Retention or revenge: Ateneo, La Salle dispute UAAP women’s volley crown
MANILA, Philippines—Did anyone even expect this not to happen?
For the fourth straight year, Ateneo and De La Salle are meeting each other in the Finals of the UAAP Women’s Volleyball tournament. But unlike in their previous championship matchups, the Lady Eagles are coming in as the heavy favorites, while the Lady Spikers are billed as the underdogs.
A year after winning the school’s first ever UAAP volleyball championship, the Lady Eagles swept the eliminations and are coming in to the series, which starts Wednesday, armed with a thrice-to-beat advantage.
The Lady Eagles have carried out through the season the very same mantra which gave them the erstwhile elusive hardware last season: “happy, unity, heart-strong” from the words of their energetic Thai coach Tai Bundit. Aside from living up to that mantra, the ladies from Katipunan have obviously worked on every facet of their game while tweaking their roster.
At the end of the eliminations, the Lady Eagles finished as the league’s best spiking, digging, receiving and setting squad. They also ranked 2nd in serving, but were one of the lower-tiered teams when it came to blocking.
Despite the sweep, team captain Alyssa Valdez said she and her teammates still have a lot of work ahead of them.
“For us, it’s (sweep) one more challenge to maintain our game, become consistent as a team, and I hope it becomes a motivation for us to play better in our future games,” Valdez said.
The Lady Spikers, on the other hand, are treading unfamiliar territory. Although they finished the eliminations as the best blocking and serving squad, the ladies from Taft faced the prospect of not entering the Finals for the first time in seven years when it lost Game 1 of the stepladder semis against the rejuvenated National Univeristy Lady Bulldogs.
La Salle, winner of eight titles, however, drew deep into its vaunted championship poise to turn back NU, and earn the right to face Ateneo, but not without losing its star Ara Galang to a season-ending injury.
Valdez vs not Galang
One of the biggest focal points whenever Ateneo goes up against La Salle is the matchup between Valdez and Galang, who are recognized as the two best players in the league right now. They are like UAAP volleyball’s version of LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. Fans, however, will not be seeing any of that in the Finals after Galang tore her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), medial collateral ligament (MCL) and medial meniscus last Saturday.
Just as the Lady Eagles have swept the Lady Spikers in the eliminations, reigning MVP Valdez has also one-upped former co-MVP Ara Galang in their face-offs. In their two meetings so far this season, Valdez averaged 27.5 points per game with a spiking success rate of 29.93%. Galang, on the other hand, registered 15.5 points per game with a 24.04 attack percentage.
With Galang sidelined for at least eight months, the Lady Spikers have to look for someone who will not just provide the numbers for them, but will also not crumble in going toe-to-toe with Valdez. La Salle’s coach Ramil De Jesus has a lot of work ahead of him given how his girls have been erratic all season long. But this is the Finals. So veterans like Kim Fajardo, Mika Reyes and Cyd Demecillo really need to step up their game, while support squad Desiree Cheng, Majoy Baron, Carol Cerveza, and even rookie Eli Soyud need to use this as an opportunity to shine.
“This will not end here, if we have limitations (with Galang out) we will find solutions to solve them,” De Jesus said after their game against NU. “The players now have to trust themselves and not just rely on one person.”
Not just about skills
Skills-wise, the two best squads in the league are meeting in the Finals. But winning a championship takes more than just powerful spikes and combination plays. A lot of intangibles and mental toughness are required to be crowned as UAAP’s volleyball queens.
A lot seems to be working for the Lady Eagles:
- Valdez is playing another MVP season.
- Rookie Bea De Leon is the future of this squad along with the young remnants of last year’s champion team: Jia Morado, Michelle Morente and Kim Gequillana.
- Bundit’s infectious happy dance, unintelligible English and no-nonsense training regimen are still working for the Lady Eagles.
- They have a stronger following right now.
But they still need to work on the following:
- They must reduce their errors. Lucky for them, most of their errors pile up during the early parts of the set and not during the crucial moments.
- They must guard against complacency amid their thrice-to-beat-advantage and the fact that the Lady Spikers are playing minus their best gunner.
- They must improve their blocking game—so far the only kink in their very potent arsenal, if it can even be called that.
The Lady Spikers must bank on these strengths:
- They must take advantage of their strong blocking game.
- They have been in the championship for seven straight years. They should know what to do given the pressure of atmosphere.
- De Jesus is still one of the best coaches in the country and is a master at making adjustments. He just needs to find the right mix of players.
But they should also do the following if they want to retain the volleyball crown:
- Play La Salle volleyball. While the Lady Eagles are all about “happy, unity, heart-strong” and meditation, the Lady Spikers are precise and systematic technicians. That style of play has won several championships already and needs only a few tweaks, but not at the expense of the players looking lost during the game.
- Not just one player needs to step up in the absence of Galang.
- Know based on experience that a thrice-to-beat advantage is not insurmountable.
- Move on from last year’s heartbreaking loss; find another cause to fight for that championship.