The most anticipated game of the season has arrived. The archrivalry will again be flaunted on Sunday as the defending champions Ateneo take on La Salle to end the first round of eliminations. It’s been 10 months since the Lady Eagles won their first championship against the Lady Spikers, after battling it out in the last three finals series, and we are going to see a vindictive La Salle seeking to avenge their loss. So far, both teams are still undefeated in the season and will duke it out to see who will come out on top.
This will be an interesting matchup because this will be the first time Ateneo will be facing La Salle as defending champions. In fact, in the last 21 head-to-heads between the two schools (from Season 71), Ateneo has only won a total of four games, all of them in the finals (Game 1 in Season 74, and last season’s finals series). La Salle has been a consistent contender for a long time, and with Ateneo’s rise up in the ladders the past few seasons, this season’s competitive spirit will be on another level.
We will be evaluating the two teams based on their performance in each volleyball skill.
Note: we only used the first five matches of each team (we ignored the DLSU-UE game last Sunday since Ateneo has yet to battle UE).
Serving & Passing
Volleyball play begins with the serve. As the first ball contact, the serve dictates the tempo of the game. A very good server can force the other team to scramble for a play and keep them out of rhythm throughout the rally. After five matches, La Salle leads the service department with a total of 40 aces (half of these from Ara Galang and Kim Fajardo), while Ateneo is 4th with 31. Despite this, La Salle commits more service faults, making Ateneo a more efficient serving team. However, more aces and faults in a team can mean that the team is being very aggressive on the serve – they are taking more risks to make it difficult for the opponent to run its offense. If La Salle minimizes its errors, their serving game can be tough for Ateneo.
|Aces / set
|Faults / set
On the flipside, Ateneo is the league’s best passer, with a passing efficiency of 31.8%, almost doubling La Salle’s 18.0%. Lazaro and De Jesus, who receive the ball 77.5% of the time for Ateneo, have a combined passing efficiency of 35.5%. La Salle’s main passers – Galang, Macandili and Cheng – have a passing efficiency of only 17.3%. Ateneo’s system banks on their ability to receive the ball well so that they can set up their offensive strategies. If Ateneo can get their passing early, they will be able to handle the first-ball offense of La Salle.
Serving: La Salle
The setter is considered to be the most important position in volleyball (ask coaches and volleyball aficionados). Setters are the ones who direct the team’s offense by calling out plays. The team’s offensive system is only as good as the setter’s performance because a spiker can only hit the ball effectively if it is set properly. Last season, rookie Julia Morado proved to be worthy of the #12 jersey of Ateneo when she replaced Jem Ferrer, former three-time UAAP Best Setter. She is now the league’s leading setter with a total of 171 assists in five games. La Salle’s Kim Fajardo, last season’s best setter, is at second place with 140 assists.
|Assists / set
Morado’s performance can be attributed to her team’s steady passing. The purpose of setting the ball is to successfully execute an attack that maximizes the team’s chance of getting a point. An excellent set or assist is counted when the point awarded to the attacking team is from an “in-system” play. Being “in-system” means the team can control the ball well and can give it to the setter accordingly. It is important for the team to be “in-system” if they want to use all their offensive options and to run a fast offense. So far, Ateneo leads in this aspect, with 77.4% of their attacks coming from “in-system” plays, while La Salle is at 72.1% – both teams are above the league average of 64.2%.
This skill is the most recognizable in volleyball as this is the offensive arm of the sport. So far, Ateneo leads in this skill, with an attack efficiency of 24% (attack attempts converted to points 24% of the time), La Salle coming close second at 21.2%. Alyssa Valdez, so far the best scorer in the league, leads in attacks with 88 of her 106 points from spikes while La Salle’s best scorer Ara Galang has 82 spikes so far. Don’t forget that spiking a ball needs more than just speed and athleticism – more often than not, good passing and setting will lead to a successful attack. Ateneo and La Salle are both very efficient in attacking (vs league average) because their passing and setting have been superb.
|In Play Eff%
Remember also that volleyball is a rally point system, so all opportunities for scoring a point must not be wasted. Attack errors such as hitting the ball into the net or out of bounds are crucial especially when they pile up. In this regard, La Salle’s in-play efficiency is higher at 89.2% vs Ateneo’s 85.9%, which means they are less likely to commit attack errors during the rally. Both teams seem to be dominant and effective in this skill.
Blocking & Digging
The primary defensive stops for volleyball are blocking and digging. The first line of defense is blocking, and if the ball is sent over/through the block, the team must be prepared to dig it. One of La Salle’s cornerstones is blocking, and they are milking it this season with the tallest lineup in the league (average height of their first six is 5’9” vs Ateneo’s 5’7”). They are also able to rebound the ball off of their opponents’ attacks 34.3% of the time, slowing down their offenses. They also have the highest block kills in the league, currently at 2.82 per set.
Digging is a forte of Ateneo, currently 2nd in the league with 8.88 digs per set, followed by La Salle’s 8.65 digs per set. Denden Lazaro, last year’s best digger, has now shared defensive responsibilities with her teammates – she averages 2.47 digs per set vs last season’s 3.38. This team effort enabled Ateneo to dig their opponents’ attacks 82% of the time, while La Salle is at 73%. In defense, La Salle and Ateneo take one skill each.
Blocking: La Salle
Who will prevail?
Considering all skills, both teams look good on paper – they seem to be cancelling out on all offense vs defense corners. Observers have said that Ateneo plays like an ‘Asian’ team because their sets are faster and lower than usual sets so as to execute their plays quicker. The low-fast system is a trademark of Asian volleyball teams like Japan and Thailand – quicker attacks in all options (left-wing, right-wing, middle) are effective against taller teams who can easily block slower offenses. After last season’s loss, La Salle seems to be moving much faster than before – they’ve adjusted the rhythm of their plays to run a quicker system. It will be interesting to see how these two will battle it out on speed. Note that low-fast setting will only work if a team is in-system – they can give the ball where the setter wants it so she has all the options.
Individually, Ara Galang and Alyssa Valdez, whose efforts comprise 1/3 of the teams’ numbers, will surely play their part and put out big numbers in all aspects – they are both consistent not just in offense but also in defensive measures such as blocking and digging. The question now is who will have a stronger support system? Volleyball is a team sport that plays with six players on court – whoever has the better five players will have an easier time winning the game. Finally, the team that can limit their unforced errors (especially serving and attacking errors) will also come out on top.
Ateneo and La Salle’s rivalry is not just about the schools’ alumni and their history – this rivalry has always brought out the best in each other. Both team’s fierce competitiveness in all things sports have brought the game of collegiate volleyball to new heights. Whatever the outcome might be on Sunday, we will surely be in for an exciting match.