From lovable underdogs to legitimate Final Four contenders, the University of the Philippines Lady Maroons, under head coach Jerry Yee, have made quite a turnaround.
Last season, UP absorbed injuries, academic hindrances, and a litany of drama and still came just a few wins away from the Final Four. Whereas in previous years the Lady Maroons would have been happy just to have made it that close, UP were legitimately upset at falling short.
Bolstered by a promising batch of rookies, UP had quite a build-up heading into UAAP Season 78. Their two best recruits, Isa Molde and Justine Dorog, inspired championship talks in UP’s near future with how they tore through veteran competition in the off-season.
But the two play in a position which Nicole Tiamzon, last year’s breakout star, had filled – open hitter. While the rookies were carrying UP through two Shakey’s V-League conferences, Tiamzon took time to rest her banged-up knee.
Through their first two matches in Season 78, Yee has consistently shuffled through his three hitters to fill the two open spots. Against DLSU, Yee used Tiamzon as a trump card if initial plans went into disarray.
Sure enough, the young Lady Maroons looked frazzled against the veteran Lady Spikers. Down by two sets and with morale looking low, Yee pulled his ace, subbing Tiamzon in as a setter in the third set. Aside from savvy playmaking, Tiamzon provided length at the net that stalled the La Salle attack. UP wound up thoroughly outplaying the Lady Spikers in the third set before bowing out in the fourth.
“Kagabi lang (sinabi sa akin ni coach na magsesetter ako). Para lang may Plan B kami if ever atakihin ‘yung block ni Jewel (Lai, the team’s starting setter), may magagawa pa kaming adjustment,” Tiamzon recalled.
The fourth-year hitter used to start at setter during Yee’s first year at the helm, Season 76. Apparently, Tiamzon had not played or practised as a setter since then. Regardless, Tiamzon had no problem with wherever coach Yee plays her.
“It’s okay with me as long as the team wins,” Tiamzon would say every time she was asked about her role during the interview.
Tiamzon also understood that her teammates might have had deer-in-the-headlights feelings since it was their first time to meet that Lady Spikers. She remembered feeling the same when she had first played the UAAP powerhouse during her rookie season.
“Meron kaunti (intimidation with her teammates) kasi first time nila makalaban. Pero nawala naman. Ang tagal lang ng adjustment namin kanina,” Tiamzon said. “Noong rookie din ako, may intimidation din nung nakalaban ko sila (La Salle). Pero nawala din naman as time went on. Wala naman din kasing mangyayari sayo kapag nagpapa-intimidate ka.”
As for her constantly shifting role, the competitor in Tiamzon still pushes her to fight for her starting open hitter position. But, as she maintains, she just wants to contribute to the team’s success.
“Siyempre gusto ko pa rin mag-open spiker kasi doon naman talaga ako galing. Pero, at the end of the day, laging pinapaliwanag sa amin na kahit sino pwede maging first six sa amin kasi kahit sino pwedeng mag-perform,” she told.
Tiamzon, however, recognizes the value of Molde and Dorog, admiring the fearlessness of both.
“Parang hindi sila rookie maglaro. Ang laking tulong na nae-expose sila noong high school pa lang. It’s a great thing na nakakapag-adjust sila agad sa college game. Ang lakas ng loob nila,” she gushed.
Above anything, Tiamzon is thankful for the UP Volleyball program’s stability – a stark contrast to the frantic coaching changes and disappointing finishes she had experienced early in her career.
“Thankful (ako) sa lahat ng supporters namin – sa mga alumni, sponsors, sa fans. Especially kay coach Jerry kasi sa kanya talaga nagsimula magbago ‘yung culture.”
Tiamzon and the Lady Maroons will try to bounce back from their first loss of the season on Sunday, February 14, 2 p.m. at the FilOil Flying V Centre.