Finals Preview: Lady Spikers meet familiar foe on their march to fourth straight crown
The storied Ateneo-La Salle rivalry has truly transcended the hardwood and trickled onto other UAAP athletic events, with volleyball being the foremost of them.
For most of the year, it seemed as if the archrivals would not be meeting in the Last Dance, as it was the NU Lady Bulldogs who held the second spot in the standings at the end of the elimination round. But the Ateneo Lady Eagles proved that the playoffs are a different beast than the fourteen-game eliminations, as they overhauled NU’s twice-to-beat edge in the stepladder semifinals en route to arranging a third straight finals meeting between the two squads.
The Lady Spikers, meanwhile, have been unimpeded so far in their march towards a fourth straight crown, sweeping the elimination round while only losing a couple of sets (one against the FEU Lady Tamaraws, another one in their last game against NU). All in all, La Salle has not dropped a game since a December 1, 2012 five-set decision at the hands of the UST Tigresses, having won a staggering thirty games since that defeat. Can they add two more wins to this streak? Or will this feisty Lady Eagles halt their winning run?
Previous Meetings: The teams first met in the finals in 2012, when the Lady Spikers likewise swept the elimination round behind players like Cha Cruz, Michelle Gumabao, Abi Maraño and then-rookies Ara Galang and Mika Reyes. They carried the same thrice-to-beat edge against Ateneo, which was something that they needed, as the Lady Eagles stunned them in the finals opener with a four-set victory behind the efforts of Alyssa Valdez and Fille Cainglet. But after surrendering the first set in the second game, La Salle flipped the proverbial switch and won three straight sets. Less than a week later, they
Last year was the UAAP swansong of the Lady Eagles’ Fab Five of Cainglet, Dzi Gervacio, Gretchen Ho, Jem Ferrer, and Alyssa Nacachi, and they scrapped together to give Ateneo another finals berth. They came very close to winning the finals opener, but in one of their best comebacks, La Salle mounted a furious rally to extend the match to five sets and outlast their rivals to bag the first game, before overwhelming them in Game 2 to secure a three-peat championship.
The Lady Spikers, although losing the likes of two-time Best Blocker and Season 75 Finals MVP Michelle Gumabao, former Rookie of the Year and libero Melissa Gohing and Wensh Tiu, have steamrolled their way through the rest of the competition en route to an outright finals berth for the second time in three years.
Rookies Desiree Cheng has earned a steady spot in Coach Ramil De Jesus’ rotation while also warranting consideration for the Rookie of the Year Award. Kim Fajardo, Cyd Demecillo, Mika Reyes, Ara Galang, and Abi Maraño, meanwhile, have each taken turns in bearing the cudgels for the squad as they gun for a fourth straight crown. But make no mistake, this is Abi Maraño’s team, as she has metamorphosed from a rookie who came into a team stacked with players like Stephanie Mercado, Jacqueline Alarca and Cha Cruz to a leader that motivates her teammates and straps the team on her back when needed.
The Lady Eagles, under head coach Asunorn “Tai” Bundit, are led by team captain Alyssa Valdez, who has received ample support during their morale-boosting series win against the Lady Bulldogs by Ella De Jesus, Michelle Morente, Amy Ahomiro, and setter Gia Morado. Valdez, though, still bore the bulk of the scoring load, as she torched NU with 29 and 22 points in their back-to-back victories in the stepladder semis.
After losing five veterans and their head coach Roger Gorayeb heading into this season, this team was tipped to make noise while parading a new coach and some talented rookies, but was not considered as a lock to make the finals, but here they are. Their wins against the Lady Bulldogs bode well for their confidence, but this team has already overachieved and has nothing more to lose. Which is exactly what makes them scary.
La Salle, meanwhile, has an appointment with destiny to make. A fourth straight crown and their eighth in the last eleven years will no doubt carve the team and its players a place in history. Abi Maraño is also in her final year, and would want nothing more than to ride into the sunset carrying a fourth straight volleyball title.
But they must not fall into a sense of complacency. The team will be coming off a long lay-off, and will have to shake off the rust and keep the Lady Eagles from establishing any kind of momentum. The thrice-to-beat edge seems like a luxury, but it can also serve as a two-edged sword if they let Ateneo gain a foothold in the series. The best way to approach this finals is to treat every game as a do-or-die match.
Maraño, Reyes, Galang, Demecillo, and Fajardo have been here before, and will be facing a less experienced Lady Eagles squad. The team has an able tactician in the multi-titled Ramil De Jesus who can match wits with Ateneo honcho Bundit. If La Salle keeps doing what they have done for the past thirty games and gives their inexperienced opponents a baptism of fire in the finals, then a fourth straight crown is well within reach. But when approaching a team that’s playing loose and brimming with confidence, it’s best to exercise caution instead of throwing it into the wind.