Purely based on where we are right now, this has to be one of the most predictable Women’s Volleyball tournaments in recent memory. We had an Ateneo rampage through the elimination round, and they had everyone returning from their championship roster while adding blue chip rookies that only made them a force to be reckoned with.
La Salle, as always, has been a really solid team. Cosmetically, they’re still the same forest of long arms that plays with such intensity and always comes prepared. But it was clear that they still lack something through their elimination round matchups against Ateneo. Apparently, the hole Aby Marano left was a bit deeper than what people initially perceived.
The Lady Bulldogs’ best shot at a title was with their stacked team last season. They have lost three members of that starting six due to graduation and injuries, but they still managed to carve out a Final Four run with the leftovers of last year’s squad. Jaja Santiago has been magnificent all season in leading her team, while the acquisition of volleyball life, Coach Roger Gorayeb, only made this program more formidable.
Many would say that this preview is pointless since a La Salle-Ateneo Finals is imminent and I’m wasting my time writing this piece. But a lot of pundits said the same thing about last season; that it was a clear La Salle-NU tilt for the title. We all know how that turned out. As Coach Roger said after Saturday’s win over FEU, “Libre lang mangarap”.
And hope we shall, Coach Roger. How much of a shot does this NU team have against the Lady Spikers? Let’s sink our teeth deeper into this matchup.
My Old Friend Ramil. We meet again.
Hands down, the most followed team ever was Ateneo’s Fab Five – Ho, Ferrer, Cainglet, Dzi, Nacachi – feat. Valdez. With all the charismatic members of that group, some would say that team was responsible for ushering in the era of fanaticism we have for volleyball today. They had a huge fanbase, that there’s a story of Ateneo bringing decoy people and buses just to get the players out of the venue after games.
The Fab Five era Lady Eagles peaked in Season 75 as they made the Finals but lost to the Lady Spikers. Admittedly, Coach Roger always considered La Salle to be that one road block he just couldn’t overcome. And just when he recruited players that he thought could take him over the top, Ateneo decided to go a different direction and hired Coach Bundit.
Now, Coach Roger is in the same place he was in with that Fab Five team. He has a budding superstar in Jaja Santiago mixed with a less than complimentary supporting cast. He again has to find some way to get this team over the hill that is La Salle.
In his postgame interview after the FEU win, Gorayeb lamented on the daunting task ahead of him. “Isipin mo, wala pang dalawang buwan since pumunta ako sa NU. Marami pa kaming kailangang iadjust. Hindi pa namin nagagawa ‘yung 100 percent ng sistema ko. Pero masaya ako kasi unti-unti na nila nakukuha ‘yung sistema…Malakas pa rin talaga ‘yung La Salle. ‘Di naman sila nagbago since nagcoach ako sa Ateneo. Ganoon pa rin katibay ‘yung laro nila. Ako wala pa ngang dalawang buwan sa NU. Iba talaga ito [time with NU] kumapara noong simula ko sa Ateneo. Mahirap talaga. We’ll see.”
Coach Roger has gone on and on about his “system” and how he hasn’t acclimated his team to it yet. This system is just Coach Roger’s vaunted defensive pattern that the Lady Eagles still use today. He uses his blockers as a funnel, blocking off vulnerable areas and siphoning off any other hits to their best diggers.
In theory, this already sounds like what a lot of volleyball teams do. But Coach Roger’s system demands that every player be in specific spots on the floor based on the rotation. Apparently, the verbiage and positioning Coach Roger utilizes is completely alien to the Lady Bulldogs as former Coach, Dong Dela Cruz had a totally different scheme.
The Lady Bulldogs are an astounding 6-3 since Coach Roger took over, a success considering how much of a work-in-progress the player-coach dynamic has been in Sampaloc. Still, he is yet to win a Final Four match against the Lady Spikers and his volleyball soulmate, Coach Ramil De Jesus. Once again, Gorayeb has his team overachieving. These Lady Bulldogs are taller and more athletic than the Fab Five Lady Eagles. But, skills-wise, Gorayeb had that team working hard in floor and net defense despite the lack of height. He also had three-time best setter, Jem Ferrer on that team, easing a lot of headaches.
Gorayeb knows that he shall need some of the pieces and tactics he had during his years with Ateneo if he hopes to topple the Lady Spikers. Make no doubt about it, Gorayeb is still the underdog going into this La Salle grudge match and he is surely used to it. Can his Lady Bulldogs do what the Lady Eagles couldn’t do for Coach Roger before?
Perhaps no other team in the league prepares and scouts opponents like DLSU. Coach Ramil is a volleyball genius with an obsessive eye for detail. This season, we’ve watched La Salle grind down and frustrate opposing offenses just by anticipating and reacting to their tendencies. In addition, their superior length will always be a boon to opposing offenses.
Also, their relentless floor defense is often overlooked when people open up about their dominance over the past years. All of Coach Ramil’s players are versatile enough to play any position on the court. If you’re not an all-around player, Coach Ramil won’t even field you.
Based on data gathered by Tiebreaker Times, La Salle held every team’s best scorer below their usual norms with the exception of Ateneo’s Alyssa Valdez and NU’s Jaja Santiago.
Setting the aforementioned exceptions aside, La Salle limited all of their opponents best scorers below their average spiking efficiency. This just shows that La Salle is still the best defensive team in the league, ranking first in blocking and third in floor defense metrics.
In a nutshell, La Salle crushes teams by out-working and out-smarting their opponents. NU definitely has the firepower to spare, but they’re going to need every bit of it in the hope of getting past La Salle. Ball distribution will be also be a key factor in this matchup. Though Jaja is basically unstoppable when she gets a good set, she can’t score every point for NU. Myla Pablo, Jorelle Singh and Rizza Mandapat need to have the same level of production they churned out in their previous match against FEU.
As Jaja mentioned in an interview with Tiebreaker Times, they need to be mentally tough in order to handle the Lady Spikers. This NU team has a tendency to lose confidence if things don’t go their way early in sets. The Lady Bulldogs have won only 20 percent of sets where they were down heading into the second technical timeout. La Salle’s going to force them into corners darker than what they’ve seen all season. It’s up to NU to whether or not adjust on the fly and to fight back.
Keep an eye on NU’s setters as well, for they will be the key to boosting the offensive pace that NU needs to squash La Salle’s defense. Usually, other opposing teams like Ateneo gave La Salle some troubles since they have a pro-level scorer in Alyssa Valdez and their setter, Jia Morado. Digging deeper, a topnotch setter like Morado knows exactly when to feed Valdez but she also knows when to use her as a decoy to get her teammates easier scoring opportunities. It’s Morado’s frantic, The Fast and The Furious gear shifting that breaks down La Salle’s defensive dam.
NU needs that type of offensive dynamic for them to beat La Salle tomorrow. Although it will always be a struggle for any team to win a set easily over La Salle, let alone two games. NU definitely has the blueprint to overcome La Salle: Ateneo’s Cinderella run last season. Though that type of greatness may be hard to duplicate, as Coach Roger said, “Libre lang mangarap.”