Team captain Majoy Baron said it best during the pre-game interview: these back-to-back champion DLSU Lady Spikers, despite only losing one player to graduation, are still a work in progress. That one player, of course, is three-time UAAP Best Setter Kim Fajardo; the motor that kept La Salle’s engine running for the past half decade and the brains of the team inside the court.
Despite struggling with 38 total errors and having a hard time stopping UST’s Cherry Rondina all game long, DLSU head coach Ramil de Jesus relied on a balanced effort from his veterans in the hard-fought 25-20, 17-25, 25-22, 15-25, 15-8 opening weekend win against the UST Golden Tigress and officially start the team’s quest for a third UAAP three-peat.
Facing their Final Four foe from a year ago, La Salle was dominant at the opening frame, racing to 8-5 and 16-10 leads and looked to take the set at the 20-15 mark. However, the team looked out-of-sync when RdJ decided to substitute Michelle Cobb and surprise starter Arriane Layug in favor of CJ Saga and Kim Kianna Dy; allowing the UST to trim the deficit to a single point, 20-21, off a La Salle service error.
Three straight points by Dy (attack), Ogunsanya (ace) and Baron (block) killed UST’s momentum and gave DLSU a one set to none lead. Still unable to slow down Rondina and UST newcomer Milena Alessandrini in the second frame and being behind 6-8 and 13-16 at the first two technical timeouts, La Salle yielded the second set to a feisty Tigresses team that was eyeing revenge from last year’s regular season sweep and four-set loss in the postseason.
The patterns and results from the first two sets repeated in the next two as the defending champions took the third set 25-22 behind Dy’s heroics while UST leaned on the still unstoppable Rondina to dominate the fourth frame, 15-25, and extend the game to a fifth set.
Smarting from the fourth set where they lost by 10 points, tallied more errors (12) than attacks (eight), and stared at the game’s biggest deficit at 8-20, the Lady Spikers wasted no time in establishing a quick 5-0 lead in the fifth.
In a set full of momentums, UST answered with a 5-1 run before four straight DLSU points followed by three straight errors by the Tigresses gave the Taft-based squad a 13-8 lead. A booming kill by outside hitter Tin Tiamson followed by a game-clinching block from the Great Taft Wall finally ended the 2:13 match at the Mall of Asia Arena.
Baron, last year’s season MVP paced the team with 19 points on 12 attacks, five blocks, and two service aces. Season 79 Finals MVP Desiree Cheng contributed an all-around performance of 12 points, 10 digs, and 10 receptions while third-year player Aduke Ogunsanya was the third Lady Spiker to finish in double-digits with 10.
Dawn Macandili, one of Asia’s best defensive ace, posted monster numbers in the backline: 35 digs and 19 receptions. While she is no Kim Fajardo, Cobb recorded 37 excellent sets and even drilled four service aces; at times sharing setter duties with Saga and Cheng to somehow fill the void left behind by La Salle’s former No. 9.
Not everyone can be or play like a Fajardo: be an attacking player when at the front row, registering demoralizing blocks, and performing magic and poetry virtually on the floor, but being a solid, dependable orchestrator of the La Salle offense on your first start is more than enough.
Like Cobb, the rest of the team still need to fine tune their game in order to claim title number 11.
The high-flying Rondina lead her team with 28 markers while rookie Alessandrini had an impressive debut with 18. No other UST player had more than six points.
Animo La Salle!