UAAP women’s volleyball: frayed nerves in opening weekend

I asked senior volleyball statistics guru Sherwin Malonzo and he said it had never happened before, so I'll take his word for it: IT HAD NEVER HAPPENED BEFORE.

All four Universities Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP) Women's Volleyball matches had gone the distance—FIVE SETS.

Being a volleyball anchorman for over five years now, I've been kiddingly chastised for being "The Curse" of televised volleyball as my presence in the venue usually indicates that at least one of the scheduled matches that day will go the distance. I was not at the San Juan Arena this weekend (contrary to aired comments by my colleagues Noreen Go and Mozzy Ravena, covering the Ateneo-Far Eastern University tiff). Maybe my "Curse" has now transcended to me merely watching a televised volleyball game, but that's another story.

Since the Shakey's V-League and Sports Vision began bringing the sport to a captive audience in 2003, women's volleyball has began to rival its cage brothers and the second semester ushers in a new influx of fans to witness the volleybelles take center stage. And what a stage it was starting the first day of December continuing into last Sunday when all participating schools had finally seen action. Five sets to all four games. Unprecedented. Unreal.

It all began innocently enough with the opening match between hosts National University (NU) against the Adamson University (AdU) Lady Falcons—a squad many touted as "in transition", parading a phalanx of new players to blend with their noted core of Paulina Soriano, Sheila Pineda and ergonomic setter May Macatuno. NU on the other hand was unveiling one of their strongest ever rosters bannered by 6'2" Din-Din Santiago, ultra-senior Kai Nepomuceno and Jen Reyes, arguably the best libero in the country. After Santiago obliterated the AdU defenses in the first set, en route to a 25-15 rout for NU, the Lady Falcons stormed back to take the second set 25-21 behind the blazing guns of Soriano and Pineda. This was an early indication of things to come. Almost an hour later, the fifth set played out with Adamson shocking the Lady Bulldogs 15-10. As NBA 2K12 colour commentator Clark Kellogg once said: "A cohesive team can beat a talented team anytime," that's what Adamson—under the helm of new head coach Sherwin Meneses—had achieved. NU will bounce back. It's still a long season. Upset number one.

Din-Din Santiago defied Adamson’s defense but NU lost the match (Photo Credit: Kevin de la Cruz/Rival.ph)

Then a match-up many thought would carry a grizzlier ending was up next: Ateneo de Manila—last season's runner up, took on FEU—another rebuilding team. The Lady Eagles' core remains intact with batchmates Fille Cainglet, Gretchen Ho, Jem Ferrer and captain Dzi Gervacio playing in their final UAAP season beefed up by "The Ellavator" Ella de Jesus, wunderkind Alyssa Valdez and star libero Den-Den Lazaro.

The Lady Tamaraws were down to only two veterans in center Wenneth Eulalio and gutsy setter Gyzelle Sy as well as an army of youngsters led by the hard-hitting Rosemarie Vargas, project Remy Palma and developing libero Christine Agno. On paper, it was supposed to be a walk for Ateneo and head coach Roger Gorayeb, and the Lady Eagles soared to an expected 25-19, 25-22 lead after the first two sets. But FEU and head coach Nes Pamilar had other ideas as the Lady Tamaraws held Ateneo to only six points in the third set, tying a UAAP record low, then went on to capture the fourth set in extended fashion 27-25. Ateneo eventually proved steadier in the final canto—taking the match 15-9, but it showed that FEU was far from being the walkover many believed it would be this season. FEU will bounce back. It's still a long season. Ateneo avoids upset number two… for now.

Alyssa Valdez (#2) and Ateneo barely survive FEU (Photo Credits: Kevin de la Cruz/Rivals.ph)

The next day, the University of the Philippines (UP) and University of the East (UE) tussle was again thought of as another shellacking looming as the Lady Warriors were highly favoured to extend the Lady Maroons' revolting losing streak to 19 straight. State U had not won during the entire Season 74 under coach Jarrod Hubalde and with the departure of key players South Ramos, Joyce Palad and Pau Genido, Leuseht Dawis and the rest of the revamped UE squad were expected to notch their first victory easily.

Well, despite having a line-up composed of many freshmen, UP stormed to a 2-0 lead against the seemingly more experienced yet spotty Lady Warriors (25-18, 25-15). Then Dawis and the booming spikes of Sarina Bulan turned up the heat in the next two sets (25-18, 27-25) and forced yet another decider. Despite a brilliant showing by the ever-reliable Princess Se and Jay Ong for UP, it took reserve serve specialist and moonlighting Assumption Antipolo grade school head coach Karen del Rosario and her wicked jump-serve to subdue the Lady Warriors and give the Lady Maroons their first victory since February 5, 2011 (also against UE). For now, the UP Women's Volleyball Team can boast of an unblemished record. UE will bounce back. It's still a long season. Upset number two.

UP upsets UE (Photo Credits: Kevin de la Cruz/Rivals.ph)

Finally, it was the turn of the defending champions to take to the court as De La Salle University (DLSU) entered the post Charlene Cruz era versus the University of Santo Tomas (UST) which were also going through their own next chapter phase as celebrated setter Rhea Dimaculangan had also used up her eligibility. The Lady Archers still had a vaunted arsenal led by Michele Gumabao, Ana Galang and skipper Abigail Maraño and their presence in the frontline is more than formidable; it's downright intimidating. For the Tigresses, the bombing duo of Maruja Banaticla and Judy Ann Caballejo, center Maika Ortiz and new heartthrob setter Loren Lantin (post Denise Tan fame for all the gentlemen fans) were all set to pull the rugs from under the reigning titlists.

Well, as it turned out, it was the Tigresses—bolstered by the unexpected presence at the venue of former mentor and recovering stroke victim August Sta. Maria—that raced to claiming the first two sets (25-22, 25-15). DLSU had not dropped a match in the elimination round the entire Season 74 and were 16-2 including the playoffs heading into to Season 75. The Lady Archers drew their guns in the next two sets (25-12, 25-21) to set up the culmination of an unlikely start to the season: a fourth consecutive five-setter. In the end, DLSU collapsed as Banaticla proved to be unstoppable in the clutch. UST claimed the Lady Archers' scalp 15-9 and gave DLSU their first 0-1 start in recent memory. DLSU will bounce back. It's still a long season. Upset number three.

Four matches, five sets each, three upsets, thousands of hoarse fans… and this is just the first weekend.

If anything, the UAAP women's volleyball matches have reenergized the collegiate sports fans and have once again diverted to the ladies a chunk of the male population's consciousness, as far as televised sports goes. The subsequent matches may not have the same historic implications. The following games may not even be close. But one thing is for sure: Volleyball season is here and it is indeed a breath of fresh air in this basketball-crazy archipelago. You go girls!

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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