Finals Primer: Lady Spikers must remember that they are defending UAAP champions

The dream finals match-up of the DLSU Lady Spikers and the Ateneo Lady Eagles, for the sixth straight year, has once again been a nightmare for the rest of the league. Six possible contenders for the crown started Season 79 with high hopes and big dreams of finally breaking the past two title holders’ grip on the women’s volleyball crown, only to see frustration and tears on their faces by the time the Final Four ended last April 23.

Missing out on entering the playoffs, the UP Lady Maroons couldn’t recover from losing their libero, Pia Gaiser, to an ACL injury while the NU Lady Bulldogs’ inconsistent play and shaky confidence ended their season earlier than they expected. The UST Tigresses and FEU Lady Tamaraws each won a set against the Lady Spikers and Lady Eagles, respectively, but the poise, talent, and championship experiences of the latter two teams made all the difference two weekends ago.

Both finalist came into the season with more modest targets compared to seasons past. The defending champions lost five players – starters Mika Reyes, former MVP Ara Galang, and Cyd Demecillo, and Mika Esperanza and Carol Cerveza to graduation while Ateneo said goodbye to two key cogs in Alyssa Valdez and Amy Ahomiro.

DLSU finished the elimination round at 11-3, with two of their total loses courtesy of twin four-set losses from the Lady Eagles. Ateneo meanwhile, topped the standings by finishing with a 12-2 card, with two of their loses coming from the NU Lady Bulldogs.

As of writing, early predictions by volleyball analysts point to a protracted series where each set is expected to reach the low-to-mid twenties for both teams, and for the series to reach all the way to a deciding third game. The best-of-three affair should be a blockbuster at the gates and a must-see for the thousands of fans watching live and for the millions staring eagerly at their household TV sets.

Before all the festivities, pageantry, and destruction that will commence once the calendar hits May 2, let’s take a look at the statistics, advantages, disadvantages, and x-factor/s that will enable the nine-time UAAP women’s volleyball champions to defend their crown and add title no. 10 to our alma mater’s collection.

Offense versus defense. Both teams have been lording over the team rankings (by skills) all tournament long. The Lady Eagles are the top team offensively by being both effective and efficient in the spiking department. Defense, both at the net and in receiving, is La Salle’s calling card this season.

The sports cliche of “defense wins championships” will only come true if our Great Green Wall made of Majoy Baron, Kim Dy, and Aduke Ogunsanya can effectively neutralize the firepower and effectiveness of Ateneo’s Michelle Morente, Jho Maraguinot, and Kat Tolentino. The league’s premier libero, “Ms. Everywhere” Dawn Macandili, will also have a field day in tracking the Lady Eagles attempts and trying her best to keep the ball in play.

Don’t shoot yourselves in the foot. DLSU trailed league-leading Lady Eagles in both total (350-317) and average (25-22.6) errors per game. In fact, unforced errors in the first (31 vs. AdMU’s 21) and second (36 vs. 24) round match-ups pretty much decided the outcomes in favor of the Katipunan-based squad.

Ateneo rarely commits mistakes that result into easy points for their opponents. It will be important for the La Salle six to be solid and consistent at the service line, avoid committing net, rotation, or other infractions, and hold their nerves steady during the crucial moments of the series.

Remember that you are the defending champions. Just as much as Ateneo proved all the doubters and early predictions of a sub-par Season 79 wrong, the finals is also the opportune time for the Lady Spikers to validate their status as the queens of collegiate volleyball. Despite going 0-2 in the elimination round against head coach Tai Bundit and company, the playoffs, especially the finals, is a different kind of ballgame and present La Salle the greatest chance at redemption.

There’s also no better way for team captain Kim Fajardo, the league’s best setter, to cap off her collegiate career than with another championship. The engine that keeps the DLSU machine humming and the brains that keep the opponents guessing will aim to capture her third UAAP women’s volleyball title as well as try to add what is already an impressive Lasallian legacy.

Surprises and adjustments. RDJ pulled out his first ace in sophomore May Luna during the first round, while Ateneo coach Tai Bundit did a similar “magic hugot” in former DLSZ standout Jules Samonte during the next encounter. Coach Ramil, despite his straightforward nature, needs to come up with a few tricks and wrinkles, in the form of his bench, in the next games.

The Ateneo six has already scouted and prepared for when La Salle uses Kim Fajardo as an attacking hitter with rookie Michelle Cobb playing the setter role. Consistent combination plays, similar to the UST game where Majoy played decoy to either Tin Tiamson or Desiree Cheng in the middle, or putting in former libero CJ Saga for more defense just might catch the Lady Eagles off guard.

Consistent play on both ends of the floor for Tin and Des is also warranted as Season 78 Finals MVP Kim Dy will command the attention of AdMU’s net defense. Majoy and Aduke must also get and even demand their touches, not only to keep the defense honest but also because no one in the league can stop Baron’s running spikes or be more athletic than Ogunsanya.

Whatever the outcome of Game 1, RDJ must keep on innovating and adjusting to the tactics and schemes of his bench counterpart. He might have been left speechless right after the victory over UST in the Final Four, but just like last season, getting the upper hand on Ateneo and Tai Bundit will be the only thing running through de Jesus and the Lady Spikers’ minds for the next two weeks.

Start strong, finish stronger. One of the strengths of the Lady Eagles is their mental toughness especially in the latter part of sets. It is imperative for the defending champions to not only have a good, dominant start similar to the fourth set against UST in the Final Four but to also reach point number 25 as soon as they can.

DLSU let the first two sets slip away during their first round encounter, reaching set points first but weren’t able to close out the Ateneo six. La Salle also has that clutch/closer gene within them, as evident when they clawed back from being down 21-24 in the third set during the Final Four and extended the set. Kim Fajardo and company just need to set their plays a little cleaner, smarter, and quicker, spike the ball a little harder, and defend like there’s no tomorrow in order to finish off the Lady Eagles.

Game 1 is set on Tuesday, May 2, and Game 2 on May 6 at the Smart Araneta Coliseum. As of writing, the venue of Game 3 (May 10), if necessary, is still to be determined.

Season 79 elimination round scores:
AdMU 3, DLSU 1 – 24-26, 24-26, 25-21, 17-25
AdMU 3, DLSU 1 – 12-25, 25-20, 25-21, 25-19

Animo La Salle!