By simply looking at their stellar 4-0 win-loss card, one can easily assume that Ateneo has been waltzing through their competition in the Shakey’s V-League Conference. But, their season has been less like a gentle waltz and more like a careful stumble due to a couple of reasons.
For starters, you can now add Pauline Gaston to Ateneo’s ever growing list of unavailable Lady Eagles. Pauline twisted her ankle before today’s match against CSB. She joins her sister, Therese, Jia Morado, fellow rookie Kat Tolentino, on the injured list. Meanwhile, Risa Sato has been out of the lineup for the past two weeks due to national team duties while third year open hitter, Michelle Morente was removed from the roster due to academic reasons.
For a team that had a good chunk of its roster participating in international competitions these past few months, having a full lineup would have been a blessing. Ateneo could have rested Alyssa Valdez for longer period of time, allowing their returning players to assimilate into heavier roles and their rookies to get a feel for the faster paced collegiate game. Instead, Ateneo needed Valdez to pull the team out of a potential upset against the Lady Blazers. Luckily, Valdez gets 30-point games about as easily as she gets endorsements.
“Siguro sobrang affected na kami ng mga injuries sa team, kasi parang every game na lang may nadadagdag na injury,” said team captain Alyssa Valdez. “But it’s good na alam namin ‘yung role namin sa team.”
Ateneo’s talent pool has been deep enough to absorb player unavailability over the past few years; something that can mostly be attributed to Coach Tai Bundit’s player development program. This season, Gizelle Tan has more than filled-in Jia Morado’s starting setter role, Kim Gequillana has held her own in the opposite hitter position, Jamie Lavitoria has shown glimpses of greatness in the libero position, while Jhoana Maraguinot showed that she can put the team’s scoring load on her back when needed.
Nonetheless, teams have been bringing their A-game when they face Ateneo. All champions face the dilemma of going against opponents that are yearning to topple the champs and Ateneo’s certainly been pushed this season, perhaps even a bit too far for their comfort.
In their opening day match, the UST Tigresses put up a good match but ultimately fell due to their own growing pains. Earlier today, Ateneo faced a veteran CSB side hungry for an upset. Benilde’s floor defense refused to yield in the first two sets, ultimately frustrating the Lady Eagles into multiple miscues. Down 0-2 in the sets score, Ateneo regrouped blasted through Benilde in the next three sets.
“Sobrang ganda ng nilaro nila. Everything, from their floor defense, to their spiking, gumana. It really just goes to show na may mga kailangan pa talaga kami i-work on as a team,” Valdez replied when asked about their foes.
This is nothing new for the Lady Eagles. In UAAP Season 77, the Lady Eagles faced similar challenges in defending their throne. Adamson, DLSU, and UP dragged them to grueling five set classics and even UE threatened to steal a set from them. But, with a bit of luck and heart strong magic, the Lady Eagles ended that season unscathed.
Luck plays a huge part in any championship campaign. So far, luck has not been siding with the girls from Katipunan. The competition will only get stiffer from here as teams will certainly not be handing the UAAP champs any breaks.