La Salle’s Recent Resurgence. What’s Changed?

After the Lady Spikers opened the Season 84 second round with another disheartening straight set loss to league-dominating NU, the campaign of the Lady Spikers seemed destined for a runner-up finish at best. With 3 losses so far, two to NU and one to UST, the Taft team seemed to be playing according to their youth and relative inexperience.

It seemed that the only question left this season was whether any team would beat NU.

But right after that loss, the Lady Spikers rebounded with a 4-game winning streak during which they lost only 1 set. And they got payback for the earlier 5-set loss to UST with a dominating 4-set win, 25-23 25-17 22-25 and 25-8, only dropping the 3rd set probably due to a bit of overconfidence. They beat FEU, UP, and UE in straight sets.

So what’s different?

Maybe they needed a wake-up call, a different kind of challenge. The trash talking they received at the hands of FEU in the first set of their 2nd round game seemed to have awakened the fire in the Lady Spikers, as they reciprocated in kind while stepping up their game to take a tight first set, 25-23. Maybe their competitive juices needed a bit of stirring, but once they got going, the Lady Spikers were dominant to limit FEU to just 13 and 14. It doesn’t seem to pay to try to get the goat of this team.

More players are stepping up. UP provided a bit more resistance, scoring 21, 23, and 21, but went down anyway. While Gagate and Malaluan turned in their usual steady output, Erika Santos who was fielded in for an off-form Leila Cruz provided a different kind of spark with 6 points. In this game, Ramil was more liberal with his substitution, giving Santos and Coronel more minutes, and they more than proved their value with their contributions in attacking and defense. Even in a tight game, Ramil fielded in Jinco in the 3rd set, showing his growing confidence that the team could find a way to win.

They seem to have found the ability to motivate themselves. It seems that the Lady Spikers need more motivation to awaken their competitive spirit, and the UST game showed just that. UST had knocked the Lady Spikers out of the finals in the last completed season, and had edged them in 5 sets in the first round. Looking for payback, the Lady Spikers outsteadied UST in the first 2 sets, 23 and 17, before suffering a momentary lapse of concentration to yield the 3rd when they could have closed it out. It looked like they needed that challenge, because they thoroughly silenced the Tigresses, limiting them to 8. Probably more instructive is how they muzzled UST star Laure, holding her to just 8 points in her lowest scoring game this season. Motivation fuels their in-game energy, and gives them the added oomph.

Better ball distribution compared to the first round. Alba showed off her passing prowess, and this was clearly evident in the double digit output of 5 Lady Spikers against UST. She activated the middle blockers, and Gagate and Sharma responded with 13 points apiece. Leila Cruz also came back from sub-par performances to topscore with 15 points, and Jolina continued her steady game with 10.

Leadership by example. Alba and dela Cruz, who received a lot of flak in the first round for their lackluster play, have begun to show their leadership as the seniors in this young team. Keeping opponents guessing is key to more effective attacking, and Mars Alba is now able to vary her tactics and disguise her passes. She’s able to read the opponents’ set-up and call the appropriate plays. Dela Cruz has minimized her unforced errors, and also has become more aggressive and varied in her attacks, while maintaining her excellent floor game.

Becoming more comfortable with each other. Having experienced actual competition, the players are now getting used to the college game, and gone through tough games, they know what it means to lose and why they lost. They are also more confident in the abilities of their teammates, rely on them more, and the teamwork is becoming evident, particularly in the last few games.

The learning curve is now steeper. They’ve learned from their mistakes, and have applied what they picked up in those losses. The rate of learning has also accelerated as they start to master Ramil’s system. The Lady Spikers are now making less as the tournament approaches the last week of eliminations, they move more surely on the floor, and are not caught flatfooted too often any more.

They needed tough games to bring out their best. Easy wins can mask shortcomings in their games, and it’s only the tight games that expose the weaknesses. That they’ve learned to reduce their obvious errors is an indication of the improvement. Interestingly, cellar-dweller UE gave them a unexpectedly tough game, but they passed the test without too much difficulty. This game probably was a good learning session as well, as UE played with nothing to lose, and kept it close.

The games against Ateneo and Adamson will be a good indication of the progress of the Lady Spikers. Ateneo and Adamson are vying for the playoffs behind NU, La Salle, and UST, and the outcome can well determine the placing in the expected stepladder series, assuming NU sweeps their last 2 games against FEU and UST.

We’ll know more after the last elimination round games on Thursday.

Update from Ateneo Game:

The Lady Spikers outlasted Ateneo Tuesday in 5 sets to firm up their hold of solo 2nd. Some supplemental observations from the game:

The performance of the girls showed how much they’ve improved in different ways from the first round. Floor coverage is better, positioning has improved, and the digs and receptions are done by all players, not just a few.

Blocking is slowly making its presence felt as an offensive weapon. Our tall lineup is starting to learn to read the opponents and anticipate their attacks at the net. More opponent hits are getting partially blocked and retrieved, and we’re starting to see outright kill blocks. There are still gaps, and many shots are still able to penetrate the net defense so it could be better.

Our depth is starting to become a factor. Off days sometimes affect a player, and Ramil has so many options to choose from if a particular player isn’t performing well in a game. Our regular open hitters are Jolina and Leiah, but Matet Espina has proven that the can be a potent alternative. At opposite, we have Leila Cruz, but when she’s off, Jyne Soreno can easily cover for her just like yesterday. And Erika Santos is another viable right-side hitter. At setter, Julia Coronel is already an able replacement for Mars Alba, and with a bit more exposure, will offer a different kind of headache for opponents. The good distribution of points across our players is a good indication that the Lady Spikers can consistently deliver points. We may not have high scorers, but we DO HAVE a lot of players capable of scoring.

The girls are stepping up and accepting the challenge. Jolina was off form during much of the first round, but has upped her game not only on offense and defense but also in terms of leadership by example. She’s had consecutive best games recently. The middle blockers Thea and Fifi are potent threats when the setters give them good looks, and are effective intimidators for any opponent trying to attack close to the net.

When they got momentarily disturbed by the bad call in the 4th set, they allowed Ateneo to rally to within 2 points, but they steadied themselves and closed it out.

Ramil has adapted his approach. Ramil’s traditional slower-paced build-up to a season was torpedoed by the lockdown, and he was forced to cram his training program, which typically covered all technical and skills aspects of the game. The players are less specialized and more well-rounded in terms of skill sets that they show on the court. For example, there are less setting errors (double touch) from our team compared to past years – they know how to pass the ball well. Digging and reception skills are also better all around, and we’ve seen our tall middles diving and digging balls.

Ramil has used the high volleyball IQs of his players to great advantage. Against Ateneo, his timeouts were less technical and more directional, and he relied on his players to make the right judgment call and plays. They’ll still botch a few plays, but that confidence he’s showing will pay off in big ways later on.

It’s not sure if we’ll get to upend NU this season, as they have a fairly big head start in their teamwork and togetherness on the court, and they’ve very comfortable with their position, but we’re close. If only the season were stretched out a bit more instead of being compressed as it is this season, there would be enough time to prep for the playoffs. But with eliminations ending tomorrow, and playoffs most likely starting next week, the girls will just have to continue to work on their game as best they can.

We’re seeing the Lady Spikers’ real potential start to come out, and it’s looking really good.