Westmont Women’s Basketball’s Stefanie Berberabe is one of the most decorated individuals in program history. The Westmont community knows Berberabe as an NAIA Player of the Year, two-time NAIA All-American, two-time GSAC Player of the Year, and three-time All-GSAC selection.
On top of that, the 2021 national champion is celebrated for being a top-tier ambassador in the Westmont Athletics community, and one that embodies the term ‘Warrior’ on and off the court. This season, following another trip to the NAIA Final Site, a new community got a front-row seat to witness the Warrior that is Berberabe.
“During the pandemic, there was a platform called ‘Fil-Am Nation Select’ started by Coach Cris Gopez,” shared Berberabe. “Fil-Am Nation gives exposure to Filipino athletes. It first started off as just bringing awareness and sharing Filipino-American basketball players’ stories. It expanded to all kinds of sports, highlighting athletes for both men and women.”
Through Fil-Am Nation Select, Berberabe received exposure online, and from there, the online community bore witness to highlights that Westmont fans have grown used to seeing. These highlights showcased the incredible dribbling skill that Berberabe possesses, as well as her ability to finish at the rim.
Berberabe, who stands at 5-3, is fourth in Westmont program history with an average of 12.3 points per game, and seventh in program history in career scoring at 1,296 points.
As time went on, Fil-Am Nation Select grew their platform and took the mission to another level. Last summer, Fil-Am Nation Select began holding tryouts for the Philippines National Basketball Team.
“Fortunately, one of the tryouts was held in California only 45 minutes from my house,” shared Berberabe. “Only those who were invited to the tryout were able to participate, so it consisted of athletes who play in college and overseas.”
To those who have seen Berberabe play, the next step came as no surprise.
“The coach showed interest in me after the tryout and a bunch of mix tapes were made of me,” said Berberabe, “So, I started getting more exposure on social media.
“I would only be able to play for the Philippines if I had dual-citizenship, and I had just got it last year in the summer after the coaches showed interest in me. It was a long process to get the paperwork, but I appreciate the help that Fil-Am Nation Select provided for me to get it figured out.”
While the excitement of the possibility of playing for the Filipino National Team hovered over Berberabe, the Norwalk native returned to Westmont in the fall and got to work with the Warriors, the reigning NAIA National Champions.
Then, in the middle of the school year, Berberabe received an official offer to join the Philippines National Team. However, Berberabe and the Warriors were in the middle of defending their GSAC Regular Season Title on their way to the National Tournament.
Berberabe reflected on the initial opportunity and said, “Although there are different opportunities for tournaments like FIBA, the World Cup, etc., I could only play for the SEA Games (SouthEast Asian Games) because it worked with my college schedule.
“I learned about the opportunity in the middle of the school year, and I couldn’t give them a definite answer because I had to focus on Nationals for Westmont. When the time came that I could go, Coach Moore was so supportive of the opportunity.”
On March 12 of this year, Berberabe scored a game-high 18 points and converted the game-icing free throws in a 50-47 win over USAO (Okla.). After one of the most thrilling wins of the year for any Westmont team, the Warriors claimed the NAIA Opening Round Tournament championship, sending them back to Sioux City, Iowa to compete at the Final Site.
Unfortunately, the club’s quest to repeat came to an end in the round of 16. Fresh off the disappointment, Berberabe was able to explore the opportunity of a lifetime, but the biggest obstacle in her way was the fact that more than a month remained in the academic school year.
“They wanted me to come out to the Philippines in the beginning of April,” began Berberabe, “Which was a long shot because I would have just come back from Nationals and I’d miss a lot of school. I ended up leaving to go to the Philippines April 14, which means I’d miss two weeks of school and finals week.
“When I talked to my professors about it, none of them had trouble accommodating me and were very supportive and excited for my opportunity. Having their support was really relieving because I was stressed about it. Coach Moore really helped me figure out the logistics in everything.”
From there, Berberabe traveled to Manila, the capital of the Philippines, where she trained with the team and got to reconnect with family for the first time in a handful of years.
“They provided me with a condo in Manila,” noted Berberabe. “I also had cousins who lived about 30 minutes away from my condo, so I was able to stay there some nights, too. I’ve been to the Philippines before just for vacation and to visit family. I visited a lot when I was younger, but the last time I visited was in the summer of 2018.”
“I have a lot of family in the Philippines! I’m so happy I got to visit my grandma who is 90 years old and she survived COVID-19. I have a bunch of family in different parts of the Philippines. The amount of support and excitement that I got from my family in the Philippines was so incredible.
“Some of my cousins and aunt and uncle actually flew out to Vietnam to watch the games in person, and of course my parents and sister came out to Vietnam to support me. My sister actually just graduated from Pharmacy school, so the next day they all flew out to make it to the tournament!”
While spending time with family for four weeks in Manila, of course, the main focus of the stay in the capital was to train with the team in preparation for the SEA Games. With that, Berberabe faced challenges unlike any she had faced while playing stateside.
“I was really nervous because I was joining a group of players who already knew each other,” reflected Berberabe. “I was known as one of the ‘imports’ so I felt like I was going to be left out, but it just took a while for me and them to get comfortable with each other.
“The language barrier was the biggest thing for us to be able to communicate well and effectively, but as time went on we were able to joke around about our differences in accents. There were a couple other Fil-Ams (Filipino-Americans), so it was really cool to hear their journey and build relationships with them.”
The conditions in the gym environment necessitated an adjustment period as well.
“The most challenging thing for me was adjusting to the weather,” shared Berberabe. “It was so hot and so humid. The gym we practiced in was so hot and I’ve never sweated that much.
“It was also difficult because of the language barrier. The coaches and players spoke 95% Tagalog, which sometimes made it hard for me to keep up with them. I would say I understand the language pretty fluently, but I can only speak about 25% Tagalog. So, when this was the only language being spoken most of my time here, it was difficult communicating with others.”
While getting comfortable in the team’s training, there was also discomfort and a learning curve for Berberabe in practice. Whereas in Santa Barbara Berberabe knows her role is locked in, in Manila it was clear that healthy competition brought a new level of intensity to the gym.
In regards to the competitive intensity in practice, Berberabe said, “I was surprised about the dynamic of the team’s training because everyone was fighting for a spot on the team. I remember the first weeks of practices were so physical and intense, and in my head I would think, ‘Is this allowed? Why aren’t they calling fouls?’
“Everyone was so feisty and aggressive but that excited me because I knew they’d be fighters when it came to game time. All my life I was always told that I was too short to be able to play at the next level, but when I was in a gym with Filipinos shorter than me and the same height as me, it really inspired me and empowered me.
“The saying ‘heart over height’ is true, especially here in the Philippines team.”
While adjusting to the club’s intensity during training, the sure-handed playmaker quickly found comfort in the team’s vision.
Berberabe said, “It was different for me to try and be integrated into the system that the team was wired to play like since most of the players have been playing with each other for a while now. Because I was thrown in pretty late, I was a little worried that I wouldn’t know how to help contribute to the team.
“Their style of play is very fast which worked in my favor because speed and quickness is one of my strengths so I was able to contribute using my hustle and gritty defense. I was able to create for myself but more importantly create for my teammates. The team even gave me the nickname “kidlat” which means “lightning” in Tagalog because they’ve never met anyone as speedy as me.”
After four weeks of rigorous training, Berberabe and the squad flew to Vietnam to compete in the SEA Games, which is an international tournament involving multiple sports and multiple Southeast Asian countries. In one week, the Philippines National Team played five games, going 4-1.
The squad’s lone loss came against Malaysia by a score of 96-93, but other than that, the team was dominant in the tournament. In victories against Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Singapore, the Philippines outscored opponents 398-306.
At week’s end, the club stood atop the leaderboard with their 4-1 record, and earned themselves a SEA Games gold medal.
During the tournament, Berberabe averaged nearly 24 minutes a game as the Philippines turned their lineup over every handful of minutes.
“The subbing was very unique in which our coach subbed a new five every other two-to-three minutes,” shared Berberabe. “The idea was that we all had fresh legs and could outrun our opponents. It was a new system that I wasn’t used to but I was able to have more energy and not get tired on the court.”
Berberabe’s most notable game came at the hands of the Vietnamese National Team, which made for the most electrifying environment of the tournament.
“It was my first time in Vietnam,” shared Berberabe, “And when we played against the host team, the environment was crazy. The arena was filled up with so many Vietnamese fans. It was insanely loud in the gym and it was a really fun and high energy vibe. There were literally people waiting outside of the gym not able to get inside because it was crowded.
“A notable play that was unforgettable was when I broke a player on Vietnam’s team’s ankles with a crossover and pulled up for a made shot. The player I dropped is actually in the WNBA draft which made it more exciting. I also had 10 assists that game.”
Reflecting the chance to not only represent the Philippines, but to walk away with a gold medal, Berberabe said, “Honestly, I’m so blessed for this opportunity to play for the Philippines. I’ve made friends who will last a lifetime and hopefully they can come visit California one day since they’ve never been.
“When I was confirmed to play for them, my parents were so excited and proud. They sacrificed so much for me and the unconditional love they’ve provided me is something I could never repay them back for, but playing for the Philippines National team was a way that I can honor them and thank them for all they have done for me. They were both born and raised in the Philippines and it’s a huge part of who we are. I’ve also been overwhelmed with so much love and support from my family and friends in the states and locally in the Philippines.
“I am filled with so much gratitude and couldn’t have received this gold medal without my family, friends, and the glory of God.”
In regards to her teammates turned friends, Berberabe continued, “We bonded a lot, especially when we got to Vietnam. We spent 24/7 with each other training, eating, playing games, etc. Most of them have known each other for quite some time so it was nerve-racking for me to try and fit in, but they were family oriented and very united.
“It was such an amazing experience to bond over the same love for the sport while sharing the same culture and heritage. It was an honor to have the opportunity to represent the Philippines.”
While reflecting on the experience, Berberabe ensured she did not finish her thoughts without thanking her loved ones back home.
“My supporters back home watched all my games, even if it was at 3:00 a.m.,” said Berberabe. “I just want to make it super clear that without any of my friends and family, I would have not been able to be here and win the gold. All for one, one for all.”
In regards to her future with the Filipino National Team, Berberabe says, “Because of my college schedule, it is complicated to say what’s next for me. The coach has talked with me about more opportunities arising with different tournaments and games, and I know the next SEA Games will be next summer in Cambodia. You might see me there.
“Depending on my schedule, I’ll be ready to represent the Philippines anytime they call me up.”
This fall, Berberabe will return to Westmont for her final year of eligibility, in hopes of adding to her already historic resume. While the ultimate goal is to defend the club’s GSAC Championship and return to the NAIA Final site, Berberabe is only 242 points shy of the all-time Westmont record.
Jacob Norling is the sports information assistant at Westmont College.