It’s that time of the year when I do my best to offer my predictions of what is to unfold in what I call the “Real Season” in the ongoing UAAP Season 76 Women’s Volleyball competitions.
As many of you know, I do not broadcast the volleyball games for host coveror ABS-CBN Sports as the second semester sport assigned to me is baseball. But I do make it a point to catch the games as they are called by Boom Gonzales, Anton Roxas and Eric Tipan and their ladies and I have kept all the statistics the very hardworking TMX Sports group led by the inimitable Sherwin "Let's Get It On" Malonzo always painstakingly creates during every match. Yes, that makes for a very cluttered inbox, but all the data is readily available.
I asked a question in the title: can DLSU be beaten? Believe it or not, the reigning volleybelles may even be parading a weaker line-up from last year’s three-peat squad, but for some reason appear to be performing even stronger. Their record reflects that: 7-0 at the end of the first round and they're the only team that has not surrendered a single set; sweeping all of their opponents so far. But the answer to my question above is: yes, they can be beaten, and I’m pretty sure you have a fair idea which collection of talent can get the job done.
So let’s get into it, shall we? I will do my best to be a swami and—based on the numbers and the overall performances of the eight teams involved—try to come up with a final team standings and late February we’ll see how close I am to the truth. Let’s begin.
University of the East (UE)—1st round record: 0-7, projected final record: 0-14
Let’s face it Lady Warriors’ fans: this is still part of your rebuilding process. The shocking news that anointed captain Leuseht Dawis was not going to be playing in her final year—allegedly due to scholastic issues—put a major damper on any progress hopes Head Coach Boy Dalistan had for his campaign this season. UE did show some signs of life in their final first round assignment against the Lady Spikers, but many attribute the close score to La Salle relaxing against an evidently much weaker opponent. How long will this rebuilding process last? There is hope in the horizon for the Lady Warriors in rookie Shaya Adorador being the new cornerstone for the squad. But this is a lost season for UE and they will have to try and gain as much from the experience points they gather as they can.
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University of the Philippines (UP)—1st round record: 1-6, projected final record: 3-11
Ah, my beloved alma mater that pushed host school Adamson to a five-set thriller, stole a set from the Tigresses and thrashed UE. Make no mistake about it; the program of the Lady Maroons is—for the first time in nearly a decade—beginning to move in the right direction. The hiring of new Head Coach Jerry Yee of the successful Hope Christian High School program breathed new life into the struggling women’s volleyball campaign and the results have been more than modest. Sophomore center Katherine Bersola finished in the top ten in scoring after the first round and the overall defenses of the Lady Maroons has been stellar. I see them tripping the Lady Warriors anew in the second and even claiming the scalp of another contender along the way. Their young core led by former La Salle Zobel standout Julie Calugcug will continue improving as no one will be losing eligibility at season’s end. In short, UP could be a Final Four contender in Season 77—and I’m not just saying that coz I’m a #ProudIsko.
University of Santo Tomas (UST)—1st round record: 2-5, final record: 4-10
The Tigresses finished out of the Final Four last year for the first time in over a decade. Unfortunately for them, it may take them a while before they return there. The departure of former quicker Maika Ortiz and outside hitter Judy Caballejo ends an era for the España lasses and even if they have a few promising bigs in Marivic Meneses and Shanen Palec to complement junior Jessey de Leon, none of them are still in the mold of Ortiz--yet. The good news for the Tigresses is that leading scorers Pam Lastimosa and Mela Tunay are only in their junior years and might be poised to reclaim a Final Four berth before they graduate. UST has shown a lot of fight in them and I believe that Head Coach Odjie Mamon is one of the best in the business. However, this is not year for the proud erstwhile women’s volleyball queens of the UAAP.
Adamson University (AdU)—1st round record: 3-4, final record: 7-7
I was very surprised to find the Lady Falcons in fifth place after round one. They were one of my pre-season darkhorse bets as they have a solid line-up across the board. Sure, they lost their vaunted volleyball machine Pau Soriano, but she still trains with the squad as their assistant coach and still is a major presence in the locker room. Adamson also has one of the members of my “Team Future” in Baguio native Mylene Paat (for me, a few years away from being mentioned in the same breath as Aiza Maizo and Jovelyn Gonzaga) and the “power trio” of Sheila “Bangnita” Pineda, Mayette Zapanta and Amanda Villanueva. In fact, “The Franchise” ended the first round as the league’s second leading scorer—thanks to a season-high 29 markers in that heartbreaking loss against FEU in the final match of the opener. However, centers Faye Guevarra (who was a national team candidate) and Erika Alkuino do not possess the same special powers as Soriano—and Head Coach Sherwin Meneses knows this. Meneses is still looking for a way to hone the squad’s end game and consistency. May Macatuno is one of the best setters in the league, but the Lady Falcons have to be that team that has always been known for its floor defense to be able to pick up the pieces in the second round. They actually have the tools to get it done, the question is: do they believe they do?
Far Eastern University (FEU)—1st round record: 4-3, final record: 7-7
On the opposite side of the coin from my Adamson treatise above, I didn’t expect the Lady Tamaraws to be in fourth place at the end of the first round as—unlike the Lady Falcons—they are operating with a less than ideal line-up. We have to give credit to the coaching staff led by Shaq de los Santos for their modest success so far in getting the job done with an astounding seven rookies in their roster. Of course, they still have the amazing Gyzelle Sy who has defined the setter’s position in the league. Tin Agno is still living up to her reputation as one of the best floor defenders in the league and the rapid development of former project Remy Palma has been among the major catalysts in FEU’s inspired performance this season. The question is: how long can the Lady Tamaraws remain oblivious to the grandeur they are in the midst of? The last match against Adamson was a character-builder for them, but it surely also frayed many nerves. I believe the inexperience will begin to show down the stretch and they could get waylaid by a more determined team. They are looking good to make the Final Four, but they have to play on a level they’re not supposed to be in—at this stage of their development—to continue surpassing all expectations.
Ateneo de Manila University (AdMU)—1st round record: 5-2, final record: 9-5
Coming into Season 76, many predicted that the Lady Eagles will be hard-pressed to even come close to their showing of the past few seasons. After all, this is the “Post Fab Five” era. They have to be in rebuilding mode already, right? Also gone is their fiery mentor Roger Gorayeb and Parley Tupas is supposed to have gigantic shoes to fill. What many overlooked is that Ateneo still has one of the best open-spikers in the Philippines: Alyssa Valdez. “The Phenom”—despite having a new setter in rookie Jia Morado—still leads the league in scoring and she has been almost flying solo in getting the points for her squad. Amy Ahomiro has shown considerable improvement in her second year and has even become an MVP candidate. The new Ateneo Fab Five, however, has lost a key member as center Ana Gopico is presently nursing an MCL injury and may rejoin the fray towards the end of the second round. The Lady Eagles are still well on their way to a Final Four slot. But with Valdez risking everything in every game just to give Ateneo wins, in what condition will she be in come the playoffs?
National University (NU)—1st round record: 6-1, final record: 13-1
The only low point in their present campaign to give franchise-face Din-Din Santiago a title as a graduation gift was their grizzly straight-sets debacle against the Lady Spikers in the first round. Other than that, the Lady Bulldogs have been a team on a one way mission. Din-Din has been the Din-Din everyone knew she would one day be and younger sister Jaja has shown that her talent—and her 6’5” frame—is something teams have to contend with if they want to get to the next level. But NU is more than just the Santiago sisters. They have evolved into a top contender for the crown and yes, I predict they will hand DLSU their first loss of the season. Why? Myla Pablo, Aiko Urdas and ultra-senior Mina Aganon have figured things out. They have to play second fiddle to the two pagodas if the Lady Bulldogs intend to dethrone La Salle. The biggest key here is that orchestrators Ivy Perez and Kuki Salibad know how many weapons they have at their disposal and with the guidance of coaches Edjet Mabbayad and Dong de la Cruz, NU has now realized how terrifyingly complete they are. If they keep their eyes on the prize, the Lady Bulldogs will give DLSU a lot of problems in their quest for that fourth crown.
De La Salle University (DLSU)—1st round record: 7-0, final record: 13-1
On paper, the Lady Spikers are supposed to be weaker than last year’s squad. They’ve lost “The Ninja” Melissa Gohing, Wensh Tiu has run out of eligibility and reigning Finals MVP Michele Gumabao elected to forego her final playing year. Cienne Cruz (libero), Cyd Demecillo (now a starter) and Desiree Cheng (utility) have inherited the roles their three former stars have left behind and—based on the results—have not skipped a beat. DLSU still has the two reigning season MVPs in Ara Galang and skipper Aby Maraño, and if anything these two ladies have become even stronger and wiser. Kim Fajardo has now gotten the fulltime gig as starting setter and Mika Reyes is still one of the most intimidating net presences in the league. What makes La Salle a constant winner is the system employed by Head Coach Ramil de Jesus and it has been a proven formula throughout the years. As I wrote in the earlier paragraphs, the Lady Spikers have yet to drop a set and they look poised to gun for a perfect season. As Gumabao once said, the only team that can beat La Salle is La Salle and if they lose track of the ultimate goal for one moment—especially if that moment happens when they go up against NU—then cracks might begin to form and their grasp on the whole enchilada might wane . La Salle is going to win their fourth straight title IF they remain focused. This is supposed to be one of their weakest line-ups in recent years. It sure doesn’t seem like it, though.
Adamson, Ateneo, NU and La Salle will form the Final Four.
FEU will be there next year—and for many more years to come after Season 77—and UST may even join them. The Lady Bulldogs are in “make-or-break” straits and have the best opportunity of snaring their first ever title in their UAAP women’s volleyball history (their men’s squad looks almost invulnerable). The Lady Falcons will still be the tournament’s darkhorse and have to dig deep to get it done in the second round—and even in the playoffs. Ateneo is functioning properly now but live and die with “Baldo”. If Gopico can find her way back sooner, then the Lady Eagles might just make one spirited run for the crown—no matter how unlikely it may appear.
At the end of the day, it’s still the Lady Spikers’ championship to lose and by all initial indications, they have no intention of even allowing teams a sliver of hope for that to happen. DLSU is looking good for a fourth title. Can they actually make it happen again? That is something we will all have to find out together.
So what do you guys think about the upcoming second round of the UAAP Season 76 Women’s Volleyball competitions? Post away…
Follow Noel Zarate on Twitter (@NoelZarate) and email firstname.lastname@example.org