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UAAP Season 77 Women’s Volleyball Primer: the Contenders

[nextpage title = “The Contenders”]

With the UAAP Women’s Volleyball Season right around the corner, TBT’s resident volleyball junkie weeds through the each team’s roster and tries his damn hardest to be as objective in categorizing each team in a series of articles. This time around he takes a closer look at the middle of the pack- the teams that, if everything goes right, could sneak up on the favorites and take the title. 

Right this time last year, there were a lot of questions about Ateneo’s chances at duplicating the run they just had. After years of rebuilding, it seems that the program finally peaked with the legendary Fab Five and Coach Gorayeb barging their way into the Finals of Season 75 and pulling all the tricks they could before falling to the mighty Lady Spikers.

No one had a clear idea of how quickly Ateneo could cope with transition out of the Fab Five and Coach Gorayeb era. Even volleyball luminary, Alyssa Valdez said that the team’s goal was just to reach the Final Four. Fast forward to March, and Ateneo’s team of heart strong former bench warmers, blue chip rookies, and their effervescent coach pulled a huge upset over the thrice-to-beat defending champs and almost broke the internet.

The thing is, it was perfectly reasonable for a team like Ateneo, who experienced so much upheaval over the offseason, to go through an adjustment period for a season to assimilate all the new pieces they had. That Ateneo team was special, an anomaly almost (more on this in the next article). It would also be perfectly reasonable for the following teams who are transitioning into a new era of sorts for their programs to tail-off this season. But, as Ateneo showed last season, sports is anything but reasonable.

[/nextpage] [nextpage title = “Lady Falcons”]

Projected 6th seed: Adamson Lady Falcons
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Best case scenario: (8-6) The Lady Falcons hardly miss a beat even after losing three key rotation players. Fhen Emnas fills the role of Mae Macatuno seamlessly and gets the Adamson offense churning at levels higher than in the past few seasons. Amanda Villanueva becomes a consistent scoring machine while showing immense improvement in her reception. Adamson’s suddenly deep rotation of middle blockers overpowers opposing frontlines. AdU makes the Final Four and all is well in San Marcelino.

Worst case scenario: (4-10) Adamson’s key pieces fail to promptly adjust to the loss of major pieces. Their suddenly deep middle blocker rotation becomes a problem when Coach Meneses just can’t decide who to play. The team still can’t find anyone from the remaining roster to score for them consistently. AdU misses the Final Four for the first time in a long while.

Those who have watched UAAP Volleyball over the past few years probably have a pretty good idea that it’s never a clever notion to count the Lady Falcons out. Since the days of the great Mommy Dulce, Adamson has had a tradition of making up for their general lack in height and offensive power with nearly impervious floor defense. But since the program peaked in the “Pau! Bang!” era, the rest of the league has gotten a lot deeper while Adamson hasn’t really added that many impact players.

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Bang Pineda was arguably the best all-around player last season

Losing three of the most recognizable Adamsonians from the rotation will be tough to deal with for a team that has always had trouble finding consistent scoring options outside of its stars. Last year’s team heavily relied on Bang Pineda, who was arguably the best all-around player in the league last season, to produce offense that when she rotated to the back row, the Lady Falcons struggled to string a run together (this was most evident in their second round loss to Ateneo wherein AdU held a 13-10 lead in the third set only to be held scoreless for the rest of the match). Pineda was also a freakishly good digger and receiver, that the team never really worried about where she was on the rotation because she was never a liability. Mayette Zapanta was a streaky scorer who could rip off 17 points in one game and go scoreless the next, but her funky spiking always drew a few blockers her way which helped her other teammates get off. Mae Macatuno was an institution for AdU at the setter position; though her height hampered her effectiveness her whole career, she orchestrated the Adamson offense to a tee, even mastering one of the best dump plays in the league.

But it seems AdU has always been prepared for this transition. Two seasons ago they fielded Amanda Villanueva, a transferee from La Salle who was pegged as the team’s next best scorer in the likes of Pineda and Angela Benting. This being Villanueva’s last season, she now really has to work out her inconsistencies on reception and on-and-off spiking as there are barely any other options left on offense for the Lady Falcons. The team has always been rearing Fhen Emnas into filling Macatuno’s role upon her graduation. Emnas has shown steady performances in her appearances in the team’s off-season events but it remains to be seen whether she can deliver over the stretch of a grueling UAAP schedule. AdU still has the services of reliable graduating players in Len Cortel and Faye Guevarra, two levelheaded veterans who have delivered for the Lady Falcons in clutch moments in the past seasons. Underrated Libero, Jellie Templatura will also be returning to patrol the back row. She already showed ninja levels of agility in her rookie season; look for her to continue silently anchoring the team’s vaunted floor defense.

But the thing to watch for this season is Adamson’s suddenly deep middle blocker rotation with four viable options in Guevarra, Mylene Paat, Erika Alkuino, and rookie Joy Dacoron. Paat showed immense potential last season as Adamson’s next great player. She was great with her lateral movement- she just needs to work on her offensive arsenal. Many Adamsonians know Joy Dacoron for her vibrant dancing over the past few Pep rallies. Dacoron has been frolicking around the campus for the past two years but was never fielded due to reasons outside of volleyball. Dacoron is a huge lady. Just having her in front of the net jumping up and down in front of opposing spikers should make a noticeable difference for Adamson. Coach Meneses is going to have to make tough decisions as to which tall lady to field in the rotation.

Adamson, among all remaining contenders this season, is the team that will have to deal with the most personnel adjustments, hence their ranking. But the Adamson Women’s Volleyball program has always been one of the hardest working ones in the UAAP, so it really shouldn’t surprise anyone if they find themselves in the Final Four, again.

[/nextpage] [nextpage title = “Golden Tigresses”]

Projected 5th seed: UST Golden Tigresses

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Photo by Richard Esguerra

Best case scenario: (8-6) The Tigresses muster a performance reminiscent of UST teams of old. Lastimosa, Tunay, and De Leon put up career numbers while EJ Laure breaks through and earns RoY honors. Alexine Cabanos finally fills UST’s setter void and leads a nearly unstoppable UST offense. They contend for a twice-to-beat advantage all season but only make it as one of the lower seeds. They threaten one of the top seeds, managing to take a game against one of them, but are eventually eliminated. Waiting for another Laure next season to complete their championship formula.

Worst case scenario: (6-8) UST outclasses some of the lesser talented and vertically challenged teams but struggle against fellow contenders in close games. We find out that Cabanos still isn’t the setter UST needs to drive their offense, prompting them to go through the same dance they did of shuffling setters seemingly every game. UST misses the Final Four and talks of Coach Mamon’s firing become louder and more widespread as the season progresses.

UST is one more Laure away from becoming title favorites. I watched the UAAP Junior’s Best Setter this past Girl’s Volleyball tournament in the first semester and kept thinking to myself that this is exactly what UST needs now. The younger Laure is a setter in the mold of Kim Fajardo, a fellow UST alumnus, with her length and impeccable play making. But for now, I guess UST has to be content with acquiring EJ Laure, which in no way should be considered a consolation prize of any sort.

EJ Laure herself has the potential to be a transcendent scorer, already making waves in her appearance as a guest player for UST in the V-League. She’s not as long as Aly Valdez, but she’s every bit as athletic. She’s the odds on favorite for RoY but I still expect her to feel her way around in her first season, taking into account the other veteran scoring options UST has in tow.

Last season was a considerably dry season for the Tigresses mostly because they couldn’t seem to find a steady rhythm in any of their games, almost losing to struggling teams in games they should’ve won handily. Their only consistent contributor was Pam Lastimosa who notched career highs in scoring and efficiency last season. Look for Pam to continue her steady contribution to the UST cause this season. Jessie De Leon was a steady presence in the middle last season but there was a clear drop off between her and fellow middle blocker, Ria Menesses who dropped impressive numbers in her rookie season and has drawn early comparisons to the legendary middle blocker Thomasina, Ging Balse. But, watching her play, De Leon clearly still has another gear she can go to and UST will need all the help they can get from her if they want to contend for a title.

UST will also still have the services of now veteran Mela Tunay who seemed to turn her engine on and off last season. Hopefully, Tunay can get over whatever was distracting her and find ample motivation to carry her share of the load for her team each game. One of these vets needs to step up and become more of a vocal leader, an asset UST has lacked since the graduation of Maru Banaticla. She doesn’t need to be as vocal as DLSU’s Aby Marano but they need someone to hold their teammates accountable.

But what clearly cost UST last season was their aforementioned lack of elite setting. UST had plenty of viable offensive options but it seemed that Loren Lantin couldn’t consistently set the table for her teammates. Any successful volleyball team hinges on the competence of its setter, seeing that she will be in charge getting the ball under control, gently floating it to the spiker who can drive the ball to the opponents side of the floor. Lantin probably drew most of Coach Mamon’s ire in their huddles last season. Lex Cabanos had her moments too but that was her essentially working part-time because she just came off the bench. Truly, UST’s Final Four hopes hinge on her or one of the new setters Coach Mamon brings in to facilitate their potentially lethal offense.

This iteration of UST definitely has a high ceiling in terms of what this team could potentially do if everything goes right. Heck, I burned through a few paragraphs without even mentioning the breakout star of the semester, Cherry Rondina, who could be the second coming of Sheila Pineda based on just watching her on the sand court. But that hole they have at the setter position is the hump that would potentially keep them from making it back to the Final Four after an extended period of absence that the UST community is not used to. But I can promise you that this will not be the case if or when they get the younger Laure.

[/nextpage] [nextpage title = “Lady Bulldogs”]

Projected 4th seed: NU Lady Bulldogs
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Best case scenario: (10-4) NU doesn’t miss a beat even after the graduation of Dindin Santiago. Ivy Perez finally figures it out and makes a run at the Best Setter award. Jaja leads the league in blocks and is also one of the league’s top four scorers as no blocker could impede her quick attacks. NU gets immediate contributions from their rookies and they proceed to sweep all teams not named La Salle or Ateneo. They reach the Final Four as the third seed and battle the second seed to a stand still before bowing out in a tightly contested game. But hope springs eternal for NU as Jaja Santiago continues to grow and eventually reaches 7’0″.

Worst case scenario: (7-7) NU struggles to fill in the gaps left by Dindin, Mina Aganon, and Aiko Urdas, most noticeably against the UAAP’s top teams. Jaja struggles as opponents key in on her as her teammates just can’t seem to find their offensive groove. Ivy Perez continues to falter in big games and NU stumbles out of Final Four contention at the last few games.

Watching the revitalization of the NU Sports Programs has been a refreshing sight especially for writers like me who’ve yearned for a more balanced league. The savior for the Lady Bulldogs was Dindin Santiago, who basically carried this team along with all the pressure of expectations from supporters of the team. With her gone, the pressure almost automatically got plopped on her younger sister Jaja to pick up where she left off. We all witnessed the tough transition Dindin went through for dealing with the scrutiny of how she presented herself during games (specifically for her boisterous displays of confidence after scoring points). Jaja definitely has the talent and physical gifts to carry this team to another level but it will be interesting to watch how she will react to the spotlight being put squarely on her shoulders this season. Desiree Dadang might be this team’s captain, but the Lady Bulldogs will only go as far as Jaja can take them.

NU will also be fielding three promising first year players in Roma Doromal, Jorelle Singh, and Marites Pablo. Doromal, an MVP in the secondary ranks in Visayas and also a top performer in the Palarong Pambansa during her time, is expected to make a splash this season. By all accounts, Doromal is a fearsome scorer with a wide array of offensive capabilities. Many say that she’s an upgrade compared to Aiko Urdas, who, in her respect, was a solid player for NU. Jorelle Singh was supposed to suit up for NU last season but sat the year out for reasons outside of volleyball. A lot was expected of Singh last season as a steady offensive contributor who will not have problems when rotating to the back row. Even though she visibly gained a bit of weight, she should be good out of the bat after getting a feel for the team since last season. Marites Pablo played the middle blocker position for the NU Girl’s team despite just being 5’7’ and was named the Best Server in her final season. The younger Pablo is highly athletic as she’s used to going toe-to-toe with taller middle players and she can get her share of blocks for this team.

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Still, this team has to get contributions from talented returning players in Myla Pablo and Ivy Perez. Myla is one of those players worn down by the constant criticism of fans for her brash behavior during games. There is a noticeable difference now in the way she plays from two seasons ago. I feel NU needs the brash and confident, finger-gun-shooting Myla I used to love watching play.

Ivy Perez is a rare breed- a skilled setter gifted with height. Last season, there was a visible tentativeness in her play, especially in big games. I guess I’ve already mentioned the importance of setting in generating offense, but Ivy Perez’ effectiveness in blocking makes her arguably this team’s second most important player.

This NU team definitely has the elements to establish an incredible winning tradition, in line with their other sports programs. Though we can consider this year as a transition year for them with the pieces they lost, their constant influx of viable talent to bolster their team will keep them in the mix for a title. In terms of overall talent and experience, NU definitely has an edge over AdU and is slightly ahead of the curb compared to UST, which is why I’m picking them as one of my Final Four teams. They’re just going to be too tall and too powerful for the lower tiered teams, and if they find the right mix of personnel and peak at the exact right time they need to, I can even see them breaking into the Finals.

[/nextpage] [nextpage title = “Lady Tamaraws”]

Projected 3rd seed: FEU Lady Tamaraws
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Best case scenario: (10-4) FEU realizes their peak potential. Gyzelle Sy grabs the Best Setter award with incredible performances throughout the season. Remy Palma remains healthy, and along with Genevieve Casugod, headlines the best middle blocker rotation in the league. Bernadette Pons leads the team in scoring and is behind only Alyssa Valdez in the league. Charm Simborio carries over her breakthrough performance in the Beach Volleyball tournament as the league’s best hype man/lady. FEU grabs the third seed in the Final Four and narrowly edges the no. 2 seed to reach their first finals since the Daquis era.

Worst case scenario: (7-7) The Lady Tams still can’t seem to find their groove on the floor and fail to develop the chemistry needed to pull through in clutch situations. Gyzelle Sy has a weak season by her standards and she is completely supplanted by Sandra Papa in terms of playing time. Remy Palma continues to get nagged by her knee injuries and sits out a majority of the season (knock on wood). Genevieve Casugod still doesn’t play up to her physical gifts and gets knocked around by the elite net patrollers of the UAAP. Bernadette Pons gets constantly checked by opposing teams because of the suddenly predictable FEU offense. Charm Simborio gets fewer chances to display her brilliance as a hype lady, which is sad because it would’ve made for amazing TV. NU and UST bump FEU out of the Final Four and Vice Ganda has to be taken to the hospital again.

FEU has the most storied Volleyball program in the country. If you trace the roots and mentors of some of the better-known coaches and volleyball minds of this generation, you’ll probably find that they were once affiliated with FEU. So if there’s a school any talented volleyball player has to consider going to just to solely work on their game, FEU should always be on that list.

This season will mark a resurgence in the program after missing the Final Four for the past two seasons. After the unexpected departure of multiple players last season, FEU still managed to play themselves into the playoff picture. Had Remy Palma not injured her knee, they might not have lost that crucial game against UP and they might have been the ones who played the eventual champs in the first round of the playoffs.
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With most of that team returning, the Tamaraws are primed for a charge at the Final Four this season. Leading the cause for the Tams is Bernadette Pons. Looking ripped during the Beach Volleyball circuit, expect Pons to take her game up a notch and continue to terrorize opponents with her high-flying forays at the net. Fellow sophomore, Genevieve Casugod is my dark horse for Best Blocker this season. She has the height, leaping ability and lateral quickness to devastate attackers and generate block points for her team. If ever this happens, I’ll be forever referring to her as Genevieve Casu-GOD, god of the net, keeper of the blocks. The burly Remy Palma will also be returning to shore up the frontline rotation for the Lady Tams. She showed great improvements in her mobility last season before injuring her knee. Expect Palma to pick up where she left off last season and continue to unleash her devastating running attacks.

FEU also recruited the sister of Toni Rose Basas, younger sister of Mari Toni Basas. By all accounts, the younger Basas is a more athletic scorer than her older sibling and should contribute immediately given the chance to play. The aforementioned Charm Simborio was tremendous in her run at the Beach Volleyball tourney. Not only did she display improvement in her all-around game, she also grabbed the hearts of many with her display of appreciation for every point and good play her teammates made. There were a few plays that I legitimately thought she was going to eat Pons alive.

Really, I was torn between which team to place in the third slot as NU and FEU are going to be closely matched this season. I placed FEU ahead of NU because they do not have to depend on multiple rookies to make immediate contributions for them. FEU is a veteran team coached by a proven winner in Shaq De Los Santos. While it is an uncertainty whether Gyzelle will play for the Tams this season as FEU hasn’t released their official lineup as of press time, they still have Ingrid Papa as a solid replacement. FEU also has a history of bringing in surprise immediate impact recruits so this team is fixing to be this season’s most likely dark horse contender for the title.


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Written By

Miguel Luis Flores fell face first into sports writing in high sch9l and has never gotten up. He reluctantly stumbled into the volleyball beat when he started with Tiebreaker Times three years ago. Now, he has waded through everything volleyball - from its icky politics to the post-modern art that is Jia Morado's setting.

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