Different characters, same old rivalry
For both sides, the upcoming Ateneo-La Salle clash barely feels like a Finals rematch, although the buildup towards their first Season 79 clash feels similar in many ways.
The Ateneo de Manila University Lady Eagles, a team that have ridden the force of nature that is Alyssa Valdez for the past five years, have had to reconfigure their attacks without their Phenom.
The De La Salle University Lady Spikers, a volleyball fortress that in turn had leaned on foundations Ara Galang, Mika Reyes, and Cyd Demecillo to weather Valdez’s storm, have arguably needed to survive a bigger facelift than their rivals.
From Seasons 74 to 78, an Ateneo-La Salle clash in the Finals was an inevitability. It was the rivalry that spearheaded local volleyball to its current flourishing state.
Season 79 has been a harder sell for the general state of chaos in the standings. Along with Ateneo and La Salle, any combination from six teams could realistically make the Final Four or even the Finals.
Still, Ateneo and La Salle are on top of everyone heading into tomorrow’s marquee game. This early in the season, there really isn’t much on the line except for a better hold of a twice-to-beat advantage and school pride. But it is in these pressure-packed matches that new protagonists are born, and both teams need new leading characters.
The current Best Setters in the Philippines
The biggest reason why both teams are still playing at a high level is that they both have luminary setters with different approaches.
La Salle’s Kim Fajardo is Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining — critically acclaimed and effective in its delivery of suspense and surprise.
Ateneo’s Jia Morado is Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey — unpredictable frame after frame of beauty and innovation.
Fajardo has a knack for willing herself into a match. Last season, she dominated the Lady Eagles in every way she could, devastating in blocking, serving, scoring, and setting La Salle’s attack. Playing in her final year, the Batangas native has never seemed more confident and in control of her role as the team’s singular leader.
In her fourth year, Morado has reached a mind-blowing level. She’s two steps ahead of the opposing defense — and even her teammates, sometimes. Ateneo’s low-fast offense is a joy to watch and Morado executes with precision on nearly every touch.
But it’s been most staggering to watch Morado’s improvisation. Most setters thrive on crisp receptions and digs from their backline to keep the attack dynamic. Unlike La Salle (first in reception, fourth in digs), however, Ateneo rank poorly in both defensive categories (sixth in reception and eighth in digs). Still, Morado is the league’s top setter and the Lady Eagles are the best attacking team.
Add to the fact that La Salle are the best blocking team, and Morado’s importance is further elevated. The Ateneo attack will need to keep La Salle’s blockers on their toes. Whether the Lady Eagles’ ball control suddenly takes a leap or Morado bends the offense by sheer will, Ateneo will need to aggressively attack the Lady Spikers.
While having steady setters is great, someone will still need to finish off plays. For the two squads, the open hitter spots have been interesting to observe.
The best open hitter in this matchup is undoubtedly Ateneo’s Jhoana Maraguinot. She’s the most experienced, while also standing out, statistically. If her match against the University of the Philippines is any indication, then Maraguinot appears to have already addressed her early dry spell and should be primed for a big game against La Salle.
The Lady Eagles also have Kat Tolentino, literally the biggest addition to their roster. At 6-foot-2, she towers over her blockers, but she isn’t too quick and agile since she was converted from middle to open hitter. When Ateneo have problems on defense, they plug in veteran Kim Gequillana who has improved tremendously as a hitter, complimenting her deadly service game.
But La Salle’s open hitters are bigger question marks. Tin Tiamzon and Desiree Cheng are both adjusting to the bigger load and to filling in for all-around players in Galang and Demecillo. While Tiamzon and Cheng are steady everywhere else, their scoring has been sparse.
Tiamzon has had her moments recently, scoring in double-digits in three for their past four matches. Cheng has struggled a bit more since she is still getting her bearing after being sideline by an ACL tear.
Ramil De Jesus could always pull out another surprise from the bench. He has veterans Arianne Layug and Justine Tiu, and highly-touted sophomore May Luna waiting for their shot.
Recently, De Jesus has been experimenting with a defense-offense swap between Cheng and Luna in crucial moments. Whether it takes two or three players, La Salle can’t let Ateneo’s open hitters outperform theirs. Against UP — La Salle’s lone loss so far — Tiamzon and Cheng managed eight combined points, just half of UP veteran Nicole Tiamzon’s 16-point tally. The gap can’t be that wide if La Salle want to win.
Everywhere else, the matchup is pretty even. Ateneo’s middle blockers are not as good at blocking as La Salle’s, but they make up for it with quicker hits.
Ateneo opposite Michelle Morente is an all-around dynamo, while La Salle utility hitter Kianna Dy is brutally good at the net.
La Salle’s Dawn Macandili might be the best libero in the Philippines right now, while Ateneo’s Gyzelle Tan makes her impact whenever she gets a chance to set.
With all of these factors, the team that executes better in crucial rallies takes this one.