Yesha Noceja is only a high school student, but already, she has big dreams as a volleyball player.
Over the last decade, volleyball has risen to become a fan favorite among Filipinos. Crowd numbers often rival those of local basketball games and professional players have thousands of followers — these alone showcase just how much the country has adopted the sport as one of its own.
Ever since local volleyball competitions, such as the Premier Volleyball League, started to come up and grow, a career as a professional volleyball player has not only become an option for young athletes. More than this, it has become a dream.
This is true for Yesha Noceja, a high school volleyball player, who dreams of representing the Philippines as part of the national team.
Although she is still young, her ambition is undeniable, exemplified by how she spent her elementary and middle school years jumping from school to school in pursuit of her athletic dreams. And her story is an example of how, when done right, a professional sports league can inspire youngsters like her to dream of bringing pride to a nation one day.
Early days in the sport
Yesha Noceja started playing volleyball when she was in elementary school. Her PE teacher, who was an assistant coach for the Mandaluyong Elementary School’s volleyball team at the time, invited Yesha to try out for the team.
Yesha shared that her recruitment mostly had to do with her height, as she hit 5’6 as early as elementary school, and that with minimal experience in the sport, she spent her early days as a player just picking up balls for the team.
“Nag-start lang ako noong grade five ako,” she recalled. “Nakita ng ibang coach na matangkad ako, at gusto akong turuan, so dito nagsimula ‘yung experience ko talaga sa volleyball.”
Once she started learning the ropes and slowly began to see improvement within herself, she really started enjoying it. With this, she began seeing herself playing long-term. Her family, however, was not on board with the idea at first.
“Ang pumipigil sa akin dati ay ‘yung mga magulang ko, kasi parang ayaw nila na mag-volleyball ako. Gusto nila akong maging artista,” she explained.
Yesha wouldn’t be the first athlete whose parents doubted a career in sports at first. But the young volleyball player explained that with time, they warmed up to the idea.
“Noong sinabi ko na gusto kong [maglaro] talaga, tapos noong nakita nila akong maglaro na, nakita nila na seryoso daw ako at masaya ako. So sinuportahan nila ako.”
With her parents’ support, Yesha pursued volleyball. And it was not always easy, as her path to where she is now was hardly direct.
Following the path
When Yesha committed herself to volleyball, she committed herself to her coach, who was the first person to give her this opportunity. Thus, from Mandaluyong Elementary School, whichever school her coach moved to, she went along with him.
“Every year, naglilipat ng school kasi kailangan kong sundan ‘yung coach ko. May parang utang na loob rin ako para kay coach, kasi syempre, siya yung nagsimula ng volleyball career ko.”
Moving schools every single academic year is truly a tall order, having to adjust time and time again. However, Yesha took the challenge like a champ. She expressed that she never had too much of a difficult time adjusting to each school, especially given that all her teammates were always welcoming of her.
And as she hopped from school to school, at the same time, she was also collecting record after record. With her various teams, she has titles in the Milo Little Olympics, the NCR Meet, the U-13 Women’s Volleyball League, the LGR Sports League, and the UAAP (to name just a few). Though they all speak to her talent as an athlete, she shared that the accomplishment she is most proud of so far is the Palarong Pambansa title she won before entering high school.
“‘Yan yung last na playing year ko sa Palarong Pambansa as [an elementary student], noong nag Best Outside Hitter ako at bronze medalists as NCR representatives kami,” she proudly shared.
But by the time she was in the seventh grade, she and her coach came to the conclusion that it was time for just one more change.
Right as she was about to enter junior high school, Yesha was studying in Adamson.
“During that time, madami talagang players sa Adamson noon. So, sabi ng coach ko, sayang naman kung hindi ako natututukan doon, kasi made-delay ‘yung improvement ko, so sabi niya na lumipat nalang ako sa school na maalagaan ako hanggang makapaglaro ako.”
This is how she ended up as a National University (NU) Nazareth student. She had a new team, and for the first time, a new coach. But she adjusted well to the NU volleyball system and is very close to all her teammates, sharing that their bond is really important to them as a unit.
“In terms of system, iba talaga ‘yung system ng NU. Mas detalyado,” she explained. “Super close kami ng mga teammates ko, kasi ‘yan ‘yung pinaka focus namin, kasi naapekto ‘yan sa court.”
With this new opportunity, Yesha was excited to get on the court. However, much like many other athletes, the pandemic had put a halt to her plans.
“Dahil sa pandemic, naputol ‘yung paglaro ko,” she said. Despite losing the ability to play for a couple of years, she still spent the pandemic working on her fitness, while also giving herself adequate time to recover.
So by the time restrictions lifted, Yesha was ready to hit the ground running.
As a player for the NU Lady Bullpups, one of the major competitions Yesha looked forward to was UAAP. The UAAP volleyball tournament is one of the biggest sports competitions in the country.
Yesha recognized this and, as an instrumental part of her team, she helped the Bullpups advance all the way to the finals of the tournament. Facing Adamson in the finals, the NU-Nazareth girls claimed the win by overcoming their rivals to retain their crown.
“Hindi ko makakalimutan ‘yun, kasi first UAAP ko ‘yun, tapos champions kaagad kami, at maganda din na na sa first 16 ako naglalaro — malaking achievement sa akin ‘yun,” she recalled with pride.
Future is bright
Now about to enter her final year as a high school student, Yesha Noceja already operates like a professional.
She trains on six out of seven days a week, usually twice per day, in the morning and in the afternoon. Thankfully, she has Sunday as her rest day. But when asked what she enjoys doing outside of training, her only response was, “Tulog at kahit lang ang ginagawa ko.”
(When we asked two star players of the PVL the same question, they had the same response.)
This is the life of a student-athlete with big dreams. “Sa long-term, gusto ko makapasok sa national team, mag-represent ng country natin,” she asserted.
With a goal like this, ambition like Yesha’s is the bare minimum, but she is more than ready to give a whole lot more than this in pursuit of what she hopes to achieve one day. And, luckily for her, she has many role models to look up to, as she describes the professionals of the country saying with admiration, “Ang gagaling nilang lahat.”
One day, Yesha hopes to reach this level too. And based on her track record, her passion, and her commitment, athletes like herself are huge reasons why, with the right support, the future of Philippine sports is bright.
Images courtesy of Yesha Noceja.