcome a season of struggles, stress, and even uncertainty as team captain.

Once again, Owa Retamar was a winner. A championship at hand, alongside “icings on the cake” in a Finals MVP plum and Best Setter nod. As a bonus, he’d also earned his financial management degree, making his last dance much, much sweeter. 

Owa Retamar, Nico Almendras, Jann Sumagui
NU’s Kuyas in Owa Retamar, Nico Almendras [middle], and Jann Sumagui [right]. (Photo Credit: UAAP Season 86 Media Team)

Grabe pagod ko, grabe ‘yung pagod ko sa team ko, paano i-handle. Syempre na-stress din ako, minsan nahihirapan din matulog, ganon. Parang iniisip ko…kasi mas mahirap ‘yung final year kaysa sa rookie year. Ayun ang pinakamahirap, kung paano ka mage-end,” recalls Owa, who admits approaching his older sister and coaches for support that season. 

Turns out, this adversity-filled farewell is also the best out of his UAAP titles. In his words, “‘Di biro ‘yung pinagdaanan namin!”. 

For one, league competition had improved, so his younger Bulldogs were now being challenged. More importantly, there was the collective effort wherein even Team B worked overtime with them.

Dun kami [sa efforts ng Team B] natuto kaya masasabi ko na lahat kami champion ‘yung buong team ng NU. Hindi lang ‘yung naglaro sa UAAP, pati ‘yung Team B namin.” 

Brave new world 

Today, Owa Retamar is set to add more to his early storybook career, which includes his third national team – now known as Alas Pilipinas – appearance. More than another nod, this also marks his return since skipping the 2023 SEA Games back then. 

This time around, Owa now joins a squad with a number of UAAP hotshots. A full circle moment if anything, as he’s now one of the kuyas who will guide those Alas youngsters. More than that, he’s also become a more “mature” player, a better leader, and an “improved communicator”.

“Excited na lang ako kung ano ‘yung teamwork na mangyayari samin pag nabuo kami. Kasi iba’t iba ‘yung players ngayon e. May malalakas pumalo, may magagaling pumalo, magagaling dumepensa, na mga bata!” Owa said when asked about any players he’s excited for. 

There’s also his pending debut for the Spikers’ Turf under the Cignal HD Spikers, where he’ll join a vaunted offense led by his Kuya Bry and one-time Spikers’ Turf MVP Jau Umandal.

Naturally, Owa Retamar is excited to be in a team of veterans, as well as competing at a higher level. There’s also the new learnings he’ll get as he exits Dante Alinsunurin’s system after six years. 

Syempre makakalaban ko rin ‘yung Criss Cross, ‘yung iba don teammate ko sa national team. Then ‘yung ibang mga teams doon galing probinsya rin so malalakas din sila. So excited din na makalaban sila,” Owa said, referring to the new Spikers’ Turf team led by veterans Marck Espejo, Rex Intal, Jude Garcia, and more. 

Owa Retamar is taking his talents to Cignal. (Photo Credit: VP Global Management)

But for now, Owa is focused on his Alas Pilipinas training, as Cignal’s practices will only start in June. After a short La Union trip and some family time, the kid is now learning a lot under new Alas men’s and Ateneo women’s head coach Sergio Veloso. 

Nahihirapan ako pero maganda ‘yung sistema ni coach [Sergio]… May matutulong din talaga sa team. And ‘yun nga, ‘yung mga techniques na ‘di pa namin alam, tinuturo nya,” he shares. 

“‘Yung blockings. Yan ‘yung pinakafocus nya eh, defense. Blockings, dig, ‘yung mga tinuturo nya na nahihirapan pa ako. Kasi malayo sa tinuturo ni coach Dante eh, so kailangan pa ng effort dun sa tinuturo ni coach Sergio.”

Owa Retamar is arguably one of the biggest Philippine volleyball winners right now. And as he adds a new page to his story, only time will tell how much more victories this kid from Laguna will get as he grows wiser and better. 

Banner Image courtesy of the UAAP Season 86 Media Team.

Down But Never Out: Jema Galanza Keeps Her Faith in Creamline Amid Adversity

Redemption Complete: NU Dispatches UST To Clinch UAAP Season 86 Volleyball Crown

‘We’re Here to Give It Our All’: Angel Canino Adds National Team Appearance to Her Early Career Highs