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Jaja makes her final stand

The UAAP women’s volleyball galaxy will be without a lot of stars this season.

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Defending champion La Salle begins the season minus standout setter Kim Fajardo, whose graduation has left the Lady Spikers trying to figure out who will fill in the void. Ateneo lost Jia Morado, who masterfully pulled the strings for the Lady Eagles last season but opted to forego her final year of eligibility. University of Santo Tomas regained its old luster, but the storied program’s return to relevance was dealt a blow with gunner EJ Laure red-shirting Season 80 due to a chronic injury.

In a suddenly wide-open race for the crown, where talent is now almost equal across the eight-team field, hunger and motivation might end up deciding the champion. And it is not hard to find the hungriest, most motivated star today.

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She stands out in the volleyball crowd, literally.

“Now that this is my last year, I won’t allow myself to not get that title,” said National University’s 6-foot-5 Jaja Santiago, whose trophy collection includes several Most Valuable Player, Rookie of the Year and Best Attacker plums.

What’s missing? A UAAP crown.

“And I won’t forgive myself if I will graduate without having led the team to the title,” added the 22-year-old middle blocker.

Santiago’s stints with the national team has turned her into an even deadlier attacker, while fellow hitters Risa Sato and Jorelle Singh have also matured. The Lady Bulldogs also have quite possible the season’s best setter in Jasmine Nabor.

That means every team will be coming for NU.

And for La Salle to succeed without Fajardo, it will pin its hopes on Majoy Baron, last season’s MVP, Kim Kianna Dy, Dawn Macandili and Des Cheng.

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“Of course this will be a big adjustment for us since ate Kim is no longer with us,” Baron said in Filipino.

“It’s not just a setter that was gone, but a leader,” said Macandili.

Ateneo also lost a lot with Morado gone and new Ateneo team captain Maddie Madayag, who has fully recovered from a knee injury, will carry a lot on her shoulders. Sharing that weight will be Jho Maraguinot and Bea De Leon.

“It is important for us to keep communicating inside the court and I hope I can help in that aspect aside from playing, of course,” said De Leon.

Laure’s absence hasn’t been a cause of concern—yet—for UST coach Kung Fu Reyes.

“We don’t even talk about EJ’s absence because the team can still operate without her,” said Reyes. “This is not EJ’s team, it’s everybody’s team. This is team UST.”

The fiery Sisi Rondina will still be around along with Dimdim Pacres, Tin Francisco and Rica Rivera. Third-year sub Carla Sandoval and Milena Alessandrini—the highly recruited 6-foot-2 Filipino-Italian outside hitter—are expected to step up.

“There’s pressure to perform well but I am confident because I know I won’t be on the court alone. I have my teammates and my coaches and we do everything as a team,” said Sandoval.

Santiago and NU have even more to worry about.

The return of Rose Vargas will further boost a stacked Far Eastern University roster featuring Bernadeth Pons, Jeanette Villareal, Toni Rose Basas and Kyla Atienza. University of the Philippines’ solid core, led by Tots Carlos, Justine Dorog and Isa Molde, will get a lift from new coach Godfrey Okumu.

“The talent is there. We just have to be faster in defense, which I’m hoping will lead to faster plays,” said Okumu.

Even University of the East cannot be discounted as veteran Shaya Adorador is expected to link up with junior Meann Mendrez, who has embraced her new position as an outside hitter, and the debuting 6-foot-2 Remcel Santos.

Adamson, the cellar-dweller last year, flashed newfound strength in a dominant Premier Volleyball League stint.

“Pressure is a privilege,” said coach Airess Padda. “It’s a privilege to be in this position because if no one’s pressuring us to do well, then it’s a dead giveaway that they don’t believe you can do it.”

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TAGS: Jaja Santiago, UAAP, UAAP women’s volleyball
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