Through steady recruiting and player development, the National University Bulldogs have remained one of the top teams in the UAAP this decade.
Sunday afternoon, the Bulldogs added to their legacy, clinching a seat in the UAAP Season 81 Men’s Volleyball Finals – their seventh straight Finals appearance.
This particular trip to the Finals has an air of finality for NU, since four key players – Bryan Bagunas, Kim Malabunga, Francis Saura, and Madz Gampong – are winding down their UAAP careers.
Last season represented a return to the top after this batch of Bulldogs finally conquered the Ateneo Blue Eagles.
Before that, the Bulldogs had last bested Ateneo in the Finals in Season 76. Then the next three seasons, the Blue Eagles took over on the back of Marck Espejo’s transcendent talent.
Season 77 was the end of an NU dynasty with Peter Torres, Berlin Paglinawan, Edwin Tolentino, and Ben Inaudito all ending their UAAP careers with a Finals loss.
This time, Bagunas and his batchmates are looking for a different end to their NU legacy.
“Sobrang special ‘to kasi last playing year ko na.
“Ito na lang ‘yung katangi-tangi naming ibibigay sa NU, ‘yung history. Sobrang saya kasi nasa Finals na naman, tapos iba ‘yung makakalaban namin, talagang kailangan namin paghandaan. Training pa lang at makinig sa mga coaches, ‘yun lang po,” Bagunas, the league’s leading scorer and prospective MVP, said.
NU face the FEU Tamaraws in the Finals, a team they last met in the championship round in Season 75. Back then, the Bulldogs took down the Tamaraws in a heated series for their first-ever UAAP title.
Bulldogs head coach Dante Alinsunurin does not expect this Finals series to have the same emotional encounters, but still looks forward to highly-competitive series against a proud program.
“Medyo kalmado na. Siguro nagkakatalo lang talaga kami (ng FEU) sa kung sino lang ang makaka-receive talaga. Halos pantay naman ‘yung team ngayon, sa skills and sa experience,” said Alinsunurin.
“Kung tutuusin sila talaga yung ka-batch namin. Ito yung ka-batch nilang FEU eh. Naiwan lang talaga din ang UST. Ito yung team na nagsimula. Medyo sinwerte kami ng FEU na magkakaharap ngayon. Sigurado magiging close yung laban namin.”
With four players graduating, Alinsunurin wants his seniors to end their careers right.
“Last batch na naman na alam kong buo yung core ko eh. Sana makuha namin itong Finals na ito para pagdating ng next year, meron kaming baon. Importante kasi ‘pag nagsimula ang isang team, dapat meron kaming inaalagaan,” said the enlisted Air Force personnel.
“Kasi mahirap naman na hindi namin makuha ‘tong Finals tapos mag-start kami ng panibago. Basta kahit anong mangyari, gagawin namin ng team na makuha yung championship ulit ngayon.”