Female manager guides Philippines team to new heights in World Series

By the time she had spent a few hours in Taylor for this past week’s Junior League World Series, Philippines Manager Catherine Tanco-Ong was well aware of the facts:

●This was the first team from the Philippines to qualify for the World Series for the 13- and 14-year-old division of Little League International.

●No Asia-Pacific regional champion had ever won more than one game since the region joined the JLWS in 1999.

●Tanco-Ong was only the second woman to manage a team in the series.

●The other female manager, Juanita Laboy, guided the Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, team to the world championship in 1990.

The pressure was on. Or was it?

Tanco-Ong said she and her hand-picked coaches, Egan Delos Reyes and Edwin Mercado, felt they had prepared their group of 13 boys for the occasion. In Manila, the capital city of the Philippines, they had practiced long and hard – usually four or five hours a day, five days a week. They endured hot temperatures. They played exhibition games.

As the Philippines national team for the 13- and 14-year-old level of Little League International, the Manila boys traveled to Hagatna, Guam, for the Asia-Pacific regional tournament. There, the all-stars were undefeated, beating the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, 5-4; Hong Kong, 9-1; and previously undefeated Guam, 8-4.

Then they traveled 8,227 miles (13,240 kilometers) from the other side of the world to Taylor, where they was a 12-hour time difference. Twenty hours later, after a stop in Japan and two hours in customs at Detroit Metropolitan Airport, they headed for the site of the 27th annual Junior League World Series. When they arrived, there would be nine other teams waiting to prove they were the best in the world.

The team from Manila responded by winning all four of their games during round-robin play in the International Pool. The boys opened last Sunday with a 6-0 win over the national champions of Puerto Rico. They followed that up Monday with a 6-3 win over Surrey, British Columbia, the national champions of Canada.

After taking Tuesday off, they came right back Wednesday with a 6-1 win over the Latin America champions from St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. And they completed the sweep Thursday with a 16-6 victory over Kirovograd, Ukraine, champions of the region that includes Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

The 4-0 record gave the Philippines team the top seed in the International championship game – a rematch with Canada – scheduled for Friday night. The winner played for the world championship Saturday night.

“We have nothing to lose,” Tanco-Ong said during the week. “The only pressure I felt was that the boys played their game. I feel they’ve been trained well enough to play well and not be blown out.”

It turns out the only pressure she felt was during the district tournament in the Philippines, which was the first time the International Little League Association of Manila (ILLAM) team was managed by a woman.

“The team at that level had not lost in five years,” Tanco-Ong said. “I felt that I lost in the district tournament, some would say, ‘See, it’s a woman manager.’ When we got to the regional, there was no pressure. We had never won a regional before.”

Obviously, Team Manila won there as well.

Tanco-Ong spent 10 years as a television news anchor in the Philippines, a job she loved, but gave up because of the long round trip from her home to the television studio – often five hours a day due to heavy traffic.

Now, she works at a local high school, where she coaches junior varsity volleyball and helps with the baseball team.

A multi-sport athlete, Tanco-Ong was involved in softball, basketball and cheerleading while living as a child in Maryland with her mother, who is American. She lived in the Philippines during her days in high school and continued to play. To this day, she competes in a high-level volleyball league.

Basketball is the No. 1 sport in the Philippines. There is even a professional league. But Tanco-Ong said baseball is “up and coming.” Recently, a semi-pro league began and the colleges have teams.

She got involved in Little League as a coach for her daughter Alexandra’s team. When son Mark was in the Minors level of Little League, Tanco-Ong became manager. For the past three years, she has helped keep statistics as Mark’s teams played in regional tournaments in Guam, Japan and Indonesia.

She has been managing teams for three years, but this is her first tournament team.

Mark, now 14, is a member of the team in Taylor. Alexandra, now 17, has been playing with the Philippines team in the Big League softball World Series in Kalamazoo, accompanied by her father. Tanco-Ong said she was able to make the trip down I-94 to see one of Alexandra’s games.

Tanco-Ong said she took the role as manager of the Junior all-star team at the urging of parents.

“I would have been happy helping another manager,” she said. “Last year, I was the head of delegation, planning the trip, making flight details and getting the tickets. I’m happy in a support role. This year, the parents wanted me to be the manager. Therefore, I couldn’t say no.

She said her goals for the team included a positive “uplifting and encouraging” approach for the players and coaches.

“I wanted all of us to give the boys confidence and not make them fearful of making mistakes,” she said. “I feel that if you’re harsh with them, they can get tense. Nobody wants to make an error. If you’re harsh with a player for making an error, all the more he’ll start thinking about making an error.”

Tanco-Ong said her most important role has been to have the team ready.

“The bottom line is if I don’t train them well enough or have too many or not enough practice games or can’t get them visas or airline reservations to Guam, they’re not going to succeed,” she said. “It all falls on me.

She said she is happy with her decision to manage the team.

“I love the kids,” she said. “I love being on the field with the boys. I love to watch them playing and love their camaraderie off the field. simple things like the shortstop backing up the second baseman on a simple ground ball are the things that make my hair stand up.”

As for the World Series, she said, “The kids have been playing relaxed and enjoying the games. They’re not tense. I expected nerves. They’re not nervous. They’re still pumped and excited and proud to be here and to represent their country and region. I’m so proud of them. They’ve come so far.”

Watching two of the players run the Filipino flag to the “Hill of Honor” in center field of World Series Field was very moving, she said. She said it means “so much to the Filipino community” to see the flag.

The support received by her team – perhaps the best of all teams, USA or International – has been “amazing,” Tanco-Ong said. In fact, the entire World Series experience has been “phenomenal.”

She said she had been told by the manager of the Saipan team from the Commonwealth of the Mariana Islands – which played in Taylor five straight years – that she would enjoy her time in the World Series.

“The CNMI manager has been here a lot,” she said. “He said, ‘I’ve been to Williamsport (Pennsylvania for the Little League World Series) and I’ve been to Bangor (Maine for the Senior League World Series) and I’ve been to Taylor and Taylor is the best.’ That’s what he said. I had no idea what he was referring to at the time, but I’ve experienced it.”

There are nearly 40 people from the Philippines in the delegation, including the players and coaching staff. Tanco-Ong said the team’s parents have been “extremely helpful and supportive.”

Those who couldn’t make it to Taylor have listened to the games over streaming audio on the city of Taylor Web site, www.cityoftaylor.com/listen.

Tanco-Ong said she receives countless text messages from people in the Philippines. She said her country is the No. 1 text messaging nation in the world.

Rene Banzon, father of player Leandro Banzon, head of the Philippines delegation and vice president of the Manila Little League, said Tanco-Ong is doing a great job.

“I think Kathy has been one of the best tournament managers our charter has ever produced,” Banzon said. “She’s very dedicated, firm and yet compassionate with the kids. She’s built a solid program for this team. And we are seeing the fruits of her efforts in this tournament. She is well respected by not only the parents, but by all the players and coaches as well. She has done an excellent job.”

-- Dave Gorgon

Mark Ong plays for her mom, Philippines team Manager Catherine Tanco-Ong, in the Junior League World Series.

Philippines Manager Catherine Tanco-Ong makes a point during a World Series game.