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UAAP Season 78 Women’s Volleyball: Starter Pack

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[nextpage title = “Opener”]

Since last year, there hasn’t been a month wherein there wasn’t a morsel of local volleyball. From pro leagues to beach volleyball circuits, voracious volley fans always had something to sink their teeth into.

But there really is nothing like UAAP Volleyball.

We’ve yearned for it so much that its mere schedule updates trend on Social Media almost everyday.

Luckily, the prestigious volleyball wars are right around the corner and, as always, we’re here to satiate your preview fix for the Women’s tournament.

Who are the contenders? Are we up for another all-blue affair?

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[nextpage title = “University of the East”]

ADMUvsUE Round 2-3415
University of the East Lady Warriors

Best Case Scenario – UE finally wins a match after two season of miserable 0-14 finishes. Shaya Adorador elevates her game enough to get National Team attention, and girls like Angelica Dacaymat and Roselle Baliton get us buzzing with their potential.

Worst Case Scenario – They finish 0-14 again with just as many problems after the tournament as they had going into it. Coach Francis Vicente again gets caught on camera texting in the middle of a match.

Why should we optimistic? – The Lady Warriors are young, tall, and fed up. Before choosing to go to UE, many of these girls had barely lost a match in high school and their naivety should serve them rather than hurt them.

Francis Vicente is an brilliant coach who has steered teams at different levels to different championships. Vicente has a keen eye for potential, having built up volleyball stars Alyssa Valdez, Rhea Dimaculangan, and the Santiago sisters to name a few. Heading into Year Two with UE, Vicente has already brought up a crop of promising rookies, so a win shouldn’t be too far off.

Why should we worried about them? – There has to be something wrong with a team that, rather than shooting for a Final Four appearance, just wants to win a match. Vicente knows the gravity of his situation and is aware that his team might not be ready this season – it’s all about getting them experience.

“Bata pa talaga ‘yung team ko. Hindi naman madaling dalhin ang team na walang panalo to all of a sudden malakas agad. Proseso yan,” Vicente told Tiebreaker Times.

This season, UE will again be the heavy underdogs against all the other seven teams. But even just a win could do wonders for this floundering program.

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[nextpage title = “Adamson University”]

UAAP-UE-ADU-Rd1-8
Adamson University Lady Falcons

Best case scenario – The Lady Falcons work some of that Mommy Dulce defensive magic and lead the league in both digging and receiving while maintaining top 4 attacking percentage. Mylene Paat realizes her Aiza Maizo-clone potential and shows impeccable all-around improvement, while the slimmed-down Gemma Galanza shows flashes of peak Angela Benting. They make the Final Four with a 7-7 record and Adamsonians riot around the Falcons bridge when they show matches on the monitors around CS.

Worst Case scenario – Like last season, AdU’s attack becomes predictable and teams figure out how to defend them easily. Despite a still-stellar defense, Adamson fails to force enough side outs and fall in close matchups. They miss the Final Four at 4-10 and Adamsonians despise Estero de Balete even more.

Why should we be optimistic? – Forget what other fans may lead you to believe, the Lady Falcons aren’t as depleted as they seem even after losing three key seniors in Amanda Villanueva, Faye Guevara, and Len Cortel.

The towering middle blocker Mary Joy Dacoron will be making her debut in the starting six, along with sophomore open hitter May Rojas. Both were projects last season and barely played significant minutes. In the few off-season tournaments Adamson have joined this season, both players showed promise and seemed comfortable with the pressure.

But Adamson will mostly rely on opposite hitter Mylene Paat and open hitter Gemma Galanza. Yes, the ever-pious Erika Alkuino will give them a boost with plays from time to time, but their pair of beach volleybelles are the main threats.

Paat is arguably the missing piece of the National U23 team that competed last May – a powerful, left-handed right wing spiker with enough length and bounce to challenge the lengthy first options in the international game. Galanza, on the other hand, possesses a powerful cross-court hit and is just as good in the back row as she is in the front.

With setter Fen Emnas and libero Jellie Tempiatura continuing the long line of Lady Falcons who flourished in their respective positions, Adamson are still an all-around threat.

Why should we be worried? – Last season, the Lady Falcons had three great options – Villanueva, Paat, and Galanza – and really nothing else, seldom going to their middles for quicks or slides.

The Lady Falcons started strong, but with every match, revealed holes in their attack that teams could easily take advantage of. Gallanza showed that 90% of the time, she would go to her powerful cross-court hit, and she didn’t have an off-speed or down-the-line attack to keep people guessing. Emnas had trouble setting a back toss to get the ball to Paat, their most efficient scorer, so it was easy to predict when the ball was going to Mylene.

Gallanza needs to show she has other ways of putting the ball away, while Paat is still working on the skills that players who transition from playing middle to wing lack.

The Lady Falcons had many exploitable cracks in their game last year, and it’s unfair to expect their former bench players to smoothly transition into tough starting roles. Adamson hasn’t added a blue-chip recruit for two season now and that could end up hampering their progress this season.

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[nextpage title = “UP”]

SVL Reinforced UP vs. Navy-9506
University of the Philippines Lady Maroons

Best case scenario – The Lady Maroons make the Final Four for the first time in decades, and the Iskos set bonfires ablaze in Katipunan. Their ragtag group of veterans and rookies even wind up winning a match in the post-season, inspiring championship talks for Season 79.

Worst case scenario – The hype is surreal and UP disappoints. Their veterans struggle to regain form after coming off injuries, and their rookies, like their previous batches of touted recruits, melt under the pressure. Are they taking too many GE units?

Why should we be optimistic? – This is, perhaps, the deepest UP lineup in years, adding prized rookies Isa Molde, Justine Dorog, and Diana Carlos while retaining blossoming veterans like last year’s team captain Nicole Tiamzon and this year’s captain Kathy Bersola.

In past seasons, the UP community seemed to give unwarranted praise to their recruits way before they had even scored a point in the UAAP, perhaps grasping at straws for something on which they could pour their excitement.

But the rookies this year are legit. Former Hope girls Molde and Dorog tore up the Shakey’s V-League in the two conferences they joined, out-gunning hitters with years, sometimes even decades, of experience on them. In the few months between the Collegiate and Reinforced Conferences, Molde even grew a few inches.

Tiamzon flourished in a marquee role for the Foton Tornadoes in the Philippine Superliga, while Kathy Bersola slipped back into the lineup during the SVL’s third Conference from a devastating knee injury and earned another Best Blocker award along the way. Stuck on the bench for most of Season 77, Pia Gaiser also made waves in the off-season and rightfully took back her starting libero role. Middle blocker Marian Buitre, who had taken over for Bersola last season, maintained her steady improvement into a devastating middle attacker.

Coach Jerry Yee shifted the culture of the Lady Maroons from “we’re just happy to not be last” to one where winning is expected of the girls no matter who’s playing. The community definitely felt it as every UP game felt like an event again, with their rowdy crowds out-clamoring even the most spirited of UST galleries.

Contending for a Final Four spot was glorious for the state scholars. Having finished just a few wins out of the post-season, there’s now nowhere to go but up.

Why should we be pessimistic? – History doesn’t bode well for teams that have too many rookies in the starting six. Not every team can do what the Season 76 Lady Eagles accomplished; having three rookie starters in a championship-winning squad.

Freshies will need time to adjust from the slower paced high school game to the rock ’em, sock ’em college style.

Consider also that both Bersola and Tiamzon are coming off knee injuries, an early-season adjustment period is inevitable. Tiamzon had barely even played in the SVL third conference to rest a banged up knee (Tiamzon playing days after a hit-and-run incident with a tricycle will remain one of the best tales the UAAP produced).

Jerry Yee went on ad nauseum about competing in the V League to siphon in as much experience into his young players

“Nandito tayo para magka-experience talaga. Karamihan ng players natin ay rookies. There really isn’t too much of a focus on making the playoffs as there is on match-to-match improvememts,” Yee said after an SVL third conference match. The Lady Maroons made the Final Four of that tournament, the first time a UP squad made it past the elimination round of any SVL competition.

There’s nothing like playing in front of a huge crowd with the glow of shiny taraflex floors impeding one’s focus. How fast the Lady Maroons transition into the big matches can very well determine how their season goes.

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[nextpage title = “University of Santo Tomas”]

SVL College UST vs. DLSU-D Mela Tunay
University of Santo Tomas Tigresses

Best case scenario – The Tomasinas break their long-standing run of missing the Final Four through pure attrition. Notwithstanding the absence of Pam Lastimosa, UST gets consistently tremendous contributions from their vets and no one questions their lineup decisions and chemistry.

Worst case scenario – They suffer another major collapse, dropping matches against teams with less talent and veterans. They miss the Final Four, leading their blood thirsty fans to pounce on every detail as to why they didn’t make it.

Why should we be optimistic? – Even without Lastimosa, who had unfortunately torn her ACL, UST remains one of the few teams who retained a huge chunk of their rosters from last season (only libero, Dancel Dusaran exhausted her playing years).

Sophomore team captain, Ej Laure is primed to shine in a heavier role after a RoY run last season and a National Team stint under her belt. Fifth year players Carmela Tunay and Jessie De Leon were pivotal contributors in the team’s Final Four run in the SVL second conference, where they handed the Lady Eagles their first loss in nearly a year. Like Laure, Ria Meneses also soaked in precious National Team exposure and also played big matches for the Cagayan Lady Rising Suns in the SVL Open Conference. Filling in for Lastimosa, pocket-rocket Cherry Rondina had a forgettable season on the sand court – her prime motivation to immediately make an impact indoors.

Why should we be worried? – The Tigresses can’t just shake off Pam Lastimosa’s injury like T-Swizzle shakes off her boyfriends, especially with the injury just a few months fresh. Lastimosa was arguably their best all-around player.

Then there’s the perpetual floor defense problem which they could not resolve in the SVL. Yes, they’re tall and athletic but it’s always going to be an unnecessarily tough task to attack without decent ball control.

They also just hired a new coach, Kungfu Reyes, who is a totally different character from Odjie Mamon for whom Reyes took over. Reyes installed a blocking oriented system for which Lastimosa played a big role. It’ll be interesting to see how he parlays his system with a smaller Rondina at the net.

UST nearly made the Final Four last season. They had two chances to make the Final Four outright but failed to win matches against a limping UP and FEU. At times, they seemed flustered – visibly affected by the magnitude of big games. When they needed them most, a lot of UST’s veterans struggled in their do-or-die tilt with the Lady Tams.

The Tigresses have to be mentally tougher; they seemed focused for the better part of the season. They just need to find that chemistry sweet spot and fight to maintain it. Other teams have gotten better. It’s time for these Lady Tigresses to finally pay-off their potential.

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[nextpage title = “Far Eastern University”]

SVL-3rd-FEU-vs-UST-G2-Celebration-FEU-2
Far Eastern University Lady Tams

Best case scenario – The Lady Tams are the third best team in the league and crush pre-season expectations. The return of veteran setter, Gyzelle Sy, works wonders for the young Lady Tams and they don’t have to go through the tip of the needle to make the Final Four again.

Worst case scenario – FEU can’t find the right mix of players and bow out of the Final Four race relatively early as other teams have just gotten too good for the winningest program in the league. After letting a bunch veterans transfer, they realize early that they just aren’t as deep as last season.

Why should we be optimistic? – There wasn’t enough clamor about FEU’s magical Final Four run last season. They had the slimmest of odds with two weeks left in the season. All of a sudden, they took every match and other teams dropped enough matches for the Lady Tams to squeeze into the postseason. It was nearly miraculous.

Their starting six from that run returns this year with a few upgrades. For starters, former Best Setter Gyzelle Sy suits up again after a one-year hiatus to orchestrate their offense. Team captain Remy Palma enters this season in the best shape of her career and with a successful run with the Army Lady Troopers in the SVL. Bernadette Pons remains the team’s best wing option, while Kyla Atienza transitions into starting libero role. Heather Guino-O, the revelation of their late season run last year, fills in the starting six along with Toni Basas and Jerrili Malabanan.

The Lady Tams always have good fundamentals – maintaining their spot in the top half of the league in almost every skill. This year’s Lady Tams have a good mix of veterans to maintain that stature and don’t need a rookie to start immediately.

Why should we be worried? – They’re good, but other teams might have gotten better.

Their Final Four run in the SVL was a bit of an anomaly, as they had former NCAA MVP Royse Tubino and National Team mainstay Jovelyn Gonzaga as guest players. It remains to be seen if the Lady Tams can sufficiently fill Gonzaga’s opposite hitter spot.

They also had a deeper bench last season, with Charm Simborio and the 6’2” Geneveve Casugod donning green and gold. Both, however, aren’t with the program anymore so coach Shaq Delos Santos has less proven options when his Plan A doesn’t work out. He even flipped-flopped over which position Malabanan would play throughout every match last season.

FEU’s starting six will have to do the heavy lifting for most matches if they’re going to advance. With UST still sporting a strong lineup and UP adding a lot of talent, the Lady Tams face a much tougher challenge than last season at staying relevant.

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[nextpage title = “National University”]

SVL College NU vs. UST - Perez
National University Lady Bulldogs

Best case scenario – Roger Gorayeb fulfills his promise of bringing every team he’s ever coached to the Finals in just his first full season at Sampaloc. Jaja Santiago is MVP, while Myla Pablo and Jorelle Singh are both in the top 10 scorers list along with Santiago. After years of searching for a decent setter, Rica Diolan proves she’s the Basha to NU’s Popoy.

Worst case scenario – NU struggles into the Final Four as Myla Pablo inexplicably dips in performance and Jaja Santiago can’t carry the rest. Gorayeb again loses for the nth time in his career to DLSU. Diolan shrivels at the pressure, proving she’s more of whoever Maja Salvador was playing in One More Chance than Basha.

Why should we be optimistic? – This batch of Lady Bulldogs give off the same darkhorse feel as the NU of Season 76.

Jaja Santiago is volleyball’s Junemar Fajardo – a stalwart who stares over her opponents and dominates every match offensively. If the UAAP keeps handing out skill-based awards, she’s the frontrunner for Best Attacker and has an outside shot at the Best Blocker plum, as she had shown tremendous improvement at stifling attackers during Foton’s championship run in the PSL Grand Prix where she went toe-to-toe with towering imports and still dominated. No team can match Jaja Santiago.

Myla Pablo was also a busy Bulldog in the off-season with multiple runs with the National Team and headlining the Philips Gold Lady Slammers’ roster in both PSL Conferences. Not just a power hitter anymore, the graduating skipper has added multiple attacks to her game. She became deadly efficient after returning from her U23 stint.

Libero Bia General went from an unknown to a decorated floor sweeper over the course of a few months, winning the Best Libero plum in the SVL Collegiate Conference, while open hitter Jorelle Singh was one of the best attackers of the same tournament. Opposite hitter Aiko Urdas also came back from a gruesome ACL tear.

And, of course, Roger Gorayeb continues his Midas’ touch on volleyball, sweeping all V-League conferences and mentoring the National U23 and SEA Games team. Gorayeb orchestrated an immediate turnaround midway through NU’s Season 77 run so a full off season of preparation should be more than enough for volleyball’s Rody Duterte to elevate NU to Davao-like prestige.

Why should we be worried? – Like Season 76, NU will need an unproven setter to navigate the team’s attack.

Rica Diolan may have been the best setter in her high school class but immediately figuring out NU’s progressive attack is a task only veteran setters like Ruby De Leon can figure out; Gorayeb admitted as much.

“Mahirap na agad-agad makuha ‘yung tamang set sa college lalo na kung galing ka ng high school na hindi kasing athletic ang spikers kumpara sa college. Marami pang kailangan matutunan si Diolan. Kulang pa sa gulang anya nga nila,” Gorayeb said.

Just in case, Gorayeb has veteran playmakers Ivy Perez and Asi Soliven on the bench but he doesn’t entirely trust either of them.

Aside from having De Leon call the plays in the SVL, NU also had elder Santiago Dindin Manabat play the other middle blocker spot.

Desiree Dadang graduated so NU has no clear filler for that spot with the controversial Risa Sato not playing until Season 79.

NU is a clear contender but their main rotation has at least two clear holes they need to figure out. In any other league, they would be championship favorites but the remaining two squads have barely any weak points.

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[nextpage title = “De La Salle University”]

DLSUvsUP -8699
De La Salle University Lady Spikers

Best case scenario – DLSU sweeps the elimination round and heads straight to the Finals, which they sweep after learning from the painful memory of Season 76. Ara Galang’s brilliance makes us forget that she ever injured her knee and she, along with DLSU’s other seniors, get to graduate with a title.

Worst case scenario – Ara Galang just isn’t right and La Salle’s left to find other top options. Ateneo again sweeps the elimination round. DLSU still make the Finals but just can’t overcome their rivals.

Why should we be optimistic? – Two seasons is a long drought for Ramil De Jesus’ squad and every season without a title only feeds their fervor.

Looking at their record in the PSL Grand Prix, it’s easy to say they struggled. But the keen observer can see the vast improvements in the Lady Spikers’ play despite winning just two matches in 11 outings.

Going up against import-backed squads, DLSU’s main lineup put up a fight when their own imports floundered. Middle blocker Mika Reyes was in peak form, killing sets with renewed vigor while continuing to devastate attackers with her blocking. Setter Kim Fajardo outplayed her matchups on most outings, even outsmarting foreign setters in short glimpses.

With Ara Galang rehabbing over the off-season, other wing attackers like Cyd Demecillo, Eli Soyud, and rookie Tine Tiamzon got prolonged playing time in multiple leagues and were forced to shoulder much of Galang’s offensive load.

De Jesus always keeps a tight ship. These Lady Spikers are just as tall and determined as any other championship-winning batch and, with their main opposition to the throne, Ateneo, losing three key players, have a great opportunity to keep La Salle’s tradition going.

Why should we be worried? – One does not simply recover from an ACL tear, let alone multiple tears to multiple knee ligaments, and it was no secret how much La Salle had leaned on Ara Galang for leadership and clutch scoring.

Galang had just started training with the team in December, so she’s going to need time to get back into MVP shape in the season.

La Salle will still top the list of every skill and will barely surrender errors, but they need to consistently get kills. Against Ateneo last season, La Salle had several chances to steal a set, even a match, but could not break Ateneo’s steady floor defense and blocking.

Other than those, there aren’t really any reasons to worry about the Lady Spikers – they’re the same old tall, intimidating squad that’s not going to give any free points.

But, for the past two seasons, the same old Lady Spikers finished second.

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[nextpage title = “Ateneo”]

SVL-UST-vs-ADMU-G2-Maraguinot-celebration
Ateneo Lady Eagles

Best case scenario – The new-look Lady Eagles sweep the elimination round and complete a three-peat. Alyssa Valdez and Amy Ahomiro graduate in a blaze of glory.

Worst case scenario – The new-look Lady Eagles make us miss the old Lady Eagles. Their struggles in floor defense lead to losses to La Salle and even NU and they have to work up a stepladder, this time unable to take the title in the Finals.

Why should we be optimistic? – Alyssa Valdez. We could end this part right there. They have the best player in the country on the team. Valdez leads, scores in big moments, and even takes on post-game media responsibilities (which is usually the coach’s job, but since they have Master Miyagi as head coach, Valdez is tasked with facing the media).

After losing three of their best floor defenders – graduates Denden Lazaro and Ella De Jesus, and academically-focused Michelle Morente – Ateneo will be taking a different approach to this season, looking to utilize their ubiquitous height and power.

From middle blocker, Kiwi Ahomiro transitions back into her original opposite hitter position, with Maddie Maddayag replacing her in the middle. Along with Valdez, Bea De Leon, and Jhoanna Maraguinot, Ateneo could potentially have the tallest set of attackers in the league.

Under the guidance of coach Tai Bundit, the aforementioned skippers have improved dramatically from when they were first recruited. No middle blockers can put away a quick set quite like Ahomiro and De Leon; Maraguinot flourished in the SVL when Alyssa Valdez was out of the lineup; and Maddayag looked absolutely astounding in their Thailand training camp, blocking everything in sight.

With so many options, it takes a genius to conduct the offense, and Jia Morado has been described as such multiple times. It’s hard to throw her off her game. Even if her teammates somehow give her such a bad pass that the ball self-combusts mid-flight, Morado will find away to douse the ball and set the ball perfectly for her teammates.

The three-peat is Ateneo’s to lose.

Why should we be worried? – Denden Lazaro and Ella De Jesus were otherworldly defensive talents to the point that they could handle back row duties on their own when the rotation called for it. The pair even shielded Alyssa Valdez from the opponent’s harsh serves for much of her career.

Without the two, Ateneo’s floor defense seems incredibly weak. As good as she is attacking, Valdez is an unproven back row player. Ditto for Ahomiro, who still looked lost in coverages when Ateneo went tall.

Ateneo still has options. They can bring either Kim Gequillana or Ponggay Gaston off the bench for a jolt of floor defense, or still hide their weak receivers behind new libero Gizelle Tan, but that would require a complicated pattern.

Ateneo needs their blocking to work consistently to ease the pain on the back row. Other than that, Ateneo is phenomenal at everything else.

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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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