I’ve been waiting for something ground-breaking to write about in the ongoing UAAP Season 76 Women’s Volleyball competition; maybe something that will break the set of predictions I shared the last time, but so far everything’s been on course. In fact, most of the drama has actually been happening on the men’s side of the fence with a bunch of five-setters ushering in 2014. I will soon write about emerging heroes such as Red Christensen, Mark Gil Alfafara, Mike Sudaria and Marck Espejo as their tournament climaxes.
However, the second round match-up between defending champions De La Salle University (DLSU) and upstart young “rebuilding” Far Eastern University (FEU) briefly raised eyebrows as well as pulses last Wednesday. The breaking news: the Lady Spikers finally lose a set for the first time this season.
The Animo faithful will be among the first to say, “so what?” They would be right.
DLSU still won the match and is presently 10-0 this season and has triumphed 26 consecutive times with their previous loss being an opening day five-set shocker at the hands of the University of Santo Tomas (UST) Tigresses in Season 75—more than a year ago. The victory over the Lady Tamaraws also gave Lady Spikers Head Coach Ramil de Jesus his 200th career victory—against only 49 losses—at the helm of what is perhaps the most successful women’s volleyball program in the country.
The final score was 25-11, 23-25, 25-20, 25-10. The FEU loss put them in a tie for fourth place with hosts Adamson University (AdU) which earlier romped over winless University of the East (UE), 25-17, 25-20, 25-9.
FEU’s second set formula was centered on their centers. Former project (now centerpiece) Remy Palma combined with 21-year-old rookie Genevieve Casugod to keep the pressure on the Lady Spikers frontline defenses. It did not bode well for DLSU that reserve Denice Tan and setter Kim Fajardo combined for six of the Lady Spikers’ ten total block points. La Salle’s vaunted offense was the only thing that kept them in the set, but their pillars of strength in the middle were constantly challenged on defense during the match—or at least during the second and third sets.
The Lady Spikers actually fought back from two points down 20-22 in the twilight of the second set, but skipper Abigail Maraño willed her squad back into contention and even led 23-22. It was Maraño’s two hitting errors that actually handed FEU set point and a cold blooded serve by rookie Kyla Atienza formalized the improbable: La Salle dropped a set. La Salle is mortal.
Maraño and junior quicker Mika Reyes had a lot of defensive issues against FEU’s 5’11” Palma and 6’1” Casugod and needed more offense from open-spikers Ara Galang and Cyd Demecillo to compensate. The Lady Tamaraws kept the heat on in the third set; leading by five at two junctures, 8-3 and 15-10 before de Jesus made the crucial adjustments to claim the third set and bamboozle the opposition in the fourth. FEU’s young core and their seven budding freshmen could not withstand the relentlessness of La Salle; eventually committing a bulk of their 38 total errors in the latter two sets and hence they lost.
The unsung heroes in the Lady Tamaraws’ valiant effort happened to be their veterans in setter Gyzelle Sy, a.k.a Rip Hamilton for wearing a protective mask to protect an injury, and libero Tin Agno who registered twenty “excellents" (11 excellent digs, 9 excellent receptions) before being lifted off the floor in the fourth set on a stretcher due a right knee injury—with the outcome pretty much decided.
Details of the injury are still unknown, but she was in tears and could not even get up after her attempt at a dig.
But having been in the program the longest, these two seasoned volleybelles led by example and fuelled the inspired play of youngsters Bernadeth Pons and Glyssa Torres in the show of aggression. If FEU can somehow replicate the resilience they displayed against the queens of the league in their remaining assignments against UST, AdU, UP and Ateneo, then they may just have enough chutzpah to dislodge the Lady Falcons or even the Lady Eagles—at least in my predictions—for a Final Four berth. Agno’s health will be a big factor in this happening, though.
We’re almost halfway through the second round. The trends should begin forming by now.
The strategy employed by the FEU coaching staff led by Shaq de los Santos and Kid Santos might have exposed a weakness or two in the frontline of the Lady Spikers—not that de Jesus did not see this as well. Using a taller and seemingly more aggressive center attack pattern (a series of quick hits and running attacks—almost exclusively), the Lady Tamaraws outhustled the La Salle defenses, and mixed with occasional blasts from the wing attackers along with outstanding floor defense, FEU made the Lady Spikers scurry more than usual.
Remember that DLSU has lost the services of erstwhile blocking ace Michele Gumabao and incredible libero Melissa Gohing last season. The positions and tasks they left behind as well as the skill level that both ladies brought to the forefront were the big question marks for La Salle heading into this season on how to adjust for them. Maraño, Reyes and new libero Cienne Cruz have plugged those holes admirably, but the cracks began appearing in this game.
The DLSU offense is still blistering, however.
Many look forward to their February 15th match-up with second-running National University (NU) and maybe what the FEU pair achieved for one set in this recent match-up, the Lady Bulldogs’ twin towers of Din-Din Santiago (6’2”) and Jaja Santiago (6’5”) can be attained through a longer period of time. I’m quite sure the NU brain trust of Edjet Mabbayad and Dong de la Cruz were watching the DLSU-FEU tiff intently and took down more than the usual number of notes. Let’s see if they will be put to good use in a couple of weeks.
For the Lady Spikers, their next three matches (against UP, UST and UE) should serve as a good workout preceding their encounter against NU—although they cannot take any of these bottom-ranked teams likely. The Lady Maroons have similar length—albeit dissimilar in power—to the Palma/Casugod duo of FEU. Let’s see if UP Head Coach Jerry Yee employs the same gameplan this Saturday.
As of now, though, I still see NU as having enough ingredients to deal the Lady Spikers their first loss of the season, and the FEU adventure further reinforced my belief that that can be done. But despite what I foresee, I’m a big fan of Coach Ramil and I still believe—despite the interim roster—DLSU is still poised to win its fourth straight crown.
And now that Ateneo’s chances have diminished with the news that freshman center Ana Gopico will not be returning to the Lady Eagles’ fold after sustaining a season-ending ACL injury, NU has a clear path to history—with all due respect to the fighting Adamson squad. I think we may be seeing a Final Four match-up between Ateneo and La Salle—for a finals slot. Yes, I now think the Lady Eagles will barely cling on to the fourth spot.
La Salle finally lost a set. But will they finally lose a match? We’ll find out very soon.
Follow Noel Zarate on Twitter (@NoelZarate) and email firstname.lastname@example.org