UAAP Women’s Volleyball: The dream scenario, Ateneo vs. La Salle v2.0 (Part 2 of 2)

In the famous words of Frank Sinatra: “…and now the end is near, and so I face the final curtain…” the Best-of-Three series for the Universities Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP) Women’s Volleyball title is now upon us.

Gsme 1 of the Finals may fill the Big Dome (Kevin de la Cruz/Rivals.ph)

The one week wait since the Ateneo de Manila University (AdMU) and De La Salle University (DLSU) booked their championship showdown seems agonizingly slow and the Araneta Coliseum will once again be rocking as the ladies steal the thunder from the national sports consciousness once again on Saturday, March 2. That, of course, will be preceded by Game 1 of the finals in the Men’s division between defending champs the Far Eastern University (FEU) Tamaraws and the upstart National University (NU) Bulldogs who advanced to their school’s first ever Men’s finals and making only their second Final Four appearance and first since the 2006-07 season.

Just to let you know, I tried to get an audience with the Lady Spikers for an interview. Nada.

Even Michele Gumabao—who I handle for projects under a known telecommunications company—respectfully informed me that she would be happy to be interviewed AFTER the season. So Yahoo! Sports Philippines is guaranteed to have an exclusive one-on-one with the San Mateo, California native AFTER the season. That’s how focused the DLSU volleybelles are in trying to capture their third successive Women’s Volleyball crown and fourth in five years.

Melissa Gohing has been in the Finals her entire 5-year career (Kevin de la Cruz/Rivals.ph)

The Lady Spikers have done well since coming back from a suspension in Season 69; making it to five straight championship series and surviving the loss of some of its greatest players along the way such as Michelle Datuin, Manilla Santos, Stephanie Mercado, Jac Alarca and Cha Cruz. However, Head Coach Ramil de Jesus always seems to be able to bring in some new recruit who would eventually fit right in to the system and it’s as if DLSU has not skipped a beat in the program. The newbie doesn’t always turn out to be a game-changer, but somehow plugs enough holes that eventually the team still continues winning. That’s an excellent program right there. It is wrought in winning tradition.

For Ateneo, the entry of the “Fab Five” in the 2008-09 season displayed one of the best rookie classes in all of UAAP sports, rivalled only by the Fab Four freshmen of the Green Archers basketball team of Joshua “Spider” Webb (the present captain), LA Revilla, Sam Marata and Ferdinand of that same batch (thanks to @romMELrome for the info). The Atenean lasses were viewed as the “future of the franchise” as old reliables such as Karla Bello, Charo Soriano, Kara Acevedo and Bea Pascual were slowly passing the torch to them. The addition of former University of Santo Tomas (UST) junior’s phenom Alyssa Valdez only bolstered the stock of the Lady Eagles, who were looking to create a new tradition in a sport they were not really known for. Now, in their final year, the onus is on them to deliver on a five year old promise. Making the Final Four consecutively since they were sophomores should mean nothing now for the Katipuneras. They need to bring the big trophy home now.

Pressure on Dzi Gervacio and Jem Ferrer on their final year (Kevin de la Cruz/Rivals.ph)

But what makes this battle noteworthy? Is it just because it is another Ateneo-La Salle final or is this really going to be tantamount to a Holy War?

Head-to-Head (since Season 74)

DLSU 6

AdMU 1

Dating back to the previous year, these two squads have tangled a grand total of seven times coming into this year’s final with DLSU winning six of those games. Ateneo won Game 1 of the finals, but that’s it. But it should also be mentioned that the Lady Spikers have only lost three times since Season 73—that’s a card of 45-3 over the last three seasons. DLSU’s opening day setback at the hands of the Tigresses this season marked their first elimination round loss since Season 72. Of the three losses La Salle has absorbed through the last three seasons, two of them were to UST (winning a game in the finals in 2011).

The Ateneo Fab Five have never experienced winning against the Lady Spikers except for that resurgent triumph in the Season 74 finals. The big thing for them is that they’ve proven that it can be done.

“Speed,” is all Lady Eagles’ setter Jem Ferrer told me on their keys to victory against DLSU.

Speed even on defense is essential for Ateneo (Kevin de la Cruz/Rivals.ph)

“(There is) big pressure for us since we (the Fab Five) are graduating and this is our 'last chance’ in the UAAP,” Ferrer continues. “We really want to win and this is a big challenge for us and a test of character. Game 1 will be very important.”

Let’s revisit their matches this year:

January 12, 2013 (The Arena, San Juan City)

Attendance: 7,319

(2)DLSU (5-1) 26 21 25 25 15 F

(1)AdMU (6-0) 28 25 13 21 13

La Salle: V. Galang 18 pts (14/55 attacks), M. Reyes 16 pts (4 blocks), M. Gumabao 12 pts

Ateneo: A. Valdez 23 pts (16/66 attacks, 3 blocks, 4 aces), F. Cainglet 16 pts (14/69 attacks)

Notes: F. Cainglet (AdMU) Inj. (4) right ankle sprain (DNP 5), K. Fajardo (DLSU) 8 pts (bench)

This was more of a test of character for La Salle than it was for Ateneo. The Lady Eagles were undefeated coming into the encounter and DLSU were looking sluggish in the early goings. Starting setter Mika Esperanza somehow just couldn’t get her game going and Coach Ramil had to bring in back-up Kim Fajardo early. The same thing could be said about starting utility spiker Wensh Tiu as de Jesus utilized reserve Cyd Demecillo as early as the first set. These were the best moves for the Lady Spikers in the match. Fajardo and Demecillo meshed with the prolific line of Ara Galang, Mika Reyes and Gumabao as Abigail Maraño settled into the role of support staff and helped the “team” collect the victory.

Cainglet was relentless, especially in the first set as she was already poised to notch double figures in scoring. But then, leading 2-0 in sets, Ateneo’s lacklustre showing in the third set allowed the Lady Spikers to regain their rhythm and while the fourth set was again closely contested, the infamous Cainglet sprain happened and eventually La Salle pounced and the Lady Eagles could never bounce back.

It was the end of the first round for both squads with DLSU upping their winning streak to six straight and leaving Ateneo to contemplate on the team’s fate with Cainglet’s injury a massive a blow to their initially solid campaign.

Ferrer: "Fille Cainglet (L) is now 100%." (Kevin de la Cruz/Rivals.ph)

February 9, 2013 (MOA Arena, Pasay City)

Attendance: 19,638

(1)DLSU (11-1) 25 25 25 F

(2) AdMU (9-3) 19 23 21

La Salle: M. Gumabao 14 pts (9/22 attacks), M. Reyes 10 pts (6 blocks)

Ateneo: A. Valdez 10 pts (9/36 attacks), A. Gervacio 10 pts (6/30 attacks), F. Cainglet 6 pts

Notes: Career lows in points for A. Valdez (AdMU) and Cainglet (AdMU—as a starter)

If there’s a silver lining for the Lady Eagles in this straight sets loss, it was their last setback of the season. They went on to defeat UST and then take their own straight sets win against Adamson University in the Final Four. It seemed as though Ateneo Head Coach Roger Gorayeb played the percentage game in this tiff. Cainglet wasn’t fully recovered from her injuries and Valdez had been going all out in her previous second round exposures due to the Cainglet injury so the Lady Eagles may have chosen to save their bullets. They were almost assured of that second slot in the Final Four anyway and that twice-to-beat advantage going in could mean that they had additional rest and practice time heading their way.

For the Lady Spikers, there really wasn’t much to process from this win. It was also apparent in the match that Maraño wasn’t going to exert a Herculean effort and although Galang stayed aggressive, she also chose to taper off towards the end.

Ladies and gentlemen, it sure felt like a mini-ceasefire.

The record crowd didn’t really seem to mind. But if you watch the game again, you might notice that both teams might have really been pulling their punches. How else can you explain Valdez’s career-low and a “mere” 36 attack attempts from Galang as well as Maraño’s anaemic eight points? Perhaps they were really going all out, perhaps they weren’t, but in a way it was practically a non-bearing game. A win is a win, however, and La Salle just added to their momentum heading into the Final Four.

Was the 2nd round game a "mini-ceasefire"? (Kevin de la Cruz/Rivals.ph)

The one constant in the two meetings for DLSU: Fajardo and Demecillo played major minutes. That might be something to look at heading into Saturday.

Ateneo Keys:

  • Speed—Ferrer said it right. In the first round meeting the Lady Eagles showed that facet of their game in the second set when it appeared La Salle didn’t know who to check. Their vaunted net defense was hardly a factor as Cainglet, Valdez and skipper Dzi Gervacio attacked quicker than the advancing blockers. Defensive speed is also needed and Ateneo libero Den-Den Lazaro needs to make sure her quickness in the backline offsets some of the deflected attacks coming from DLSU’s spikers. If Ateneo can apply the speed and quickness they used in the second set of their first encounter, the Lady Spikers will have to innovate a lot.

Den-Den Lazaro's floor patrol is key for Ateneo (Kevin de la Cruz/Rivals.ph)

  • Focus, Teamwork and Communication—Ferrer said, “Araneta is bigger than the (San Juan) Arena. There will be a lot of people and we need to zone out and focus on the game.” If there’s one thing I’ve learned about this group of ladies from Ateneo is that they are one noisy bunch on the court. Probably the only team that could be noisier is the University of St. La Salle-Bacolod in the Shakey’s V-League and half the time we don’t even know what they are saying. But communication is a big key, especially for Ferrer. She was a former Shakey’s V-League MVP and she knows how to distribute correctly, but there need to be hollers and demands from her spikers in the frontline. The Fab Five have been together for a Fab Five Years. If they can’t execute teamwork and communication now, when will they?

Can Jem Ferrer keep the Lady Eagles talking on the court? (Kevin de la Cruz/Rivals.ph)

  • Heart, Hunger and Desire—they know they are the underdogs. They relished that distinction last year and it netted them a Game 1 win in the finals. The rabid supporters of the Lady Eagles will surely be on hand and if they can get the two abovementioned tasks done, heart, hunger and desire will take over. The quintet of Aillysse Nacachi, Gretchen Ho, Cainglet, Gervacio and Ferrer are in their final tour of duty. Gorayeb (their “batchmate” in Ateneo having arrived in the program with them) started Nacachi in the Final Four and it worked. With an inspired (and pressured) Fab Five joined by the machine-like efficiency of Valdez, the floor patrolling of Lazaro and probably a strike or two from understudy Ella de Jesus, the Lady Eagles may just pull off a surprise—or two.

Ateneo's Gretchen Ho needs to show the hunger to win (Kevin de la Cruz/Rivals.ph)

La Salle Keys:

  • Dominate and Intimidate—the “gag order” and “device curfew” (the Lady Spikers are not allowed to use their gadgets by a certain time at night) are radical methods employed by de Jesus to ensure his troops stay extremely focused on the mission at hand. And it has been working. Very rarely do you “feel” the intimidation a team carries with it the moment they step on to the playing surface. That’s because they’ve earned it through fourteen consecutive victories. For La Salle, they only need to look at three points of weakness this season: the aforementioned second set against Ateneo in the first round, the first set against NU in the second round (DLSU lost 20-25 and had to win it in five sets) and the entire match against UST in the opener. Other than that, the Lady Spikers have been almost robotic in their crushing of the opposition. They must instil that kind of fear in Ateneo starting Saturday. DLSU is taller, stronger and more experienced in the big games. All the Lady Spikers have to do is remind Ateneo of these facts and they will begin having that all-important mental edge.

DLSU intimidates and dominates (Kevin de la Cruz/Rivals.ph)

  • Mika Reyes—the sophomore out of St. Scholastica’s College Manila (yes, the alma mater of Cainglet and Gervacio) has truly defined the DLSU defensive line this season. One broadcaster even forecasted that she will be the improved version of former MVP Alarca. Ateneo also has a six-footer in the same mould as Reyes but Mae Tajima is still a project that may take quite a while to develop, which means the presence of “Yeye” alone will already cause problems for the Ateneo attack. I mentioned earlier that Ramil de Jesus has always found a new recruit to initially plug holes and hardly become a game-changer. Well, this one is. The development of batchmate Galang is coming along in the traditional gradual pace, but Reyes is a star now. One fan even gave her a very apt moniker: “The Umbrella Queen”. It’s scary to note that she still has three years of eligibility after this season. That could mean three more years of volleyball dominance for the Taft Girls.

Mika Reyes has been a star in Ramil de Jesus' squad (Kevin de la Cruz/Rivals.ph)

  • Championship Swag—The Lady Spikers are the three-time defending champions and that is an undisputed fact. Ateneo wants their title. As the old saying goes, “...to be a champion, one must beat a champion...” and DLSU earned that eons ago when they dethroned Rachel Anne Daquis and FEU and later on Rhea Dimaculangan and UST. The Lady Eagles have a second opportunity to grab the crown, but it appears La Salle’s championship swag is at an all-time high. They appear to have almost no pressure coming in to the series. They look at the debacle against UST in the first round as a fluke. They view the two five-setters this season as a case of being caught off guard. If they come into the Big Dome with the same destructive demeanour we’ve seen them display against everyone this season, the Lady Eagles will have ruffled feathers as early as the first set. There is a fine line between swag and complacency, though, and it may seem that the Lady Spikers may have found that balance.

Swag: To be a champion one must beat a champion (Kevin de la Cruz/Rivals.ph)

FORECAST:

________________________________________________________________________

Well, what are you waiting for? Fill in the blank. I’m on my way to the store to get some microwavable pop corn, a large bottle of iced tea and some dog food (I forgot to get at the grocery last time, poor dachshunds). I won’t even attempt to get tickets for Game 1, because you’ll all be there.

This is it, pancit. Can Ateneo duplicate their Game 1 victory last year or will DLSU take their first step to another three-peat? In the famous words of Big John McCarthy—Let’s get it on!

Follow Noel Zarate on Twitter (@NoelZarate)

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