UAAP PREVIEW: Road not easy for Ateneo’s title defense
The astronomical rise of volleyball’s popularity in the country is about to get a big boost when the curtains are lifted off UAAP Season 78’s women’s volleyball tournament, which promises to be one of the most exciting—if not the most exciting—seasons in recent memory.
La Salle and Ateneo may have been reigning in the last half-a-decade but with all eight teams beefing up their rosters during the 10-month hiatus of the league, it is pretty much hard to tell what is this year’s team to beat.
The aggressive recruitment, the changes in some squads’ coaching staff, and the return of some key players levelled the playing field in the UAAP which makes the Final Four race tight and unpredictable.
Last year’s cellar-dweller University of the East had a major revamp with head coach Francis Vicente fielding seven rookies in his 14-woman roster.
Make no mistake, however, as these young bloods are expected to deliver and play like veterans for the Lady Warriors in their bid to get out of the bottom of the rankings after spending three seasons in eighth place.
Promising talents Shaya Adorador and Roselle Baliton will be playing a vital role in leading the rookie-laden lineup to greatness.
Last year’s Rookie of the Year awardee Kath Arado is all set to return to her post, spearheading the defense for the Recto squad.
The big surprise from the UE squad, though, was Vicente’s choice to appoint freshman Celine Domingo as team captain.
“Binawasan ko ‘yung pressure kay Shaya (Adorador) at naging maganda ang resulta nung hindi na siya captain,” Vicente told the Inquirer.
“Si (Celine) Domingo ang dapat talagang abangan sa mga rookies ko,” he added. “Mataas tumalon, may palo, at higit sa lahat mabait na bata.”
After a hot start in Season 77, Adamson University sputtered in the second round which led the Lady Falcons to seventh place; the team’s worst finish in the last decade.
This, perhaps, is the reason why the influx of support poured for the Lady Falcons as they capped their preparations for this year with a week-long training in Thailand.
There, they got to test their mettle in tuneup games against the best Thai club teams who house some national team players.
Veterans Jema Galanza and Erika Alkuino will join forces with newly-minted team captain Mylene Paat in the Lady Falcons’ attempt to regain lost glory.
“Malaking tulong ‘yung naging training namin sa Thailand kasi iba pa din pag actual game niyo nagagawa ‘yung mga na-practice niyo eh,” said Paat, a left opposite spiker.
“Gagawin talaga namin ‘yung best namin para makabawi kami, makabalik sa Final Four, at kung papalarin, more than that pa,” she added.
University of the Philippines is the clear winner of this season’s recruitment wars.
Head coach Jerry Yee was able to secure his talents from Hope Christian High School as Justine Dorog, Isa Molde and Mae Basarte all joined him in Diliman.
As if that haul was not big enough, Yee also acquired Palarong Pambansa top talents in Maris Layug and Diana Carlos.
Add that to the mix of impressive veteran spikers in Nicole Tiamzon, Kathy Bersola, Pia Gaiser, Ayel Estranero and Marian Buitre and the threat of UP barging into the semis after 12 long years suddenly seem within reach.
Bersola, who missed the second round of eliminations last year due to a torn ACL, will be returning for the Lady Maroons as the team’s new skipper.
On the challenging 2015 she experienced, the 5-foot-11 middle blocker says, “Ayaw ko na balikan. Binura ko na ‘yung nine months pero ang binaon ko is ‘yung lessons na tinuro niya sa akin.”
Talking about her much-anticipated return to the UAAP court, she adds, “Yes, ready na.”
Tigresses want redemption
For the embattled University of Santo Tomas, whose winning tradition has waned in the last three years, Season 78 is nothing but a time for redemption.
After four years of being at the helm of the Golden Tigresses, Odjie Mamon chose to focus on UST’s men’s volleyball team, giving way to the entry of Emilio ‘Kungfu’ Reyes as the new head coach.
On top of Reyes’ agenda? To lift the girls’ morale, which seemed to have dipped along with the squad’s rankings in the UAAP.
“Hindi kasi pwede na pag natalo okay lang,” the coach was quoted in an interview. “Kailangan maramdaman nila ‘yung saya pag nanalo, at ‘yung lungkot pag natalo. Para paghirapan nila bawat puntos.”
But even before the tournament’s kick-off, the España squad already took a big blow when team captain Pam Lastimosa tore her ACL back in November.
Taking her place is sophomore EJ Laure, who was UST’s main source of offense back in Season 77.
“Buwis-buhay na,” shared Laure on her game plan as skipper. “Isang taon mong pinaghandaan eh. Hindi ka dapat susuko ng basta-basta lang.”
Far Eastern University boasts some of the strongest spikers in the collegiate ranks but the team’s stint in the Shakey’s V-League last year exposed one big weakness: the team needs a better setter.
But like a twist fit for a reality show, the Lady Tamaraws’ coaching staff found an antidote after they convinced Season 74 Best Setter Gyzelle Sy to return and use her last year of eligibility.
“Gusto ko lang talaga maglaro pa. Gusto kong bumalik and tumulong kung anuman ‘yung maitutulong ko,” said Sy.
With her back in the fold, the offense of the Morayta squad, headed by spikers Bernadeth Pons, Toni Rose Basas and Remy Palma, will be fully utilized as they charge for the school’s coveted 30th UAAP women’s volley title.
“Malaking tulong po talaga ‘yung pagbalik ni Ate Gy (Sy) kasi alam naman po natin gaano siya kagaling na setter,” said FEU’s star spiker, Pons.
As for their dreams to end their seven-year title drought, last season’s fourth placers are ready to go all-out.
“Nung nakabalik po kasi kami sa Final Four last year, nakita namin na kaya naman pala namin,” shared Pons.
“Kaya tumaas ‘yung morale namin at inayos pa namin lalo kasi we are hungry na po talaga para dun sa 30th title,” she added.
Having one of the more intact lineups this year, National University looks to continue building an empire in the women’s volleyball division after having successfully doing so in the men’s division.
The already-impressive spiking prowess of Myla Pablo and Jaja Santiago was further honed in the off-season after their stints with the national team in different international tourneys.
The Lady Bulldogs’ title bid will be backed by Aiko Urdas, who has fully recovered from an ACL tear, Shakey’s V-League Collegiate Conference Best Libero Bia General and Jorelle Singh.
The biggest addition to the team this year is prized setter Rica Diolan who is primed to end the setting woes NU has been facing for years already.
“Madami kaming experience na nakuha, ako sa SEA Games at sa U23, sila sa iba’t ibang liga na sinalihan kaya tiwala ako sa team ko,” says 6-foot-4 spiker Jaja Santiago.
“Ang volleyball kasi teamwork ‘yan eh. Kaya dapat lahat talaga kayo gagawa at sa nakikita ko naman, lahat kami ngayon may kakayahang mag contribute para sa goal ng team,” she added.
Return of Ara
Another victim of an ACL tear is La Salle’s Ara Galang but as she confirmed, she will be returning in Season 78 for her last tour of duty for the Lady Spikers.
“Mga nasa 95% ako ngayon physically,” she told the Inquirer.
What’s hindering her from getting back to 100%? She says it’s her leaping ability which hasn’t been as high at it used to be.
“‘Yung talon ko hindi pa totally bumabalik. Minsan mabigat pa ‘yung legs ko. Nahihirapan pa ako,” said the former UAAP MVP. “Hindi pa katulad dati na para sa akin ‘yung pagtalon ang pinakamadali. Siguro kaya hindo pa 100%, nakukulangan pa ako sa talon ko.”
While she recovers, head coach Ramil de Jesus has appointed setter Kim Fajardo as La Salle’s team captain.
And unlike last year when the Taft squad’s shallow bench got the best of them, de Jesus will be parading a star-studded lineup made up of some of the biggest stars in the UAAP like Mika Reyes, Mika Esperanza, Cyd Demecillo, Carol Cerveza and Kim Dy.
The Lady Spikers’ arsenal does not end there.
Perhaps the most anticipated rookie this year in May Luna made it to La Salle’s lineup. Her inclusion in the starting six is uncertain, however, as fellow rookie Tine Tiamzon is giving the Davaoeña a run for her money.
On what to expect from the freshmen, Galang says, “Malaki ‘yung magiging contribution nila kasi sobrang potensyal silang mga bata.”
No easy defense
Defending the title will not be as easy as last year for the Ateneo Lady Eagles after the graduation of the team’s two best floor defenders in Denden Lazaro and Ella de Jesus.
But based on the surprises the Katipunan squad pulled off in the last two years, a three-peat is not, and will never be, far-fetched.
The legendary Alyssa Valdez will once again be leading the Lady Eagles in her last year of donning the blue and white of Ateneo in the UAAP.
Key returnees for the defending champions include Bea de Leon, Amy Ahomiro and Jia Morado.
“You know, every year it’s a different story. Every year, iba ‘yung mga challenges ng bawat team,” said Valdez on the journey ahead.
“I’m really excited for this upcoming UAAP kasi sobrang tagal ng preparation ng lahat,” she added in her signature grin. “Sobrang ganda ng recruitment ng lahat. And siyempre iba pag UAAP. Papatunayan at ipaglalaban mo ‘yung pride ng school mo talaga.”
The tandem of Valdez and Thai head coach Tai Bundit has been unimpeachable since their Cinderella run in Season 76 and if their off-season preparations are to be the basis, the two-time UAAP champs have more tricks up their sleeves.
“All-out, all-heart tayo,” said Valdez.
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