The end of an era: Nine UAAP volleybelles say goodbye to varsity life for good

NU captain Din-Din Santiago is among the graduating class of 2014 (Photo: Cesar Bailen, Jr.)

Last year marked the end of a heroic run for Ateneo’s fabled “Fab Five” as 2008 batchmates Ailysse Nacachi, Jem Ferrer, Fille Cainglet, Dzi Gervacio and Gretchen Ho concluded their collegiate careers with yet another silver medal finish in the Season 75 volleyball battles. And although they never won a crown for their alma mater, the five years these forever-friends spent alongside each other on the court made them the undisputed darlings of the UAAP and their saga still has fans reliving their exploits to this day.

On the other end of the spectrum, the De La Salle University (DLSU) Lady Spikers may have romped to their third successive crown but also bade farewell to some of its most iconic players as Melissa Gohing and Wensh Tiu have played out their eligibility, while Finals MVP Michele Gumabao elected to forego her last year with her squad.

The National University (NU) Lady Bulldogs went on to lose perhaps the greatest libero in this UAAP generation as Jen Reyes made a gracious exit by bringing her squad to its first Final Four appearance ever even as two of the University of Santo Tomas’ most beloved varsity members in Maika Ortiz and Judy Caballejo also left the bright lights of the league after their fifth year and the colorful Maru Banaticla opted out of her final year. For the University of the East (UE), erstwhile skipper Leuseht Dawis withdrew from the team due to academic issues and has run out of playing years while Adamson also lost its silent but efficient floor leader as Pau Soriano was among those who joined the biggest exodus of talent in recent years.

Pau Soriano and Jen Reyes later joined forces on the national team (Photo: Noel Zarate)

This season, a mere nine volleybelles will not be returning for Season 77 and while we brace ourselves for the thrilling conclusion to the ongoing Final Four encounters, let’s take a moment to honor these young ladies who will now be moving on to the next chapter of their lives—perhaps as campaigners in the Philippine Super Liga (PSL) or maybe stints in coaching.

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Regardless, they have touched our lives for their unwavering display of volleyball talent on the court and now we pay homage as their collegiate careers draw to a definitive close.

UE: Madel Gavarra & Faith Bulan

Let’s begin with the UE pair of Madel Gavarra and outgoing captain Faith Bulan. While the Lady Warriors have hardly made any noise over last few years, Gavarra and Bulan remain the last remnants of the team that finished sixth in 2011—tying their best placing since 2007. Since the departure of superstar Suzanne Roces from the program, UE has not been able to regain its foothold on the title they’ve won five teams since the league’s inception. With Gavarra and Bulan now moving on, the Lady Warriors have now officially entered a total rebuilding stage. They fought valiantly, but they did not have the right arsenal to make much headway.

UE skipper Faith Bulan bids farewell to the Lady Warriors faithful (Photo: Cesar Bailen, Jr.)

Adamson University: Sheila Pineda, May Macatuno & Mayette Zapanta

The Lady Falcons Head Coach Sherwin Meneses now has to find ways to plug the holes that these three wily veterans will leave behind. Although the program may have stumbled upon a gem in the rough via Baguio’s Mylene Paat, they will still be losing three more members of the squad at the end of Season 77. So Meneses has to make do with what he’s got left and forget the fact that perhaps three-fourths of the team’s offense has played its final UAAP match in the knockout stepladder loss to Ateneo.

Macatuno has been the pulse of the Lady Falcons for several years, despite her lack of length at 5'2". Her setting has netted her much praise and she even made it to the national team as the back-up setter for the Power Pinays that saw action in the 2013 Asian Volleyball Confederation (AVC) women’s championship. Her career started out uneventfully but she later on dislodged former starting setter Des Patilano from the coveted role and proceeded to prove all naysayers wrong with her steady orchestrating that has allowed Adamson to barge into the Final Four four times in her five year stint with the squad. Zapanta has been the picture of consistency and quality minutes leading up to her constant presence in the starting line-up over the past couple of seasons. Her power strikes and underrated defense has been a catalyst in the Lady Falcons figuring in so many high-quality ball games.

But Pineda’s exit is the one that may sadden many UAAP followers.

Known as “Bang”—derived from her nickname “Bebang”—the 5’4” wunderkind has been a source of amazement over her last four playing years. She started out as a deep reserve and only saw action as a serve specialist when the team was still handled by the legendary Minerva Dulce-Pante. Eventually, Pineda found her way to the starting line-up and raised many eyebrows at how her leaping ability and desire overcame any external physical shortcomings she may initially display. Later on she would team up with Soriano to form one of the most lethal offensive duos in the league and towards her last two years began leading the team in floor defense. Pineda became more endearing to fans watching her during the off-season in the Shakey’s V-League (SVL) and eventually the PSL where her prowess was overshadowed only by her disarming and charming smile—whether after a point or an error.

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Going out with a "Bang": Sheila Pineda ends her illustrious college career (Photo: Arnold Z. Cruz)

Her final hug with Ateneo’s Alyssa Valdez—perhaps her most bitter rival this season in terms of the scoring race—may have signified the passing of the torch from one of the most explosive open-spikers to maybe the best in the collegiate ranks. "Bang" now faces a new future and will certainly continue to turn heads, whether on or off the court.

NU: Din-Din Santiago, Kuki Salibad & Mina Aganon

For those volleyball fans who haven’t followed the SVL (I’m not quite sure if there any that out there), Din-Din Santiago’s career was only three years long; her quiet rookie year with UST and her final two seasons with the Lady Bulldogs. But for those who have seen her blossom over those two years she was in residency with NU who have witnessed the development of perhaps the best volleyball player in the country today. Din-Din’s transformation from the shy and skinny teenager languishing on the Tigresses’ powerhouse bench to one of the most intimidating and swag-laden quickers today has been a gigantic roller coaster ride. She’s been through the different styles of the coaches that molded her: August Sta. Maria—the respected icon, Francis Vicente—the fiery perfectionist, Roger Gorayeb—the competitive tactician and Edjet Mabbayad—the soft-spoken inspirer, and all have created a lasting imprint on her game as well as to the thousands of fans that have installed her the nation’s best. Whether or not NU can win its first title in her last hoorah remains to be seen, but Din-Din is a star that began to shine gradually and now very brightly at the twilight of her days as a student-athlete.

For Kuki Salibad (sidelined by a multitude of injuries during her career), she may still move on to make a difference as a talented “converted” setter in the PSL while Mina Aganon has slowly emerged as a key component in the Lady Bulldog’s title bid this season.

Late Bloomer: NU's Mina Aganon has been on a tear in her final year (Photo: Cesar Bailen, Jr.)

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Aganon has always been known as someone’s back-up—she started as the substitute of former scoring machine Vec Mangui—but in the Lady Bulldogs’ SVL 2013 conquest and in their present campaign in Season 76, she has displayed Mangui-like qualities and maybe all those years of watching a master at work has rubbed off on her. Aganon’s improvements have not gone unnoticed. One PSL coach even hinted that his team might be keen on using their second round pick on the former unknown attacker. She will be a factor with any team she will eventually play for due to her guts, resolve and desire to help the squad win. These are qualities that not very many volleyball players have.

DLSU: Abigail Maraño

And, of course, we end our salute with the reigning two-time UAAP MVP who has spilled her heart and soul on the floor so that the Lady Spikers not only get the win, but also make the other players better in her wake.

If there is a Leadership Award being handed out in the UAAP, Maraño would have already had her named etched on it permanently.

She spent the first semester being a practicumer for ABS-CBN Sports and must have studied all the camera angles as she’s found a new way to turn a celebration into a form of intimidation. Aby’s teammates feed off of her energy and she’s gone on to prove that what on paper could be a weaker team compared to last season’s roster could even be stronger—hence, the Lady Spikers’ unblemished elimination round record. Maraño has even taken a back seat in terms of the numbers she normally churns out to let the entire team perform at peak efficiency.

She is the ultimate team player and the quintessential leader.

DLSU's Aby Maraño has turned celebration into intimidation (Photo: Cesar Bailen, Jr.)

How will DLSU replace her next season? They can’t. And while Head Coach Ramil de Jesus has a solid program, he will be missing the biggest piece of his weaponry when Maraño steps down at the end of the season.

She’s already touted to be a top three lottery pick in the PSL Draft. She will definitely contend with Santiago as the top overall pick, and whichever franchise lands her, they will already have a bonfide leader—even if there may be more veteran members on the squad. She’s that good. Her swag will be on display for many years to come, but unfortunately for UAAP fans her run ends here—I predict with a fourth consecutive women’s volleyball crown.

The staggering fact that fans will have to contend with is that at the end of Season 77 there will be an astonishing 23 volleybelles who will be at the end of their proverbial ropes with names like Lazaro, Esperanza, Agno, Sy, Se and Lantin being on that list. Heck, some of the incoming fifth year players might not even opt to play their final year. That will mark the biggest exodus in recent memory. UAAP women’s volleyball will have to find new heroes.

UST skipper Loren Lantin will be in her final year come Season 77 (Photo: Arnold Z. Cruz)

On the flipside, Ateneo, UST, FEU and UP will have no player forcibly removed from the varsity due to eligibility come Season 77.

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For now, let’s celebrate the memories these nine heroines will leave behind. Let’s hope that the next phase of their lives will even surpass the achievements they have attained as some of the best student-athletes in the archipelago.

Kudos, ladies!

Follow Noel Zarate on Twitter (@NoelZarate) and email sportztackle@yahoo.com

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