UAAP Women’s Volleyball: the Final Four picture and season breakdown

La Salle swept the second round are the top seeds in the Final Four (Photo: Kevin de la Cruz/Rivals.ph)

Although there is still that one playoff game to be played this Wednesday for that final slot in the Final Four, I guess we can now look back to what has been one of the best Universities Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP) women’s volleyball seasons in recent years. Before we go on here, let’s take a quick look at the final standings at the end of the two rounds of eliminations:

Pos. School W L

*1† DLSU 13 1

*2† AdMU 10 4

*3 AdU 9 5

˟4 NU 8 6

˟4 UST 8 6

6 FEU 6 8

7 UP 2 12

8 UE 0 14

*Advanced to Final Four

†Twice-To-Beat Advantage

˟Sudden-Death Playoff on Wednesday, February 20

UST and NU contest the last slot in the Final Four on February 20 (Photo: Kevin de la Cruz/Rivals.ph)

Final Four Matchups:

AdMU vs. AdU

DLSU vs. NU/UST

ALSO READ: UAAP Men's Football: UP comes back to down FEU, seals finals date with Ateneo

This Season 75 has seen the rise of some programs in transition and seen the emergence of quite a number of stars that will definitely be driving forces in the years the come.

For starters, I always believed that the National University (NU) was primed for a major turnaround even before the season began. It’s been a long wait for the mainstream volleyball aficionado to finally see Din-Din Santiago in action. Santiago was a high school project from the University of Santo Tomas (UST) and in fact spent her freshman year for the Tigresses on the bench, still a “project”. When she made the move to NU and underwent residency, the team also anticipated their status as host school and made that her coming out party. In that regard, the Lady Bulldogs coaching staff and athletic department saw it fit to have superstar libero Jen Reyes skip last season so that an entire juggernaut could play together and catch the league by surprise. Cai Nepomuceno—a Far Eastern University (FEU) discard—has always proven to be a prolific points provider, even in the presence of former scoring machine Vec Mangui. The addition of the surprising Myla Pablo and budding setter Ivy Perez made NU a powerhouse coming into Season 75.

But alas, this is the ONLY decent shot the Lady Bulldogs have at the title. They lose Nepomuceno and Reyes next season and quite frankly these two ladies are practically the only veteran leaders on the squad. I’m quite sure Head Coach Francis Vicente did not see this team fighting for dear life this Wednesday. I believe he thought this was an outright Final Four shoe-in, and on paper they are. If they defeat UST in the knockout match, their reward will be a date with the defending champion De La Salle University (DLSU) Lady Spikers with a twice-to-beat disadvantage. It’ll be an uphill climb, but they’ll have to overcome the Tigresses first before they can even entertain any thoughts of being David against Goliath.

Cai Nepomuceno and Jen Reyes are playing in their final year for NU (Photo: Kevin de la Cruz/Rivals.ph)

Speaking of the Tigresses, I had them as a Final Four squad in my mid-season predictions. Unfortunately, they suffered three setbacks in the second round and that first round upset-loss to FEU played big down the stretch. Maruja Banaticla had an on-and-off second round and no matter how you look at it, Loren Lantin is not Rhea Dimaculangan. She may get there one day, but that day is not today or this season for the Tigresses. Judy Ann Caballejo had to overexert to help her team eke out the necessary advantages, Pam Lastimosa has matured a lot quicker than many thought she would and Maika Ortiz has done her best to be a consistent factor, but Head Coach Odjie Mamon has had his “choppy” moments in trying to get his message through to his girls.

Loren Lantin (14) has big shoes to fill sans Rhea Dimaculangan (Photo: Kevin de la Cruz/Rivals.ph)

I never thought Dimaculangan’s departure was going to hamper UST this heavily, but I’m not solely blaming Lantin on where they are now. It was a team effort—an effort to somehow play in a lacklustre fashion, as exemplified by the loss to FEU. The one positive working for the Tigresses heading into Wednesday is that they won their second round matchup against the Lady Bulldogs. NU won the first round game. Both matches went four sets. There will be no stats-reference heading into that sudden-death tiff, I guarantee it. I will not even predict a winner. Good luck to both schools.

After NU, my alma mater—the University of the Philippines (UP)—has also been a surprise. Many “experts” were saying Head Coach Jarod Hubalde was not a fit for the Lady Maroons after a dismal Season 74 where the Diliman girls went winless. Well after the opening match against the University of the East (UE) to begin their Season 75 campaign, UP went on to lose all its other games before rising from the dead again against UE, down by two sets and pulling off the thrilling victory. With the exception of their first round encounter against DLSU and their second round meeting with the Ateneo de Manila University (AdMU) Lady Eagles, the Lady Maroons have shown a lot more “fight” in their sorties this season. They even stole a set against UST. In the final match they had against Adamson University (AdU), UP threatened to steal another set before the Lady Falcons brought them back to earth.

Let me just educate our readers who are not privy to the recruitment methods of our State University: UP can only offer scholarships and nothing more, and even before those scholarships can be handed out to the incoming student a screening committee has to go through the recruit’s chances to “survive” in the UP System.

ALSO READ: Barako no longer "manong" brigade

The athletic program has no funds coming directly from the school to fly to far off provinces and scout for potential phenoms. On occasion, the alumni steps in to assist, but not often. What ends up happening is they just approach many local high school programs and offer scholarships—wherein the student must maintain a certain grade point average or be cut from the squad, regardless of importance to the program. In UP, the phrase “student-athlete” really means that a varsity member is a “student” primarily, an “athlete” secondarily and never the other way around.

But the pieces Hubalde presently has are excellent foundational pieces: Katherine Bersola (a product of the Makati Science High School—a true scholastic), Princess Se and Nicole Tiamzon just need to gather more experience points to be blended in with a few more quality players that may still be available after the recruitment waves of the more notable schools—in terms of sports acumen—are done. In short, UP is usually left with the scraps, but sometimes a few gems do emerge.

UP needs a boost after an improved season (Photo: Kevin de la Cruz/Rivals.ph)

FEU, as I mentioned before, has the necessary tools to replicate their 2008 success. One of my favorite “projects”—if I can still call her that—is Remy Palma, who can be a dominant middle-attacker if developed properly by Kid Santos and his staff. Rosemarie Vargas is already approaching Ana Abanto-like proportions and the youngsters in Toni Basas and Marjorie Roxas are just a few games—and pounds—away from being the heir-apparents to past stalwarts like Josephine Cafranca, Shaira Gonzales and Mumay Vivas.

Wenneth Eulalio, however, will no longer be in the line-up next season so it is the Lady Tamaraws’ hope that Gyzelle Sy will have an ample supply of targets for her final two seasons in an FEU uniform.

FEU's Remy Palma could be a dominant center in the league soon (Photo: Kevin de la Cruz/Rivals.ph)

Adamson surprised no one—except maybe me because I did not include them in my Final Four radar. But their literal “1-2 combination” of Sheila Pineda and Pau Soriano have been all rookie Head Coach Sherwin Meneses really needs. Soriano (3rd in the league in scoring) and Pineda (4th) have either taken turns or combined for massive lines that they have been an absolute joy to watch.

May Macatuno has finally come into her own. I’ve always said that AdU will never find a setter as good as Janet Serafica, who had led the Lady Falcons to the finals in previous years. Macatuno—a former understudy for the now departed Des Patilano—now finds herself among the league leaders in setting efficiency and the Soriano-Pineda duo has a lot to do with that. It may be a tall order to scalp Ateneo twice in the Final Four, but if any team can do, the resurgent Lady Falcons can.

Sheila Pineda and Pau Soriano: Adamson's literal 1-2 combo (Photo: Kevin de la Cruz/Rivals.ph)

Now for the two squads that played a huge role in fetching 19,638 paying spectators last FERUARY 9TH (there, I’ve made a public erratum): DLSU and AdMU.

Ateneo is right where they want to be. The question is, do they have the weapons? The first round injury to Fille Cainglet has not only dropped her to a tie for 17th in the scoring list, but also cast a doubt on any serious chance they have for the crown. She hasn’t been as prolific as she was before the ankle sprain, forcing Head Coach Roger Gorayeb to go almost exclusively to sophomore wunderkind Alyssa Valdez, and not surprisingly she won the league’s scoring title this season. Cainglet is almost at full strength already, and the “OBF” faithful hope that she’s saving her best for last.

ALSO READ: UAAP Baseball Finals: Ateneo draws first blood against NU, 6-2 (post-game thoughts)

With the exception of Ella de Jesus, the young “future” core is still not primed to take it to the next level. Den-Den Lazaro has picked up her game in the second round and skipper Dzi Gervacio has also contributed more. But after that, the Lady Eagles have very few options except for an occasional running attack from Gretchen Ho and a few block points here and there from Marge Tejada.

Can Ateneo string it together in the Final Four? (Photo: Kevin de la Cruz/Rivals.ph)

Take note that Cainglet, Gervacio, Ho and heart-and-soul setter Jem Ferrer are playing in their final season, so the pressure is very real for the Katipuneras. AdMU may still have enough in their battlechest to diffuse Adamson, but DLSU is going to be a mighty wall to scale.

The Lady Spikers are the new Legion of Doom.

I said during my mid-season predictions that they will never lose again. NU gave them a scare in that ridiculous five-setter last January 19th, but after that DLSU just dismantled everyone else along the way.

Ara Galang has all of sudden gone berserk in the second round and reigning MVP Abigail Maraño has just been that—an MVP. Michele Gumabao has not had to score as much as she has had to in previous seasons; preserving herself quite well, and the intimidation at the net by Mika Reyes has made it very difficult for the opposition to get any edge at the frontline. The two-pronged setting duo of Mika Esperanza and Kim Fajardo has given Head Coach Ramil de Jesus so many arsenals that even if an injury to any of the abovementioned ladies does happen, the second unit can more than hold its own.

MVP Abigail Maraño has been exactly that for DLSU: an MVP (Photo: Kevin de la Cruz/Rivals.ph)

Heck, the second unit could form the Starting Six for UE—the only school I haven’t talked about and won’t.

UE and Leuseht Dawis have to turn their backs on a dismal season (Photo: Kevin de la Cruz/Rivals.ph)

NU and UST will be battling for a shot to go up against the Legion of Doom. It’s not a good prospect, but at least they will have some degree of optimism, knowing they have a chance at rewriting the history books if they can achieve the near improbable.

The Ateneo-Adamson matchup is intriguing. The Lady Falcons could even force a rubber-match. But unless some insane, sick joke is played by the volleyball gods, the Lady Spikers look to already have the title within their grasp.

But you never know, right?

UST beat DLSU already. NU was up two sets to one against the Lady Spikers before they lost their grip on the game. Ateneo also gave DLSU a run for their money as well. After Wednesday, let’s see what cards we’re dealt. It’s been a great season. Let’s all take in the riveting conclusion.

Follow Noel Zarate on Twitter: @NoelZarate

Editor's note: The blogger's views do not represent Yahoo! Southeast Asia's position on the topic or issue being discussed in this post.

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Louis Smolka has Alvin Cacdac in trouble in their flyweight bout in PXC-35 last February 16 at the Ynares Sports Arena. (NPPA Images)
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