UAAP Women’s Volleyball: welcome to the Final Four

And so it begins…

Imagine the Big Dome filled with rabid volleyball fans (Photo: Kevin de la Cruz/Rivals.ph)

In a question of “who wants it more”, the National University (NU) Lady Bulldogs bulldozed their way past the gritty University of Santo Tomas (UST) Tigresses, 25-19, 21-25, 25-16, 25-23 to arrange a Final Four date with defending champions De La Salle University (DLSU) when the semi-finals ensue this Saturday at the Big Dome—yes, the Araneta Coliseum for the volleybelles.

It was a coin flip coming in. UST and NU split their matches against each other this season and both games had gone four sets. Several side stories of Lady Bulldogs center Din-Din Santiago wanting to send a message to her former school and how Cai Nepomuceno and superstar libero Jen Reyes were hoping to crash into the next round on their final tour of duty mildly spiced up the showdown, but UST also looked forward to keep their eleven year Final Four appearance streak alive and send the upstarts back to the stone-age.

Cai Nepomuceno defied the UST defense for 23 points (Photo: Kevin de la Cruz/Rivals.ph)

Well, the character-building triumph by this year’s hosts only bolstered confidence in attempting to upset the Lady Spikers or at least send their series to a decider first as DLSU holds a crucial twice-to-beat advantage heading in.

The Lady Bulldogs drew an inspired performance from Nepomuceno as time after time the veteran delivered to the tune of 23 points on twenty attacks against the hard-fighting defenses of the Tigresses. It seemed like Nepomuceno was on a crusade to make sure her squad advanced as Santiago played second-fiddle to her obvious aggression. For UST, it was once again a Judy Ann Caballejo show as the senior tried her best to keep the Tigresses in the flow along with the timely incursions of Carmela Tunay. However, another subpar outing for open-hitter Maruja Banaticla coupled with 31 total team errors sealed UST’s fate as they drop out of the Final Four for the first time since the 2001-2002 campaign.

Judy Ann Caballejo's valiant effort fell short against NU (Photo: Kevin de la Cruz/Rivals.ph)

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This now brings up a pair of match-ups that on the surface may look pretty straight forward, but in actuality have very interesting intricacies. Let’s get into them now.

ATENEO (2) vs. ADAMSON (3)

Both teams come into their clash well-rested and having enough time to watch all the film and simulate the opposition. Both have quality scoring tandems that can light it up with AdMU parading the pair of Alyssa Valdez (#1 in total points) and Fille Cainglet—who before her ankle injury was in the top ten, while Adamson boasts of Pau Soriano (3rd) and Sheila Pineda (4th). Both schools have quality liberos in Den-Den Lazaro (AdMU) and Princess Listana and both teams have played according to their game plans so far this season.

The Adamson-Ateneo matchup is an intriguing pairing (Photo: Kevin de la Cruz/Rivals.ph)

Adamson Advantages: Soriano and Pineda have been playing at full-health. They have learned how to create opportunities for each other and there is seemingly no truth to the internal power struggle between these two feisty competitors. May Macatuno has had a field day setting and her efficiency percentages reflect that. The support cast is oblivious to the grandeur they are presently in; hence the pressure to perform is not as massive as it may be for the Katipuneras. Heck, I don’t even think there is ANY form of pressure for the Lady Falcons. This is their seventh Final Four appearance in eight years and they still have the Soriano-Pineda duo next year, plus a vastly improved core. They are at a twice-to-beat disadvantage, so they have practically everything going against them. They come into the match-up with nothing to lose and literally everything to gain. They will be so relaxed on Saturday that they will treat it as a regular game and hardly a life-or-death situation. That’s what makes them extremely dangerous. Remember that the Lady Falcons defeated Ateneo in the second round. OK, that was minus Cainglet for the Lady Eagles, but they have proven to themselves that it can be done.

Sheila Pineda will have to play above and beyond the call of duty against Ateneo (Photo: …

Ateneo Advantages: The first word that comes to mind is experience. The foursome of Cainglet, Jem Ferrer, Gretchen Ho and skipper Dzi Gervacio have been playing together for five years. They started as understudies to Lady Eagle stalwarts Charo Soriano (who is still part of the coaching staff), Karla Bello, Kara Acevedo and Bea Pascual. Now as the bonafide leaders of the squad, they have it in their hands to destroy a hindrance to their title aspirations and with the help of Valdez and quality back-up Ella de Jesus, their offense will be hard to contain. Cainglet has been playing hurt, but I believe the injury is almost completely healed, if not already. Also, Head Coach Roger Gorayeb is a master tactician. Adamson’s Sherwin Meneses—although a long-time assistant in the Minerva Dulce Pante system—is still undergoing his rites of passage as the man at the helm. Gorayeb will be quick to spot weaknesses and pounce. At the end of the day, Ateneo is on a mission to win its first ever women’s volleyball crown. If their focus on the prize remains steadfast, they should have very little problems in disposing of Adamson.

Alyssa Valdez will need defensive help from Den-Den Lazaro against Adamson (Photo: Kevin de la Cruz/Rivals.ph)

Forecast: Rubber-match, with Ateneo eventually winning the series

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DLSU (1) vs. NU (4)

Now looking at this pairing, many people will immediately say it should be a cakewalk for the Lady Spikers. They have, after all, defeated the Lady Bulldogs in their two meetings this season and have won thirteen consecutive matches. It should even be an exhibition of carnage for the team I recently coined the “New Legion of Doom.” Well, it may not be that easy to write-off the Francis Vicente charges after not only prevailing over UST in a playoff for the final berth, but also making its debut in Final Four for the very first time in school history. In fact, its best showing was a fifth place finish in Season 73, primarily due to the exploits of spiking sensation Vec Mangui. NU is coming off a forgettable Season 74 when it could only churn out two victories—both at the expense of the hapless University of the Philippines. So their 8-6 card this season marks one of the biggest turnarounds in league history, and with it comes the Lady Bulldogs’ first-ever semi-final appearance. In short, NU is on a high and are extremely pumped. Will it somehow catapult them to upset the reigning title-holders?

The DLSU-NU clash might not be so straight-forward (Photo: Kevin de la Cruz/Rivals.ph)

NU Advantages: Pound for pound, NU can contend against DLSU. Nepomuceno has the arsenal to cancel out the offense of MVP Abigail Maraño. Developing Myla Pablo can also cancel out the production of Michele Gumabao. The same thing can almost be said about Siemen Dadang and Ara Galang. Mika Esperanza and Ivy Perez have practically the same experience points. Both coaches are tough perfectionists. This now leaves the two positions where the Lady Bulldogs have a decisive edge: Center and Libero. Santiago is not only the league’s second best scorer but is also one of the few centers out there who is taller and clearly more experienced than DLSU’s net patroller Mika Reyes. Jen Reyes and Melissa Gohing have the same number of playing years under their belt—both Liberos have no more eligibility after this season—but Jen is clearly the more celebrated of the two; in terms of numbers and in terms of magnitude. If the NU offense can make use of Din-Din’s edge over Yeye in the frontline and can utilize the reception prowess of Jen to the hilt, the Lady Spikers may just have their hands full like last January 19th when NU almost handed DLSU its second loss of the season.

Jen Reyes holds the floor defense advantage for NU (Photo: Kevin de la Cruz/Rivals.ph)

DLSU Advantages: Here’s the first one: just show up. These ladies from Taft are not the defending champions for nothing. Yes, NU gave them a major scare in the second round, but DLSU learned so much from that near disaster that after that, nothing has even been close—including a straight sets shellacking of Ateneo. The New Legion of Doom strikes fear in the opposition by merely showing up. They’ve earned it. Second one: play DLSU volleyball. With Galang the only member of the squad among the league’s scoring leaders, obviously the Lady Spikers have been getting their victories via innovative means. Defense has been the true key. Mika Reyes, Gumabao and Wensh Tiu have shared the frontline in the DLSU alignment so many times that their timing has been almost flawless. Maraño and Galang have also improved on their floor defense immensely this season and Gohing—although not usually compared to Jen Reyes—has actually been quite a force. Esperanza—because of her length—has also registered a few block points of her own. I’m not even bringing up DLSU’s superior bench. On paper, it seems like NU can match DLSU pound for pound, but the great Ron Jacobs once said: “…games are not won on paper.” I said this before and I’ll say it again: La Salle will never lose anymore this season. The New Legion of Doom is built to destroy.

Forecast: DLSU in straight sets

Do Mika Esperanza and DLSU merely have to show up to beat NU? (Photo: Kevin de la Cruz/Rivals.ph)

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Again, anything can happen. An injury to a vital player of any team could spell the difference. We’ve seen this happen to Ateneo this season. But all things being equal, we will see another Ateneo-La Salle final in women’s volleyball. It is almost inevitable. School spirit will take over after that and then history will unfold, tenfold.

UAAP Women’s Volleyball has created quite a stir this season in the local sports scene. Watch out for how much it will soar starting Saturday. Good luck to all schools and may I be proven wrong or right. I’ll be watching, and I’m quite certain so will you.

Follow Noel Zarate on Twitter: @NoelZarate

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