Volleyball is a very unkind sport to the underdog – especially in long tournaments with series and multiple rounds such as the Shakey’s V-League and Spikers’ Turf.
Just by looking at each team on paper before the season, Ateneo and NU had a clear leg up on their competition on the women’s side. Had the tournament’s format been different, either team could have had their tournament march halted by a single bad day on the court. But, alas, both powerhouse squads were just too strong for the rest of the league.
Ditto for the Ateneo Blue Eagles who bamboozled their foes en route to a clean run to the Finals. Their opponents, the NU Bulldogs – a familiar foe by name but not by make – had as close to a roller-coaster as any team was going to have. Lined with rookiees and sophomores, the Bulldogs, who took a journey to find themselves this season, found a spot on the finals.
We fans are now up for an epic clash as Sampaloc’s Gold and Blue collides with Loyola’s proud Blue and White on what is set to be an epic two weeks of volleyball. Let’s take a look at how each team might fare, starting with the Men’s side.
Bulldogs v Eagles: the Dawgs remember
It was just a few months ago when the Blue Eagles celebrated their first UAAP Men’s Volleyball title and, in the process, shoved the Bulldogs from their throne.
Ateneo fielded all the key pieces to that h1storic run, reinforced by rookies and guest players in the Spikers’ Turf and they played close to perfect volleyball. Ateneo never surrendered more than two sets in a match and even had the luxury to shuffle their lineup every set against the best teams in the tournament.
NU could have gotten the band together for one last run. Peter Torres, Ben Inaudito, Edwin Tolentino, Berlin Paglinawan, and Henry Tipay were all eligible to avenge their loss in the UAAP. But the Bulldogs had other things in mind.
They paraded a team of mostly rookies and sophomores and no one had a good read on them until they played their first match – which was when all doubts flew out the arena. The incoming Bulldogs are a tall, wiry bunch – even exceeding the imposing length of their newly graduated seniors. Through their sheer stature and might, the young Bulldogs came away with victories, sweeps and nail-biters alike.
But, Ateneo savagely picked them apart in their second round meeting, inspiring doubt of the Bulldogs coming away with a single set in this best-of-three Finals series. What do we have to look forward to?
Vince gets wins
Other coaches choose to be coy when asked about their advantage against a certain foe. NU head coach, Dante Alinsunurin, is of a different sort.
“Si Vince (Mangulabnan) ang advantage namin,” Alinsunurin would say after matches when asked what went right for their team. “Maganda ‘yung naitutulong di lang sa pagiging setter, pati na ‘rin ‘yung pagiging beterano niya na lang. Malaking tulong kasi puro bata ang mga player namin.”
Young guns Bryan Bagunas, Madzlan Gampong, Fauzi Ismail, Kim Malabunga, and Francis Saura produce the big scoring numbers for the Bulldogs. But it’s Vince Mangulabnan’s decision making that vaults the Bulldogs over their opponents.
Playing in his fifth year for the Gold and Blue, the decorated setter has had his growing pains with his new bunch of weapons. In previous years, the NU offense churned out dizzying combination plays at seemingly every point. Mangulabnan with three at his disposal was like Magic Johnson on the fast break – you could never guess where the ball was gonna go. You had double quick plays for Torres and Tolentino, a compound set where Inaudito swooped in behind two spikers, and, of course, the lethal Peter Torres combination play.
They ran zero sets like that this season – no vaunted combination plays, just honest wing-middle-wing volleyball. At times, it worked for the Bulldogs. Their new pack had no trouble soaring over blockers or destroying their blockers’ arms altogether. Mangulabnan was just as comfortable with this simple style of play as he was with the frantic transitions of his old squad.
Simple, however, didn’t fly against Ateneo. The Ateneo blocking and floor defense had too easy of a time tracking down NU’s attacks leading to crushing counters from the Loyola side.
NU has tried to sprinkle in a few combination plays throughout the season but they weren’t as fluent as before. Factor in their sporadic service reception and coverage, and Mangulabnan’s in for a long day of chasing wild first balls.
The nearly two weeks of preparation time may not be enough time for NU to smoothen their play in the back row or their offense. But it could have very well afforded the young Bulldogs enough time to regroup and focus on their strength.
Aside for Mangulabnan, NU relies heavily on their blocking. They might not deny Ateneo’s attackers all the time, but getting deflections and coaxing the Eagles into errors can be achieved by simply pfacticing proper timing and placement on blocks.
And Coach Dante can always rely on Vince making the best of even the worst first balls. Alinsunurin, however, worries that the burden of being the team’s only veteran has dragged Mangulabnan’s performance slightly.
“Maraming iniisip ‘yung bata. Hindi lang kasi sa court at sa ensayo siya captain, pati na rin sa labas ng court pati sa dorm. Kung dati anim silang beterano, ngayon siya na lang. Mahirap talaga ‘yoon,” Alinsunurin remarked.
Mangulabnan, undoubtedly, isn’t phased by the glow of the Finals spotlight. His teammates, on the other hand, are new to the pressure. The young pups need to do a log of growing up in a short amount of time.
Jesus is an Atenean
Jesus is Ateneo’s savior – Marck Jesus Espejo that is.
Espejo came in to a fledgling program and delivered them to two straight Finals appearances and a title in his two years in Loyola. He’s inspired support from a community that neglected his sport – turning them into believers. It’s life imitating art.
Metaphor’s out of the way, Marck Jesus Espejo is Ateneo’s, and the country’s, best player. It’s easy to watch his highlight reels filled with high-flying attacks and dismiss him as just an offensive player. But Espejo is not only Ateneo’s best attacker, he’s also their second best receiver and digger behind their libero Manuel Sumanguid III.
And his serve inspires destruction. A lot of other players have brandished devastating jump serves – Mark Alfafara has the consistently powerful version, Howard Mojica puts a slight cut into his haymakers. But no serve gets as much collective gasps and cringes than Espejo’s, whether they come from errors or aces. Once this season, he served three aces and six service errors. Last conference while playing for Cagayan, he short-armed a serve that gave their opponents the match in the fifth set, 15-13.
But there is a “Finals Espejo”. In the UAAP 77 Finals, the reigning MVP went for back-to-back 30+ point outings. Whenever Marck Espejo toed the service line, momentum shifted to Ateneo’s side. Espejo had only six service errors in that series and fired off eight aces including five in Game One.
And Espejo’s teammates aren’t bad either. Team captain Ysay Marasigan, is just as capabable of offensive outbursts as Espejo. Middle blockers, Josh Villanueva, Rex Intal, and rookie Tony Koyfman cover their blocking assignments incredibly well while disposing of the few sets they get efficiently as the Blue Eagles set to the middle only once every six tosses.
“I always tell my team that we need to keep improving because the other teams are surely working hard as well. We always prepare our best for our opponents and we’ve worked on being consistent. Thankfully, nakakapagpakita kami ng results. And hopefully magpatuloy hanggang Finals,” said Ateneo head coach Oliver Almadro after his team clinched a Finals seat.
No team has taken more than one set against the Blue Eagles and it’ll be a tall task for a young NU team to take down such a well-oiled and highly-motivated machine.
The Blue Eagles are amazing offensively and defensively. They’re going to look just as amazing with their first Spikers’ Turf Collegiate trophy.
Lady Bulldogs vs Lady Eagles: Turned Tables
Two years ago, a star-studded Ateneo squad – that had Rachel Daquis, Alyssa Valdez, Jem Ferrer, etc. – fell to a determined NU side – with rookie Jaja Santiago, graduating Ate Dindin, Rubie De Leon and co.- in a meteoric Finals. Two years ago, Coach Roger Gorayeb paced the Ateneo sidelines. Two years ago, Anusorn Bundit hadn’t changed the landscape and philosophy of local volleyball.
A lot happened in two years as now, the Lady Eagles are favored to snatch the title from the three-time finalists. But a recent loss to the UST Tigresses stripped the UAAP champs of their air of invincibility and made the ball just a little bit rounder. How can NU capitalize?
Believe in what you have
It would be easy to write-off the Lady Bulldogs as their biggest advantage, guest player Dindin Santiago-Mananat, is off in Vietnam playing for Petron in the AVC Club Championships and won’t be back until Game Two.
Without Manabat, the pressure falls squarely on resident middle blocker, Roselyn Doria to stabilize the action at the net as best she can.
“Hindi man siya nakakascore, nakakablock, nakakadepensa, at maganda ‘yung serve niya. Maganda ‘yung nilalaro ng bata kahit hindi kita sa stats,” NU head coach Roger Gorayeb commented on Doria.
NU also has the much-improved Jaja Santiago who leads the tournament in attacking percentage. Santiago’s quick attacks are as close as we’re going to get to dunks in volleyball. The 6’5” Caviteña goes high over blocks and finishes hard. She’s also played around with adding a running attack to her game. She pumps a lot of velocity into her serves although she can still lessen her errors. If NU’s going to win the crown, Jaja Santiago needs as many opportunities as she can to exploit her size advantage.
Which is just as well that NU tapped the services of Rubie De Leon to set the plays. The seasoned journey-woman took over the setting responsibilities from rookie Rica Diolan in NU’s last three matches and she’s delivered results. It helps that she already has a feel for playing with Jaja Santiago as they teamed up last conference to win a title with PLDT. She barely makes mistakes and keeps her team’s attacks varied when she gets good passes. She, however, can’t go around chasing wild passes the entire match with her advanced age and less advanced conditioning so NU has to steady their ball control not just in short spurts, but for entire matches.
It’s near impossible to catch up to the Lady Eagles once they’ve built a four-point lead or greater so there is no room to relax.
NU also has the fiery Myla Pablo in tow. The National Team standout is one of the few belles in the country who can come close to matching Valdez’s output scoring-wise and is also a threat to score from anywhere on the floor. Jorelle Singh provides uncanny power in the other open hitter slot. Singh pressures the Ateneo back line into working hard no matter what rotation they’re in.
Along with a rejuvenated Aiko Urdas and Bia General, NU has a similar complete lineup like they had two years ago.
NU can’t rely on Manabat’s arrival in the next matches to pull them through in this series. They have the pieces – it’s all a matter of getting over the huge Ateneo crowd and managing their mental game so their skills shine.
Errors, errors, errors
The Lady Eagles play a revolutionary style of volleyball (at least for here in the Philippines) that teams try to emulate.
They play fast and loose. Even without Jia Morado, Ateneo’s offense hummed through Gizelle Tan’s picture-perfect, back breaking sets. High sets are a last resort for the Tai Bundit-mentored squad and they resort to low, sharp sets to catch opposing blockers off guard. All of their players can also convert from whatever position they are on the court, making for a truly unpredictable attack.
But that pace has its drawbacks. The Lady Eagles sometimes play too fast for their own good leading to a lot of unforced errors. In the sets they win, the Lady Eagles cough up 5.67 errors. In the sets they lose, Ateneo gives up a whooping average of 9 errors.
The best teams in the world play more quickly, but manage their errors down to around 3-4 per set and they play more powerfully than Ateneo. The Lady Eagles aren’t as good as those teams, but they are the best in the country because, aside from the errors, there aren’t really one aspect of their game that can be considered as a weakness for them.
Going through their lineup, they have athletic middle blockers in Amy Ahomiro and Bea De Leon. Kim Gequillana has come leaps and bounds to solidify her starting opposite hitter spot, ditto × 50 for Jhoana Maraguinot, Ella De Jesus is a defensive menace, and the aforementioned Tan has filled in nicely for Morado.
And they have two-time UAAP MVP, SVL Open Conference MVP, Team Pilipinas captain, Queen of Loyola, Queen of the UAAP, Lady Ragnant of Heartstrong, Mother of Eagles, Bringer of Championships, Breaker of Streaks, Khaleesi Alyssa Valdez.
The Batangueña is as unstoppable as she is congenial. Opponents have her all-over their scouting reports but no team has stopped her consistently.
It is important to reiterate that this isn’t basketball. There is no Pao Javelona that can mark the opponent’s best player and hold him to a dismal shooting clip. Stopping a team’s best option needs to involve all six players on the court. Focus too much on Valdez, and you leave another Lady Eagle with barely a blocker. All NU can do is choose whose going to beat them and limit Aly’s effectiveness.
In the loss to UST, Ateneo visibly suffered from problems outside of the court. One can’t simply bet on Ateneo having back-to-back bad games especially with so much time in between matches. It’s going to take unprecedented effort to beat Ateneo at the top of their game.
SOURCES: Blue Eaglet Joaqui Manuel commits to La Salle
Jeanne Horton carries Cignal to resounding sweep of Cocolife
Sara Castaneda sits out 2018 AFC Women’s Asian Cup
Lady Eagles survive Lady Falcons to grab third straight win
SOURCES: Chris Gavina being eyed as UE head coach
Generika-Ayala shocks Cignal HD to salvage second win
Semis-bound Fighting Maroons outlast Green Booters to remain unscathed
Gerry Abadiano, Terrence Fortea torch Sacred Heart, carry NU to NBTC Finals
- Basketball2 days ago
SOURCES: Blue Eaglet Joaqui Manuel commits to La Salle
- DLSU3 days ago
SMART Sports Player of the Week Kim Dy steps up to keep La Salle on top
- ADMU5 days ago
Maddie Madayag, Lady Eagles relishing uplifting start to second round
- Basketball3 days ago
Ben Adamos leaves San Beda, looks to transfer to another NCAA school