At the start of the S84 volleyball tournament just a couple of months ago, nobody knew what to expect. Ateneo was the defending champion, the Lady Spikers had finished 3rd in S81 behind UST, and the team’s veterans were all gone.
It wasn’t clear how the departure of Aduke Ogunsanya, Tine Tiamzon, and Mich Cobb would impact the team, because they were the only players with championship experience, and were expected to figuratively pass the mantle of leadership on to the new batch of Lady Spikers.
So we entered the season with the tallest DLSU lineup ever, but which was led by players with only one year of experience in Mars Alba and Jolina dela Cruz. The two were expected to lead the team on the floor, provide guidance and encouragement to the young rookies.
The team only started practicing together a couple of months before the start of S84, so It wasn’t clear how the lack of training, practice games, and off-season competition would affect the team’s performance, but with the team composed of Coach Ramil’s hand-picked players, it was expected that they would be in the thick of the battle for the title.
True enough, the team easily made the stepladder playoffs in 2nd place, but along the way, were blanked by NU in both elimination round games. Ateneo emerged from the knockout games in 3rd, and with that momentum, looked to provide a strong challenge to the Lady Spikers. The one-week break allowed the green-and-white team to recharge and prepare specifically for Ateneo, and they dominated the game Lady Eagles to extend the winning streak against the Katipunan lasses to 10 games.
The title series against NU wasn’t the competitive matchup we all hoped for. The Lady Bulldogs proved to be too good, too fast, and too cohesive for our team, and in both games again shut out the Lady Spikers in straight sets.
So why did we lose?
A combination of factors led to the poor performance.
- Time together as a team
NU had trained together since grade school, grew up as athletes and teammates together, and knew each other’s capabilities and moves almost intuitively. There was very little hesitation in their moves, their defense moved as if on a string, their floor defense was in sync with the blockers’ positioning, and on offense they operated as a well-oiled team, rarely making mistakes. It seemed that this team played mostly on auto-pilot, and only when they suffered the occasional lapses of concentration could teams compete. That the Lady Bulldogs only lost a handful of sets throughout the tournament speaks well of their strength together.
That strong familiarity with each other was clearly evident in the speed and effectiveness of their attacking. The movements of the Lady Bulldogs appeared to be orchestrated most of the time, so smooth and cohesive was their play. They knew what to do in most situations, and there was very little confusion or hesitation. Great display of teamwork.
The Lady Spikers, on the other hand, were a bunch of very talented youngsters thrown together just a few months before the season started. True, in the aborted S82, a few of them played a competitive game together against Ateneo, but that was only one game. Of our players in S84, only Gagate, Cruz, Jazareno, dela Cruz, and Soreno saw any meaningful playing time in that last game on March 20, 2020. The seniors of that team, Cobb, Tiamzon, and Ogunsanya were key in the victory, and ably supported by dela Cruz. S82 ended after only one game, and in the hiatus caused by the quarantine lockdowns since then, the Lady Spikers were never able to get together on the court. Virtual training can never come replace the experience of working together with your teammates.
The lack of togetherness manifested itself in the many instances of confusion on the court, who would get the ball, the subtle split-second timing differences between the setters and the hitters, the less-than-effective blocking by our tall lineup (but we were still the best blocking team in the tournament). Floor coverage also suffered compared to previous years. There were many instances where our players would hesitate to go for balls, probably expecting their teammates to take charge. Verbal and non-verbal communication was not effective enough.
While we suffered in comparison with NU, our team was significantly better than the rest of the teams. We did suffer dips in performance against UST in the first round and Adamson in the second, but no team except NU was able to beat us more than once. And we extended the winning streak against Ateneo under Coach Oliver Almadro, who has yet to win over Coach Ramil as a coach of the Ateneo Lady/Blue Eagles.
2. Lack of Leadership on the Floor
There is an informal process that passed the “corporate knowledge” and culture from graduating Lady Spikers to the next batch. This succession planning has resulted in a continuation and upgrading of the team spirit, as well as skills transfer and other tricks of the trade so to speak.
At the same time, Ramil’s selection and training programs ensured that each edition of the Lady Spikers would invariably have some seniors left on the team to mentor the newer players. The 2-year Covid lockdown torpedoed all that knowledge and cultural transfer, and this year, we had a bunch of virtual sophomores and rookies who had not ever competed for a title before. The most senior players were Alba and dela Cruz. While Jolina was a key player in her first full year as a rookie, Alba always played Cobb.
It became apparent from their struggles early in S84 that both were not ready to assume the mantle of leadership for this team. Jolina did recover her mojo in the second round after struggling in the first, but Alba was alternately good and bad – against Ateneo in the playoff game, she distributed the ball to all our attackers, middles got their share, as did our wing players, while retaining the backrow attacks as a weapon. In the finals, however, she seemed to focus almost exclusively on the wing spikers, allowing NU’s blockers to zero in on the most likely recipients of passes. Also the lack of deception during her sets were strong hints to NU’s alert blockers as to where our offense would go.
When our most senior players struggle, it’s a stretch to expect the rookies to step up in their place.
3. Our Game is Slower than NU’s
The speed of NU’s game was glaringly evident during the finals, compared to the Lady Spikers’ game. Reaction times, play calling, communication, positioning, these aspects were almost automatic with the NU players. They were quickly able to read and anticipate our moves, and get into the right positions.
In particular, the real key to NU’s offense was their setter Lamina, who rightfully won the best setter award. Her sets were lower, faster, and spot-on, allowing her attackers the space and time to get their shots. A quick review of her game compared to Alba shows the difference in the setting in terms of speed, timing, and height, which is critical in getting hits off faster to prevent effective blocking. NU’s attackers were rarely blocked by our frontliners because the sheer quickness of the attacks would catch our players out of position to even partially block their attacks.
Our team, in comparison, was very reactive, everything NU did seemed to surprise them. The high sets of Alba gave NU’s blockers enough time to get into position for a kill or partial block. And her preoccupation with feeding our outside and opposite hitters made her predictable, since she did not establish the middles enough as scoring threats. Our backup setter Coronel fared a bit better due to her being harder to read, and she fared well in the second game, playing almost the entire 3rd set until she was replaced by Alba at a crucial point, who subsequently made a passing error immediately on her first touch.
Was This a Good Result For Our Team?
Yes it was.
What factors affected all of the teams?
First, the lockdown prevented teams from practicing (supposedly). Second, the 2-year hiatus led the veterans to move on instead of spending another season in the UAAP, so most teams ended up with only a few veterans, if any. Third, the lack of scouting made it difficult to study the opponents.
All teams were affected by those factors, but we placed second. The only thing we didn’t do was get a set off NU, while others managed to do so. Is that an indication that we were inferior to those who extended the sets of NU?
Not at all. It’s sure that NU had their eyes on us as their most likely opponent in the finals, and prepared for us. They stayed alert and focused on beating us. Against the other teams which were not viewed as significant threats, they probably had lapses in concentration and focus, but never wavered and won every game.
Second isn’t bad, all things considered.
What Needs to be Done Moving Forward to Compete with NU?
Quite a bit of catching up to do, but there’s enough time. The next season starts early next year, and that gives Ramil a bit of time to work on the players he might field next season.
We did get a good glimpse of future seasons with the current crop of players, and it does look good. We’re not losing any players due to graduation, and Coach Ramil’s quandary will be who to set aside to make way for the incoming recruits.
For starters, to compete effectively with NU, the skills of our players need to be tuned to speed up our game. NU’s game is patterned after the international style, which is faster, with emphasis on lower and faster passes to attackers. NU’s faster game means we need to level up and do the same, deliver attacks in less time, making it more difficult for NU’s players to get into the right defensive positions. They did it to us in S84. In contrast, our attacks featured high passes which our hitters would usually time their hits to get the ball on the way down. This allowed NU’s blockers to get into the right position to either get an outright kill block or partially block the attack so it could be retrieved by teammates. Our blocking also needs a bit of improvement, even though we were already tops in that department.
2. Faster game
Our setters and hitters need to collaborate on faster attacks. This calls for more precise timing between the setter and the hitters, getting the ball to attackers who then pound the ball on the way up or at the low apex rather than on the way down. That takes a while to get it right, let alone master the techniques. Right now, they’re used to high tosses.
The team need leaders on the floor in the mold of past Lady Spiker greats Illa Santos, Cha Cruz, Mich Gumabao, Abi Marano, and other on-court leaders who kept the team together during games. Leaders are not just vocal but also deliver what is needed by their teammates on the floor, and their teammates know that the leaders can be depended on. This S84, leadership was not apparent from our more senior players, and the younger players looked uncertain and lost during stressful moments. Jolina, to a certain extent, did perform after the first round, and once she accepts the role, could be our team’s leader for the future.
4.The mental toughness and confidence
Aside from the skills area, the mental aspect of competition needs shoring up. Our team could actually have competed toe-to-toe with NU because they’re just as talented and skilled. It was the mental aspect where we came up short. Our players were not as confident in their ability to win against NU, and easily got discouraged when NU put the pressure on.
The team was certainly disappointed at their results, and it seemed that they were intimidated and awed by NU. They need to want to be at that level, to be able to create that aura of competence and confidence that NU quietly exuded. They need to want to be better than NU. If they’re not setting that as a target, they won’t get there.
Time for Ramil to train his players in the basics (yes, there still are gaps) as well as the finer points of the game. Time for our players to really get to know each other on the court, know the individual moves, preferences, timing, and tendencies so that they can exchange signals almost without the need for verbal communication – a subtle glance, a gesture will do, and will not be read by opponents. Time also for the players to learn the game more, to refine their instincts, to develop the court-smarts so critical for a team to become a champion.
The next season starts sometime in Q1 next year, and with 6 months to prepare, expect Ramil and the Lady Spikers to improve significantly. For opponents, that might be a scary thought, it’s what’s needed if the Lady Spikers intend to challenge NU, which incidentally will most likely be intact and brimming with confidence as the defending champions.
For once, the Lady Spikers will be behind on the curve, but it’s sure to make the wait more interesting. Let’s see what Ramil will have in store for us.