If there’s anything that this UAAP season has proven, it’s that volleyball is the hardest sport to pull-off an upset in. It was clear heading into the season that the Lady Eagles and Lady Spikers are the best teams in the UAAP, with everyone else competing for third and fourth. It feels like watching a local rom com movie; while the main protagonists encounter troublesome events, you can be sure that they’ll always end up together in the end like Popoy and Basha.
That’s why the Ateneo-La Salle matchups this year have been more hyped up than in the previous seasons. Other teams have tried their hardest to get through, but an Ateneo-La Salle Finals is as inevitable as a Gin Kings’ end-of-the-season coaching change.
The past matchups have presented multiple wrinkles to this storied rivalry, but this February 18 tilt is more wrinkled than Pepe Smith’s face. You have one team suffering a slew of injuries to almost all of their middle blockers in the most inopportune time, while rumors have floated around that the other side will be using two setters for the first time in the biggest game of the season.
Today, I’m here to set your expectations for the pivotal face-off. None of the things you’re going to read are going to happen 100% as is everything that has to do with sports. As they say, “bilog ang bola.”
Stuck in the Middle
The Lady Eagles have had the worst luck with injuries for the past few weeks, with middle blocker Bea De Leon reportedly unfit to return until the Final Four with an injured hand, while Aeriel Patnongon and Maddie Madayag both suffered ankle injuries just last week, leaving the Lady Eagles with just one healthy middle blocker in Amy Ahomiro. Though Madayag and Patnongon are most likely going to be suiting up for the big game, there are quirky temporary band-aid solutions Ateneo can use with what remains of their team.
In their match against UE, the Lady Eagles opted to go with a throwback to their Fab Five days, utilizing an athletic, undersized spiker ala Gretchen Ho circa 2012. Ateneo used Jhoanna Maraguinot- normally a utility spiker – as a pseudo middle blocker, and toggled her and Alyssa Valdez as the middle player when they both rotated to the front of the net. It worked partly because Maraguinot is athletic enough to make up for her severe lack of height for the position. Another reason as to how they got by with the lineup was mostly because they were facing the worst team in the league. The more alarming thing was that UE exposed the severe lack of blocking at the net with the lineup they used. Just ask Shaya Adorador who had her season high in points while leading her team to within a point of scoring a set win over the defending champs. For the season, Ateneo has only been out-blocking their opponents by 0.25 block kills per game while DLSU has kept a margin of 4.99 blocks per game between them and their opponents. In fact, for the second round, the Lady Eagles are being out-blocked by an average of 1.83 per game. Were it not for Ateneo’s supreme spiking, Twitter might have blown up with that upset.
For the season, Ateneo has out-spiked their opponents by an average of 16.65 spike kills per game, an impressive feat since the next closest spiking margin belongs to La Salle, who outguns teams by 7.52 spikes a game. The fact is, Ateneo is always going to have a chance at getting back into a set, down by no matter how many points, because they carry the most potent volleyball scorer the Philippines has ever seen in Alyssa Valdez. No blocking combination in the league can stop her and her myriad of powerful hits and graceful drops.
But Ateneo needs someone to fill the gaping hole in the middle because they cannot afford to have a weak link in the rotation against the incredibly well-rounded onslaught of La Salle. Ateneo always had a plan B in their veteran Patnongon and plan C in their other rookie, Maddie Madayag. But injuries are a part of the sport, and to win championships, every team needs just a little bit of luck. With that said, Ateneo has had their share of adversity. How they get over these injuries all depends on how good Coach Bundit’s plan D is.
Going small might not be the answer against La Salle. They’ll always have the option of placing Valdez as their second middle blocker, as they did in Game 2 of the Season 75 Finals against La Salle, when they almost eked out a win thanks to Alyssa Valdez’s incredible versatility. Needless to say, it will be the biggest test to the defending champs’ resilience.
La Salle going 6-2
The internet has been abuzz lately about a certain exploit La Salle could use to finally overpower the Lady Eagles. Much has been made of Desiree Cheng possibly playing as a second setter and Kim Fajardo stretching her wings and doing some outside spiking when she’s in the front row.
This really isn’t a ridiculous proposition. Fajardo has shown that she has some spice in her spikes as she did in this season’s Beach Volleyball Tournament where they placed second behind the UST Tigresses. Fajardo is almost 5’8 with long arms and vertical leap most other spikers just don’t possess. Cheng is La Salle’s go-to utility spiker- a position which requires a player to be able to set the ball if by any chance the setter takes the first ball. Cheng is also a multi-awarded high school player with more MVP awards than she has fingers.
To the keen La Salle fan, talks like this shouldn’t really come as a surprise. In the UNIGAMES, La Salle already experimented with this type of setup. Six-two is a term used in volleyball for a team that deploys two setters and four spikers. In this setup, the setters have to be able to both spike and set as their roles will shift as they rotate; whichever setter is at the back tosses the ball, and whichever setter is in the front functions as a third spiker.
Teams don’t usually go 6-2 because most teams do not have the luxury of having multiple players with the skills and physical gifts required for this setup. But Coach Ramil De Jesus’ volleyball program requires all players to be competent in all skills, and Coach Ramil exclusively recruits tall players with long arms regardless of position of need.
Kimmy and Cheng definitely have the chops to pull this off with their unique combination of skill set and long arms. Going with this strategy just might provide La Salle with the juice they need to get over dry spells of offense they have against Ateneo. While La Salle is the better the blocking team, Ateneo’s unwieldy offense has proven that La Salle cannot just hang on being taller and defensively sound in order to beat them. In their first round matchup, Ateneo had 17 more spikes than the Lady Spikers. Ateneo also had 46 errors in the matchup which is ultimately why the game lasted up to five sets.
La Salle forces their opponents to an average of 25.93 errors a game, the most in the league, while giving up the least errors in the league themselves at 20.36 a game. Ateneo, on the other hand, is at the bottom half of the league in errors per game, coughing up 25.42 a game.
La Salle’s imperial blocking is the reason why opponents give up so many errors against them, as attacking against La Salle’s forest of arms becomes a chore few can overcome. But Ateneo’s errors mostly come from their fearless gambling in spiking that stifled La Salle’s defense in their first round matchup. As Ateneo heated up late in the match, La Salle’s often stalled out and lost vigor.
Aside from Cheng, La Salle still has an arsenal of long arms stocked on their bench in Eli Soyud, Carol Cerveza, and Mary Joy Baron that can offer Coach Ramil options that Ateneo doesn’t have if things begin to go sour for them.
Always having three spikers upfront might just be the boost La Salle needs as they cannot rely on Ateneo to give them free points off errors, as Coach Ramil admitted when he was asked about the keys to victory against their rivals.
“’Yung pinakita namin nung first round, sobrang di mataas ‘yung percentage namin sa attack. Kaya pinilit namin maabot ‘yung average ng Ateneo. Yung first round kasi sobrang nakalayo sila,” said Coach De Jesus. “Sabi ko nga short rally lang ang kailangan namin ibigay sa Ateneo kasi kapag lalong humahaba iyung rally, tumataas iyung confidence nila.”
Who needs this win more?
Finally, you have to ask for which team does this game mean more to.
Of all teams, Ateneo should know more than any other that a bye into the Finals and a thrice-to-beat advantage doesn’t guarantee anyone a championship. They were the team that snowballed into the Finals after going through a gauntlet of three consecutive do-or-die matches, eventually dropping an uncharacteristically sloppy La Salle team that came from an extended break. Going up the step ladder kept the Lady Eagles sharp, while the almost two weeks of zero volleyball competition left La Salle dazed.
In fact, this has happened to multiple teams from different sports that clinched the ticket straight to the Finals. It seems that the extended rest dulls these teams as there is no match for real on-court action even if they practice and scrimmage multiple times a day. As Ateneo men’s volleyball coach Oliver Almadro said, there really is nothing like on-court competition to sharpen a player’s gamesmanship.
But in lieu of the injury plague that hit their team in the past weeks, a break might save the Lady Eagles and give them a chance at fielding a complete lineup in the Finals. This has been a busy season for the Lady Eagles. After competing in the ASEAN University games and competing in an unprecedented back-to-back to end the first round, the Lady Eagles really do need a break. I haven’t even mentioned all the schoolwork they have to accomplish, the legions of fans that tail them everywhere they go and on the internet, and various other commitments they have to fulfill. Out of all the other teams that have earned a thrice-to-beat advantage, it seems that Ateneo needs this advantage the most.
While I’m guessing any team would like to just need two wins in the Finals to clinch a title, La Salle’s road to redemption may as well hinge on their performance. If they win, they’ll only need three more wins to bring the title back to Taft and Ateneo doesn’t get to rest their players for too long, potentially setting up a face off with a depleted Lady Eagles’ roster in the Finals. If they lose, they’ll need four wins for the title, including three against a potentially refreshed Ateneo squad.
The game ultimately decides so many things outside either team as lower seeded teams are praying La Salle wins so as to avoid a step ladder that will complicate playoff situations. But for us fans, an Ateneo win would mean more volleyball.
With the way things are now, it seems the odds are not in the favor of the defending champs. But, like many pundits from the media, I now know better than to count out this gritty Ateneo team. Regardless of who plays or how anyone plays, we should be in for another Ateneo-La Salle classic.