We’re almost through with the second round of the UAAP Women’s Volleyball Season 77 tournament, and I think it’s the perfect opportunity to evaluate the teams and the competition itself. To be honest, the current tourney is turning out to be extremely exciting, and while both Ateneo and DLSU remain the teams to beat, we’ve already seen some nice (and not so nice) surprises from the other schools.
Ateneo started their title-defense campaign by cruising past a Dindin Santiago-less NU squad, and has since then, cruised throughout the tournament with perfect 3-0 matches, until they met a scrappy, determined, and vastly improved UP team who appears to be playing at an entirely different level now compared to last season. The Lady Maroons already pulled an upset by defeating UST just a game after pushing NU to five-sets. The Maroons also easily won over UE before handing the defending champions their first set-losses. While Ateneo still won that thrilling match, the five-setter game between the Katipunan-based squads meant DLSU regains the top-seed (as of this writing) by points-ratio (although one must consider DLSU has played one game more than Ateneo).
Both the Blue and Green squads remain undefeated, and with the fairly good assumption Ateneo will win over UE, the number one spot will be contested most aptly when the two teams’ meet for the final match of the first round.
Ateneo’s form has been impressive and except for that recent match against UP, they have been dominating. They truly play like defending champions. I am particularly impressed by the speed of their game, and the solid defense they have mastered under Coach Tai. It’s no surprise to me that outside of the UAAP tourney, Ateneo bagged bronze at the ASEAN University Games. Their exposure against other collegiate national teams is confidence-boosting, and I’m willing to think their match against UP is not indicative of what they will show against DLSU. I’m sure Alyssa Valdez wants to make-up for her lacklustre match against UP.
Compared to last year, Ateneo is working more as a unit, especially with Julia Morado now a fairly-experienced setter, and players like Ahomiro, De Jesus, and Morente, fitting like a glove in their positions. Their rookie, Bea De Leon, has also been amazing. She’s got a great approach, good contact with the ball, solid blocking skills, and commendable on-court presence. With her addition, I don’t see any weak spot in Ateneo’s rotation, add to the fact Valdez is very capable from the back, and Lazaro, exceptional on floor defense.
DLSU, on the other hand, is aiming to reclaim the title without Abigail Marano, arguably the heart and soul of DLSU for the last five seasons. Regardless, they’re still an exceptionally solid team with a very deep bench. In place of Marano is the sophomore stand-out Kim Dy, who adds even more height to the front-row of the Taft-based squad. In contrast to Ateneo, DLSU started the season in a less dominant fashion. An always scrappy Adamson Squad pushed the Lady Spikers to four-sets, something unfamiliar to a team who, before losing to Ateneo last season, is used to winning convincingly. DLSU also lost a set to FEU, who like UST, is battling with inconsistencies. Unlike the Lady Tigresses, however, FEU has managed to stay more focused throughout the first round, and has wound up at number four.
DLSU is a very methodical team. They have always played best when in-system. Coach Ramil De Jesus best said it when asked what he liked most about his team: focus and attentiveness. The Lady Spikers’ success can be attributed to this attitude they have on-court and in practice.
Still, if asked who would win in their encounter against Ateneo to end the first round of eliminations, I would think the Lady Eagles would have the edge. Since the departure of Marano, DLSU has been extremely dependent on Ara Galang, who mind you, has vastly improved. Galang, unlike last season, is more reliable and capable at the backcourt as an offensive option. Her blocking is still amazing, and her serves deadly. And like Valdez, she has the ability to scout the opponent’s court to find defensive weaknesses.
But it cannot be Galang alone. Yes, Valdez too, may seem like the dominant option for Ateneo when it comes to offense, but overall, the Lady Eagles seem to provide more than ample team support to their main gunner. The Lady Spikers have the edge when it comes to blocking, but Ateneo too, as Ahomiro displayed last year, is equally capable of providing enough resistance at the net to cause DLSU trouble. With De Leon as the other middle, no offensive position is left out, unlike last season wherein the Lady Eagles managed to squeak into the finals with weaker middle blockers in Patnogon and Tejada (sadly, the talented Gopico was sidelined due to an injury).
Since Gumabao left, DLSU has struggled finding an intimidating opposite to challenge the strong open spikers of their opponents. Desiree Cheng has yet to be a consistent blocker like Gumabao was, or to at least deliver the numbers in big games.
Ateneo is incredible when it comes to running their plays, and their fast offense is designed to offset the taller blockers of DLSU (or other teams for that matter). They serve tough to breakdown the passing of an opposing team, and their setter, Morado, is brilliant at orchestrating deceptive plays. This formula gave them the championship last season. With DLSU’s passing breaking down, the Lady Spikers could not utilize their middle blockers – to me their bread and butter. Yes, DLSU might have been better at transition (arguable), but in the end, their poor passing forced the equally talented Kim Fajardo to give predictable sets.
For some reason, DLSU seems less invincible this season than before. If there are teams who could pull surprise wins against them, it would be FEU, NU, and UST. Adamson, while a strong team backed by a stellar Paat at the opposite, just cannot match the height of DLSU. FEU has the chops to beat DLSU, while NU has the height. UST, on the other hand, though on a losing skid, can probably pull of some surprises if only they had focus. The Lady Tigresses continue to suffer loss after loss and it seems to me that EJ Laure is the sole bright spot of the team. The young UST High School standout will give Bea De Leon a run for her money for the Rookie of the Year Plum that’s for sure.
UE will continue to be on a losing skid unless they prey on a hapless UST team that is battling to regain focus. NU might challenge Ateneo come the second round but their dependence on Jaja Santiago, coupled by a drop in their floor defense, is a glaring weakness the Lady Eagles will continue to exploit. Coach Ramil De Jesus will have an ace on his sleeve to probably prove me wrong. UP, with great confidence, will challenge all the other teams anew. FEU will pull off some upsets either against DLSU or Ateneo but only if Yna Papa can bring to her game the same confidence she had during the V-League they won. Adamson will be back in the Final Four (as always). The Lady Falcons have too much heart to simply count them out.
And the Blue and Green will probably still meet at the finals.
If anyone wants to beat the Lady Eagles, they have to break Alyssa’s game. And they need to pass 110% against the best serving team. If anyone wants to beat DLSU, they have to mess up the Lady Spikers’ serve-receive game and put up a decent defensive effort at the net. Sounds simple but this is volleyball, and the “bilog ang bola” saying has never been truer.
How about you? What are your thoughts for this season?