Another year, another sweep, and another stepladder to climb. Though this type of format seems too tedious to follow, it does offer us volleyball fans the glorious action of do-or-die games: one match per day, loser goes home, winner continues the exhausting climb up the stepladder gauntlet. Get ready for tears, screams, and the best volleyball action this country has to offer, but remember, from this point on, only one team will end their season as winners.
Today, we take a look at the first matchup of the stepladder- a grudge match that may be unknown to most volleyball fans who picked up the sport within the past few years, UST vs FEU. These are two of the most storied Women’s Volleyball programs in the UAAP, as they have between them 43 Women’s Volleyball titles since the inception of the league. These two really haven’t had a chance to rekindle the storied past rivalry of their schools, since both have struggled to make it to the Final Four in the past few years. UST hasn’t sniffed the postseason since Legendary Tigress and former MVP Aiza Maizo last suited up for them, while FEU last made the Final Four in the best season of former Best Scorer Rose Marie Vargas.
It has been a turbulent rebuilding effort for both teams, but now they’ve mustered the right mix of veterans and young talent to finally break out of mediocrity. There is, however, only one spot left for either one of these teams to be vindicated, so who has the advantage? Who wants this win more? Let’s breakdown each team.
All about them bigs
A lot of people started writing off the Lady Tams as they stumbled into the second round of eliminations, but due to a series of favorable events, FEU found their elusive starting six right in their last two games, as their clutch wins over UP and AdU landed them right where they are now.
A huge part of their run was the sudden impressive play of their two middle blockers, Remy Palma and Geneveve Casugod. The pair was struggling to make significant contributions to the team, but has now caught fire. Both have scored over double digits in the past two games with more than two blocks each.
Coach Shaq was shuffling the pair with first-year player Jerrili Malabanan in the rotation, but it seems this pair has stuck. Both possess imposing height and length that destroyed their opponents in the past two games, but their most devastating weapon- especially for Palma- is the running attack. FEU has mastered setting this play up for their middle blockers, and Casugod may have finally developed the instinct to pull this deadly maneuver off.
Because of these two, FEU always has an imposing blocker at the net no matter what rotation – the Lady Tams ended the elimination round as the second best blocking team – which is going to be a problem for the Thomasians to match up against. UST does have an imposing blocker themselves in sophomore Ria Meneses, the top-five blocker in the league. They do struggle however when their other blocker, Jesse De Leon, probes the net. This is because De Leon is undersized for the position and is sometimes an underwhelming blocker when put up against the best middle players of the league. Coach Odjie has even taken De Leon out for beefier and less-used Shanen Palec just to see if she can offer more blocking. Should one of FEU’s bigs not perform up to par, Coach Shaq will have the confidence to field Malabanan instead- a confidence developed in their mad lineup scrambles early in the season. This type of flexibility in the position is something UST is lacking.
If FEU is going to win this match, they are going to need their big ladies to stay on this hot streak. It will be interesting to see if UST can make the adjustments to stop FEU’s big ladies.
The Puto Queen
There are only two Liberos in the UAAP right now who are so damn entertaining to watch just for their knack for keeping the ball alive – Ateneo’s Denden Lazaro and FEU’s Tine Agno. I would definitely trust Agno with my hypothetical baby knowing that she’ll never allow it to drop to the floor. To the keen volleyball observer, it is no secret that Agno really fuels this team with her steady back row play. Her impeccable digging and reception make it so much easier for her setter to setup the offense, especially those running attacks and combination plays.
Nonetheless, the problem is everyone else on the team can get sporadic at times with their reception. Watch an FEU game, and you’ll often see Agno dive in front of her teammate that the opposing servers are targeting. This can be a problem especially if the match drags on into extra sets as Agno might get worn down with all the rolling around the floor she does.
The key here for UST is to load up their serves and make it difficult for FEU to receive. They really won’t need aces because bad receptions already disrupt FEU’s complex offense. Make Agno a virtual mop with all her technique and UST should get their fair share of free balls which they can easily convert with their explosive spiking – which is the fourth best in the league.
FEU also has great serving as they finished the elims ranked third in the category. But UST’s offense doesn’t need the best receptions and digs to get cooking. Their open spikers, EJ Laure and Pam Lastimosa, just need to get the ball high enough in order to notch a point for their team.
All the pressure on reception is on the Lady Tams. They boast about the complex FEU offense that has won their team championships in generations past, but they still need to pass the ball just right to their setters to get the wheels turning on their offensive locomotive.
Minsan Mela, Minsan Wala
Perhaps no one on this UST team has had an up-and-down season more than the graduating utility spiker, Carmela Tunay. You’ll hear it on TV broadcasts as the go-to adjective for Tunay, and justifiably so. On her best days, Tunay truly is one of the best all-around players in the league with her amazing mix of offensive spikes and mellow volleyball skills. The thing is, she is inconsistent.
This season, Tunay had a first round to forget, barely scratching double digits in their first five games before busting out late in a five-set loss against the Lady Bulldogs. She was even taken out of the starting six for Chloe Cortez.
This UST team has so many weapons in its arsenal with EJ Laure and Pam Lastimosa- also a graduating player- capable of blasting through opposing defenses. But the Tigresses are so much better when Tunay gets her numbers as well. Coach Mamon even went as far as experimenting with Lastimosa at the utility position just to see if they have that option should either Mela or Cortez have an off game.
The next UST games could possibly be her last in the UAAP. How Tunay reacts to this type of pressure is going to be the best test of who the real Tunay is. Will we get the aloof Mela of this season’s first round, or will we get the Tunay that was ranked fifth in last season’s MVP tally?