End of an Era: Lady Spikers’ four-peat bid foiled by Ateneo

Mika Reyes had just checked back in the game, and, a little later, scored after pushing the ball past a couple of blockers. The scoreboard read 21- Ateneo, 19-La Salle. The lead, which once stood at a game-high of nine, had been whittled down to two. The window for a comeback remained ajar.

On the next play, however, the Lady Spikers committed an error, as a spike by Ara Galang went wide, awarding a point to Ateneo. Alyssa Valdez scored on kill on the next play, restoring their lead to four, before Galang replied with a vicious hit of her own. Valdez, however, scored once more on the next play, bringing her team at match point. La Salle retaliated with a Lady Spiker dumping the ball in the Ateneo frontline to chop the lead to three. A comeback seemed improbable at this point, but the Lasallian faithful at the Mall of Asia Arena nevertheless clung to it.

But Valdez, in what had become familiar sight throughout the game, hammered another spike towards the La Salle side of the court that went between two blockers. Reyes was able to prop the ball up, but two Lady Spikers scrambled to send the ball back to the other side, giving the Lady Eagles the game’s final point.

As their rivals celebrated on one side of the court, the Lady Spikers stood in the middle of the floor, huddled around their team captain Abi Maraño, who had scored eight points in her final UAAP game. The last time she had experienced anything like this was in 2010, when Angeli Tabequero, Rhea Dimaculangan, and Aiza Maizo of the UST Tigresses pulled the rug from under Jacq Alarca, Steph Mercado, Cha Cruz, Maraño and the Lady Spikers in the Season 72 Finals.

Back then, she was a rookie on a team that coasted through the eliminations before dropping their final game and losing twice to the Tigresses in the Last Dance. Three titles in three years followed after that. A fourth seemed possible, almost destined to be theirs early in the season, but the Lady Eagles, who survived five playoff elimination games in the stepladder semis and the finals, spoiled their date with history.

Some of her teammates shed tears, while others exchanged words with her. Setter Mika Esperanza vowed a comeback next season for her sake. Their huddle lingered for a little longer on the padded floor of the arena, hardly moving, a stark contrast to the pandemonium that had erupted all around them. Players from both teams then exchanged hugs, a sign of sportsmanship after four emotional games. Kim Fajardo shared a long hug with Valdez, while Lady Eagles libero Denden Lazaro had another with Maraño.

Moments later and the Lady Spikers were called to the podium accept their first-runner up trophy and medals. Tears still welled in the eyes of most of the players as medals were placed on their necks. Maraño, one of the last to receive her medal, was handed a bouquet of flowers before bowing to receive her medal. And with that, an era and the collegiate career of one of the best players to put on a La Salle uniform had come to an end.

Despite carrying a late lead in the second set and mounting a comeback in the third, the DLSU Lady Spikers ultimately fell in three sets to the Ateneo Lady Eagles, 23-25, 24-26, 21-25, in Game 4 of the UAAP Season 76 Women’s Volleyball Finals earlier today at the Mall of Asia Arena.

Their win gives the Lady Eagles their first title in both the Men’s and Women’s Volleyball division, while denying La Salle their fourth straight crown, a feat that has not been achieved since FEU won four straight in the 1970s. The loss ends La Salle’s title run at three, a feat they also achieved in 2004-2006.

The Lady Eagles led 19-10 in the third set after they scored eight straight points, most of which came from rookie Michelle Morente as well as a couple of service aces by Valdez. Galang, Cyd Demecillo, Reyes and Maraño then put together a last ditch rally for the Lady Spikers, coming to within 21-19, before a costly error brought the Lady Eagles to within three points of a title.

After narrowly dropping the first set, La Salle seemed to flash the deadly form that allowed them to sweep the elimination round and carry a thrice-to-beat advantage to the finals, leading by as much as 17-10, after a service ace by Maraño coming off the second technical timeout. Valdez, Morente, and Amy Ahomiro, however, scored repeatedly to allow Ateneo to close in on La Salle’s lead. After tying the match at 24-all, the Lady Eagles took the next two points to pocket the second set, despite 14 attack points from La Salle in the set. The Lady Spikers, though, compounded their woes by committing 12 errors in the set, as compared to only nine for Ateneo.

La Salle bucked an early run by Ateneo in the first set, as they turned a 15-10 deficit to a 19-18 advantage after a low hit from an attacking Lady Eagle. Ateneo took the lead for good in the set, after setter Jia Morado scored by dumping the ball on the La Salle side. The Lady Spikers came to within a point, 24–3, after a down the line hit by Reyes, but Valdez scored on a drop hit for her tenth point to give her team the first frame, 25-23.

Galang, after a 28-point outburst in Game 3, once again led the Lady Spikers with 11 points, while Maraño added eight and Denice Tan, who saw a lot of playing time in the place of Desiree Cheng, finished with seven. Reyes and Demecillo finished with six apiece.

For the Lady Eagles, Valdez, who was adjudged as the Finals MVP, finished with 22 after averaging only 10.5 points against La Salle in the elimination round. Morente added 11, while Ella De Jesus chipped in with 10 and Ahomiro wounding up with six.