The Lady Maroons aren’t sneaking up on anyone this season.
Last year, the University of the Philippines paraded a revamped squad with blue chip recruits fresh out of high school. Despite their youth and perceived inexperienced, the Lady Maroons made history, making their first Final Four appearance in more than a decade.
Coming into Season 79, a renascence for the league that saw its pillar superstars exhaust their respective playing eligibility, UP is one of the surer commodities.
Their trio of super rookies — Diana Carlos, Justine Dorog, and reigning Rookie of the Year Isa Molde — continued their projected growth over the off-season. They also have a trio of super seniors — Kathy Bersola, Nicole Tiamzon, and Pia Gaiser — raring to end their collegiate careers with a title.
“Unlike last year, kami naman ang senior team this year kasi intact ang team. Last year siguro may mga nagulat kaming team. This year, they know what we do. So it’s up to us to keep improving,” said head coach Jerry Yee.
Only, UP isn’t totally intact.
They lost starting setter Jewel Lai to academic issues over the summer. While losing one player doesn’t as troublesome compared to other teams that lost numerous players, UP had heavily relied on Lai last season for playmaking. Yee didn’t expect to lose Lai, who would’ve been playing her third year this season, at this point in their team’s development.
Watching UP try to find a new setter over the off-season was a practice of both patience and frustration.
They first tried Lai’s backup Mae Basarte. The Lady Maroons played with her throughout the first two V-League Conferences before she injured her elbow prior to the Reinforced Conference.
UP then went with Rose Cailing, who showed her youth and lack of playing experience.
Despite these options, Yee landed on a surprising decision – converting third year libero Arielle Estrañero to setter. He also made her team captain.
While the move might seem obscure or sudden, Yee and the rest of the Lady Maroons saw it as the team’s best course of action.
“Si Ayel (Estrañero) kasi sobrang hard worker niyan. Noong sinabi sa kanya ni coach na siya na ‘yung setter, lagi siyang nage-extra work. Talagang nagfocus siya and mabilis talaga niyang nakuha,” Bersola said of her teammate.
Estrañero, a Communications Research major, is notorious hard worker. Her teammates and friends tell stories about how she balances her academics and training, sometimes even sleeping just two hours to finish her workload and attend practice.
As for making her captain, Yee saw that Estrañero was the perfect conduit between the young players and seniors.
“Ayel, she knows the language of the younger players and she also knows how to talk to the seniors kasi she’s right in the middle, she’s in her third year. Aside from her skills, kita mo sa kanya that she has the communication skills to be a leader,” Yee remarked.
With UP having an array of offensive options, Estrañero knows the season may come down to her decision making.
“It was tough at first, definitely. Pero my teammates have been doing a great job of guiding me and just encouraging me as I try to adjust. Ngayon, I can say I’m more confident and I’m just excited to play in the UAAP and compete,” Estrañero expressed.
If last season was about changing the culture and setting expectations, the Lady Maroons are bent on living up to the hype and becoming consistent.
“Last year was good for us because we made the Final Four. But there were still plenty of points we could improve on. This year, with the field being more balanced, we know, as a team, that there isn’t really room for too many mistakes,” Estrañero said.
“I’ve always been competitive. Pero siguro this year is one of the more special years kasi never pa siguro nagkaroon ng ganitong team ang UP. We started something last season so responsibility to keep the success going,” added Bersola.
Last year, UP were the UAAP’s feel-good story — the team that seemed just happy to be in the Final Four. But the rest of the league knows about the Lady Maroons now. UP might need a few surprise uppercuts to get to the Finals.
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