We’re finally here! After almost two weeks of emotionally draining do-or-die elimination matches and puzzling scenarios, we’re officially on day one of the UAAP Women’s volleyball Final Four. As FEU coach Shaq so eloquently put it in a post-game interview, the Lady Tams had thread the smallest of needles to reach to this point. FEU was down, they were out. But like the Undertaker in Wrestlemania, they sat up and Tombstone-Piledrivered their last three opponents. We take a look at all the things FEU Lady Tams may need to accomplish to get to the Final Four:
>> The UST Tigresses basically have the Final Four slot in the bag, conceded to only seven losses and with two matches remaining in their elimination round. Their two matches left were against a Bersola-less UP and the UE winless Lady Warriors. UST looked dominant early in their UP match, but fumbled away crucial errors late in sets. UP went on to win the match off multiple UST service errors in the fifth set. The UP crowd was beastly in this match as they screamed “UP Fight!!!” during all timeouts. The fact that the UP contingent was on UST’s side of the court in the fifth set certainly did not help the Tigresses. On the other hand, Coach Mamon might have set the record for longest face palm by a Coach during a game, after Jesse De Leon suddenly forgot that she had to serve the ball in one play.
>> After losing their first four none-UE matches, the Lady Tams then had to face the wax hot Lady Maroons, who had just come off that monumental UST win, at the MoA Arena. If FEU had lost one of their remaining matches, they would have been officially out of contention for the Final Four. FEU managed win their first round match against the Lady Maroons but that was when Nicole Tiamzon played, days after being hit by a motorcycle. Even Senator Pia Cayetano was hyped for this UP team. But the Lady Tams dominated UP in four sets. For the first time this season, we witnessed how devastating the Casugod-Palma middle rotation can be, while their setter, Yna Papa, finally woke up from her season long coma, has shown us the Yna Papa that won the Shakey’s V-League Best Setter plume.
>> After that match, FEU squared off with the Lady Falcons who swept them in three sets in the first round. Only FEU had Adamson perfectly scouted, as they shut down all of Adamson’s best scoring options. Coach Shaq had finally found the perfect starting six after throwing countless players on the court, hoping they would stick. FEU finished the elims with a 6-8 record.
>> FEU then had to face the UST Tigresses, who prevailed in their elimination round matchups. FEU was the team that initially lit the fire for the Tigresses to burn off four straight wins, reinvigorating the UST season. But FEU peaked at the right time and UST showed their cracks in their final three elimination round matches. FEU fought off a late UST comeback that earned them their first Final Four appearance since Season 74. The loss, promptly ended the Coach Mamon Era of the Tigresses.
Talk about going through the ringer. I hope Coach Kid’s heart is still intact.
Which brings us to tomorrow’s NU-FEU tilt. The winner, goes on to face the twice-to-beat Lady Spikers while the loser gets a free pass to ignore the media after the game. Let’s break this matchup down.
The Family Curse
Ever since a Santiago suited up for the Lady Bulldogs, they have made the Final Four twofold, once with a twice-to-beat advantage. NU is 0-3 in those appearances even when they were heavily favored last season to make the Finals.
The older of the Santiago sisters, Dindin, did all she could for the Lady Bulldogs as she realized her potential as one of the country’s top attackers. Unfortunately, she still couldn’t lead the Lady Bulldogs to a Final Four win. NU campaigned relentlessly to get the Santiago sisters to leave UST and play for the Lady Bulldogs, so far, that effort hasn’t paid off for NU.
Jaja is aware of this and there’s going to be so much pressure on her to end the streak that will somehow vindicate her and her sister, tomorrow . It’s also going to be an important first step for the young 6’4 sophomore. Jaja has shown flashes of dominance but the ball has grown heavier and the net seems a little bit higher under the intense Final Four lights.
Jaja had a forgettable game last season when they were eliminated by the eventual champs, Ateneo. She can’t afford to be forgettable tomorrow.
On a side note, Dindin Santiago does share the “NU Superstar Curse” with her Men’s Basketball counterpart, Bobby Ray Parks Jr. The similarities are uncanny.
>> Both were highly touted recruits that were supposed to go to a different school before back-pedaling and heading for NU.
>> They were NU’s first generation of super-recruits for the UAAP’s revenue sports and made NU a legitimate threat to bag almost any sport’s top prospects.
>> They were both decorated with individual awards, won multiple non-UAAP tournaments, but never won a UAAP title.
>> They both made the Final Four twice. In their first appearances they were bounced by veteran teams who were at the peak of their team’s powers (For Ray Parks, the Season 75 UST Tigers. For Dindin, the Season 75 DLSU Lady Spikers). In their second Final Four trips, they both had the twice-to-beat advantage. Both of their teams were manhandled in two games by the season’s dark horse contenders (For Ray Parks the Season 76 UST Tigers and Kevin Ferrer’s tongue. For Dindin, the Season 76 Ateneo Lady Eagles and Alyfinity)
The only difference is the Bulldogs did a John Mayer and moved on quickly from Ray Parks’ departure, winning a UAAP title this season. Can the Lady Bulldogs do the same?
For some reason, the internet loves picking on NU Team captain, Desiree Dadang. I think she deserves more attention for her contributions on the court for NU. She might not be one of the top options for NU nor do her numbers pop off the stats sheet, but she has really held her own as Jaja’s rotation companion for that middle blocker position. She’s a sneaky and agile athlete, able to read the opponent’s set and move in front of the spiker the opposing offense chooses. She’ll also give you a block kill, an ace, and two or three points off nifty quick or running attacks. She has become more than a decent rotation player for her team. Their last two opponents, Adamson and UP, looked to exploit her seemingly weaker skill set, only to be burned by her veteran savvy.
She’ll be integral against FEU whose Casugod-Palma middle blocker rotation have axed the Lady Tams’ last two foes. Dadang is undeniably short for her position as well, which could make her barbecued chicken for Geneveve Casugod. She has to work doubly hard to manage FEU’s attacks when Jaja rotates out of the court tomorrow.
The NU Setter Conundrum
NU Coach Roger Gorayeb has openly spoken to the media about his frustration with both the setters he has on his team, stating that their tenure with the team is severely disproportionate with their skills. In fact, he has confessed to Tiebreaker Times that recruiting a setter is at the top of his to-do-list this offseason. Any long time volleyball fan knows that Gorayeb is especially hard on his setters.
But for the mean time, NU has to settle with the two they have now. To her credit, Asi Soliven has improved leaps and bounds from where she started off this season. Coach Gorayeb’s mandate is to give the ball to Jaja anytime they can and set it high. Soliven has followed those instructions well but Jaja can only score so many points. Their offense goes stale often when defenses get a read on Jaja’s attacks. The knee jerk reaction to these dry spells is to sub in former starting setter, Ivy Perez, but that barely ever works as Ivy seems to now have the confidence of a porcupine.
The setting situation is definitely a concern for Coach Roger as he really has to go all in on a pair of setters he trusts just about as much as we trust our government officials. With FEU’s setter, Yna Papa, getting her mojo back, this position is a definite advantage for the Lady Tams.
The 5’9 and Below Club
Above all else, I think is really going to come down as to whose open hitters can compliment their middle blockers better. The Santiago-Dadang combination (this sound like an awesome law firm) can cancel out whatever the Casugod-Palma tandem can dish out. It’s in both teams outside hitters that this game will hinge on as FEU’s Bernadette Pons and Heather Guino-O have been playing lights-out volleyball since their UP game while NU’s Jorelle Singh and Myla Pablo have been sneakily brilliant all season.
But NU has zero offensive options from the bench as their prized rookie, Roma Doromal has been visibly overwhelmed in her first season; she’s just not ready yet. While every other NU spiker on the bench has played zero significant minutes in any of the games they’ve won.
FEU on the other hand has benefited from their early season rotation shuffles as they have rookies Jerrili Malabanan and Toni Rose Basas to plug into game if ever their starting six goes stale. Though their vetetan utility spiker, Charm “Banatan mo Pons!” Simborio has been out all season due to a shoulder injury, she still plays spot minutes for FEU as an emergency taller setter for crucial, end-of-set points.
NU barely has any bench to fall back on while FEU can throw a lot of lineups at the Lady Bulldogs for whatever scenario. The Lady Bulldogs may have had the better elimination round record, but this FEU team is on fire and have taken down a murderer’s row of opponents to get to them. Both these team’s cancel each others strengths out well, it’s really going to come down to who lets go of each point first.