In a season when seven of the eight teams look primed to take a Final Four spot, bad starts could be detrimental.
Injury-stricken and weary, FEU had to rely on their younger players to fill gaps in their lineup. Ace open hitter Bernadeth Pons sat out much of their first three matches due to lower back problems, while their starting libero, Kyla Atienza, was resting an injured right shoulder. They also faced one of the toughest starting schedules, having faced and lost to both of last years finalists, the Ateneo de Manila University and De La Salle University.
Now at 1-2, FEU head coach Shaq Delos Santos knows his team can ill afford another loss.
“Hangga’t maaari kailangan lahat nang natitirang game namin sa first round maipanalo namin. Pero hindi ganoong kadali kasi malalakas na ‘yung mga susunod naming mga kalaban,” the FEU mentor said.
Delos Santos was constantly looking for impact players off his bench. Even if most of the lineups he threw didn’t stick, the experience FEU’s young players attained could prove valuable.
“Maganda na ‘din na mahihirap agad ‘yung nakalaban namin kasi nakakuha agad ng experience ‘yung mga batang player namin. Nag-iimprove sila every game. Kahit hindi sobrang laki ng in-improve, at least nakita na nila ‘yung mga kailangan pa nilang gawin para sa mga susunod na laro.”
Pons and Atienza were apparently raring to play against Ateneo last Wednesday, but Delos Santos opted to rest the pair so he they might be in their best shape for their next match. “Kanina talaga sobrang gusto na nila maglaro. Kaso pinigilan na lang namin kasi ayaw namin lumala pa ‘yung mga injury nila,”Delos Santos shared. “Mahaba pa din naman ‘yung season per hopefully against UST, maganda na ‘yung kondisyon nila.”
UST, on the other hand, have yet to win a match this season. Although they had promising performances in each of their first two outings, the Tigresses could not start matches strong, needing herculean efforts just to keep up with their foes.
Unlike FEU, UST have a handful of experienced veterans in tow. But the younger Tigresses have been pulling the team together, led by the spunky sophomore Cherry Rondina, who currently leads the league in points per match (25.5 ppm).
“Kung puwede lang may lima kaming CC (Rondina), mas okay ‘yun. Iba kasi ‘yung commitment ng bata pagdating sa laro. Talagang binibigay niya ‘yung buong sarili niya every time na maglalaro siya,” UST head coach, Kungfu Reyes gushed about his beach volleyball champion.
Constantly motivating and steering the team, first-year head coach Reyes believes he has done his job. It’s time for his players to step up.
“Maraming nagsasabi na nag-iimprove kami. Pero hindu pwedeng nag-iimprove lang, kailangan namin ng resulta. Ang lagi ko lang sinasabi sa mga player, isipin nila kung nagawa nila ‘yung trabaho nila bilang player,” he said. “Ngayon makikita ‘yung character namin – kung paano kami makakabangon sa pagiging down namin. Kailanga laging nandiyan ‘yung will to win saka ‘yung mental toughness.”
There is pressure on this team to break UST’s streak of missing the Final Four. Moreover, the Tigresses won’t panic this early in the season even with a 0-2 start to the season.
“Mahaba pa ‘yung season, marami pang pwedeng mangyare. Kailangan matanggal na sa isip namin ‘yung ‘maaga pa naman’ kasi mamaya hindi na maaga, baka maging late na kami sa kakahintay namin matapos ‘yung maaga.”
Last season, UST and FEU duked it out in a do-or-die match for the last Final Four seed. Although FEU started their season slow, the Lady Tams eventually broke out of their slump and defeated UST to barge into the post-season.
Tomorrow’s match at 2 p.m. at the FilOil Flying V Centre has the same do-or-die feel, even if it’s this early in the season. The loser of that match could very well have their season decided this early.