Three images encapsulated the UAAP Season 76 Women’s Volleyball Finals.
One was a picture of Aby Maraño and Ateneo libero Denden Lazaro locked in an embrace, both of them in tears, surrounded by thousands of people, with cameras pointed and clicking all around them. A gesture of sportsmanship and respect between the two rivals.
Another was an image of the Lady Eagles celebrating their first women’s volleyball title. The thrill of victory.
The third image stood out more than the others. It was a picture of the DLSU Lady Spikers, all standing in a semi-circle, their uniforms resembling army fatigues. They all had their arms up in a salute, and their eyes welled with tears. They are saluting someone in front of them, that someone being Maraño, who had played her final UAAP game.
She was the last to receive her silver medal later on, and as she got to the podium, she was handed a bouquet of flowers together with the medal. She tried to fight back the tears, and managed a smile and a wave to the mammoth crowd at the Mall of Asia Arena, ending the career of one of the most decorated volleyball players for La Salle.
Gone are Maraño’s words of encouragement during team huddles, numbing spikes, and patented celebrations after she scores points. This is a team that had won titles even after the loss of players like Jacq Alarca, Steph Mercado, and Cha Cruz. But the question still has to be asked: How do you replace someone who did a little bit of everything and more for the team?
Last Year’s Record: 14-0 in the elimination round; secured thrice-to-beat advantage in the Finals, forcing a step-ladder in the semifinals; lost to the Ateneo Lady Eagles in the Finals in four games (won one game, lost three games);
Team Additions: Two rookies: Christine Joy Soyud and Aduke Christine Ogunsanya. Both Soyud and Ogunsaya were already included in the team’s line-up for the Philippine National Games. Returnee: Justine Tiu.
Team Losses: Two-Time Most Valuable Player and Season 75 Best Server Aby Maraño, Mika Esperanza (ACL injury), Denise Tan.
Holdovers: Season 74 Rookie of the Year and Season 75 MVP Ara Galang, Season 76 Best Setter Kim Fajardo, Mika Reyes, Cyd Demecillo, Desiree Cheng, Cienne Cruz, Camille Cruz, Joy Baron, Kim Dy, Dawn Macandili, Carol Cerveza.
The Off-Season: After being denied in the UniGames last year by a resurgent FEU side, the Lady Spikers, led by Galang, toppled the NU Lady Bulldogs in four sets to win the tournament. The Philippine National Games was another tournament joined by Lady Spikers last May, where they swept the eliminations but lost to the Philippine Air Force in the Finals after five thrilling sets.
The Competition: The biggest challenge the Lady Spikers face is, of course, the team that pulled the rug from under them in the Finals, the Lady Eagles. The team’s core of players, which survived five elimination games in the stepladder semis and finals to win the title last year, will all be back for Season 77. Leading the charge is Season 76 Finals MVP Alyssa Valdez, as well as libero Denden Lazaro, Amy Ahomiro, Ella De Jesus, and sophomores Michelle Morente and Jia Morado. Further bolstering their line-up are rookies such as Bea de Leon, Therese Gaston, and Maddie Madayag, making their strong line-up even more formidable.
The NU Lady Bulldogs, who finished second in the eliminations last year and initially loomed as a finals opponent for the Lady Spikers before coughing up a twice-to-beat advantage to the Lady Eagles, are another contender. They lost Dindin Santiago and Mina Aganon, with both players having exhausted their playing years. Season 75 Rookie of the Year will likely not suit up for the Lady Bulldogs as well, having suffered an injury during the off-season. The team, however, still has the 6’’5’ Jaja Santiago, as well as Season 75 Best Attacker Myla Pablo and setter Ivy Perez, and with the younger Santiago gaining a year of experience, this is a team that is still stronger than others and can still contend for the crown.
The Adamson Lady Falcons, hitherto known for their defense, will need their holdovers and newcomers to fill the void left by several of the team’s graduating players, including Season 75 Best Server and last year’s team captain Sheila Pineda, Mayette Zapanta, and May Macatuno. Bannering the Adamson cause is team captain Faye Guevarra, as well as holdovers like Amanda Villanueva and Mylene Paat.
The FEU Lady Tamaraws are one of the younger squads in the UAAP, but after winning the first conference of the Shakey’s V-League, the team believes that it is ready to take the next step and figure in the mix for the Final Four. They will be led by Bernadette Pons, one of the deadliest scorers in the league last season, as well as Gyzelle Sy, Remrem Palma, and libero Tin Agno.
Several blue-chip rookies will be making their debuts in the UAAP, but none has received more attention that EJ Laure, daughter of PBA player Eddie Laure, who will be playing for the UST Tigresses this year. The Tigresses, who were crowned as the UniGames champion last year, will be led by veterans Carmela Tunay, Pam Lastimosa, and Jessey De Leon, while Laure, who already made an impact with her stint with the team during the Shakey’s V-League, is also expected to immediately contribute to her squad.
Outlook: For the first time in a while, the Lady Spikers are in unfamiliar territory, sailing on uncharted waters: they are entering Season 77 as one of the contenders, but not the clear favorite to win the title.
But after auspicious stints in the PNG (where they narrowly lost to a team composed of former UAAP players from different teams) and the UniGames (when they handily defeated an NU side that is considered as another contender), the Lady Spikers have proven that they are still a force to be reckoned with.
Despite the loss of Maraño, the team will still parade the core of a line-up that made the finals last season, led by Galang, Reyes, and Fajardo, who are all part of the Philippine National team, which is being coached by De Jesus. Players like libero Cienne Cruz, Cyd Demecillo, and Camille Cruz will be back for the Lady Spikers, both of them integral parts in their run to a sweep of the elimination round and finals stint. Rookies Desiree Cheng, libero Dawn Macandili, Kim Dy, and Mary Joy Baron will all have a year of experience under their belts, which bodes well for their confidence as well as the team’s overall chemistry.
But with almost every team retooling during the off-season, games will not be easily won and opponents cannot be overlooked. The possible loss of Mika Esperanza due to an injury leaves Fajardo as the only setter of the team. Reyes, Demecillo, Cheng, and the rookies will all have to increase their scoring output to blunt the impact of Maraño’s absence. Galang has already been named team captain by De Jesus, and while she may not be as fiery as her predecessor, it will be up to her to rally her teammates when they experience a dearth in scoring or a deficit they need to overcome.
Whether or not the Lady Spikers can topple the Lady Eagles remains to be seen, but the immediate goal would be to pile up as many wins to secure one of the top two seeds in the standings and nab a twice-to-beat advantage. If last season proved anything, it’s that nothing is set in stone.
The First Game: The Lady Spikers will begin their quest to reclaim the UAAP volleyball crown this Sunday, November 23, 4pm at the San Juan Arena.