The View from the Armchair: Lady Spikers look to cement their place in history with fourth straight title
So how significant has the performance of the Lady Spikers been this year?
Oh, just another sweep of the elimination rounds. The second time they’ve done it in 3 years, not bad. How about their eliminations track record in that 3 years – only 1 loss, to UST in their first game last season. That’s a 41-1 eliminations round record. Only one loss in each of the past 2 years. Now that’s dominance.
So what else has this edition of the Lady Spikers done? Oh yeah, they only lost 2 sets this season. I’m not sure what the record is, but this has to be somewhere up there.
So just how good are they?
While we have several carryovers from last year’s team, the Lady Spikers lost almost half of last year’s team: Gumabao, Wensh Tiu, both liberos in Melissa Gohing, Sison, and rookie Justine Tiu. Three of them, Michelle Gumabao, Wensh Tiu, and Melissa Gohing were key members of the first team. Gumabao was invaluable at the utility position, where she was a strong blocker and attacker, but it was her shared leadership with Abi Marano that is most missed. Wensh was very productive on offense and defense, while Melissa provided excellent reception and floor coverage on defense.
To replace them, we have rookie liberos in Cienne Cruz and Dawn Macandili, and another rookie Desiree Cheng at utility, with Cyd Demecillo being elevated to fill Wensh’s role. Other additions were middle blocker Mary Joy Baron and open/utility Kim Dy. Our center position remained stable with captain Abi Marano and Mika Reyes, while Ara Galang provided firepower and floor defense at the open spiker position.
On paper, this team shouldn’t be dominating the opposition. So what gives?
Have the opponents gotten weaker?
Yes and no. Some got stronger, while the others lost a bit.
Last year’s runner up Ateneo did lose their “Fab 5” in Ho, Gervacio, Cainglet, Ferrer, and Nacachi, but were able to pick up good replacements in Morado, Morente, and Gopico. Their coach last year, “multi-titled” Jolly Roger Gorayeb elected to pack his bags and return to the NCAA. He was replaced by Thai coach Bundit, who gave the Lady Eagles a different look, and they surprised many by landing in 3rd place, losing only to our Lady Spikers and the NU Lady Bulldogs.The Lady Eagles have to beat NU twice to get to the finals against us.
Last year’s 3rd placer Adamson lost their unflappable center Pau Soriano, who was replaced by Paat. The undersized frontline of Adamson failed to make a significant dent on the opponents’ defense, managed to eke into 4th place, but fell to Ateneo in straight sets in the stepladder.
FEU paraded promising rookies in Pons, Casugod, and Simborio, but was plagued by inconsistency and an injury to center Palma, and failed to make the playoffs despite the entry of former UST coach Shaq delos Santos.
NU lost starters Nepomuceno and libero Jen Reyes but had the biggest catch (literally!) in Jaja Santiago, all 6’5” of her, while retaining their core of Dindin Santiago, Urdas, Pablo, and Perez. With their super-sized frontline in the Santiago sisters, NU dominated the rest of the teams and was one of only two teams that managed to take a set from the Lady Spikers. However, this team had improved as the season progressed, and with a twice-to-beat advantage, is expected to hurdle Ateneo in the stepladder.
UST was hit by the loss of Ortiz, Caballejo, and Banaticla, but added promising middle blocker Meneses and could have threatened to contend with Lantin, Lastimosa, Tunay, and de Leon, but were consistently inconsistent, and landed sixth, out of the playoffs for a second consecutive time.
At the start of the season, UP and UE were tabbed to become the tournament tail enders. UP’s team was possibly the youngest in the league, mostly composed of rookies, sophomores, and juniors, but they showed their potential by tallying 3 wins, one of which was over heavily favored FEU in the second round. UE’s only notable addition was promising rookie Adorador, but she was not able to help the Lady Warriors get a win.
How about the individual stat of our players? Dominating also?
Surprising as it is, our players are not at the top of most of the individual statistical categories being monitored by the league.
In scoring, our top player is Ara at #5 with 178 points, a far cry from #1 Valdez who dropped 269 points on their opponents. Abi is our next highest scorer at #13 (137), #14 Mika Reyes (136), #20 Cyd (107), #29 Kim (73), and #32 Desiree (65).
In spikes, NU’s Dindin Santiago is top with a 46.10% success rate. Abi only comes in at #3 with 41.20%, and Ara is only #9 at 32.27%.
Blocking, which has always been our traditional strength and main weapon, our top blocker is Mika at #3 with .68 blocks per set, and Abi is #5 with .61 blocks/set. UP’s Bersola led this category at .91/set followed by FEU’s Casugod at .8/set.
In service scoring (read: aces), Ateneo’s Valdez had the deadliest serve at .74/set, followed by Kim at #2 with .55/set, Ara (#6) with .41/set, and Abi (#10) with .32/set. The serve is one aspect of the Lady Spikers’ game which has improved over past years, and has turned into one of their greatest weapons. This stat only measures the points scored off aces, and does not reflect the bad receptions which are not turned into effective attacks by opponents.
Our best digger is Abi (surprise!) at #10 with 1.43/set, a far cry from #1 Lazaro of Ateneo who averages 3.38/set. Digging is not an area that our individual players strive to excel at; rather, it is a collective, team effort which all players on the floor contribute to. That our center is our best digger is not surprising. And why aren’t our liberos at the forefront of this stat? Do we have bad liberos? No. Our first team is so adept at reception and digging that the liberos only get to replace Mika on occasion. Abi doesn’t get replaced except when Coach Ramil wants a quick word with her. In contrast, other teams have their liberos replace their centers whenever they go to the back row.
Another possible reason for the lower digging stats of the Lady Spikers lies in the fact that our blockers are so effective in stopping or blunting the spikes of the other teams that there are less opportunities for our players to go after digs. Fewer good shots go through the net defense, thus there are fewer digs to be had for our players.
It’s in the orchestration of the offense where our setter, Kim, leads the individual stats with 6.93/set. It’s a testament to her effectiveness (and that of our attackers) that she has the least total attempts at setting among the top 7 setters, yet she has the best stat/set.
In the reception category which is dominated by liberos, there is no Lady Spiker in the top 10. This just shows that reception is a shared responsibility, just like digging and floor defense in general is a collective team effort of the Lady Spikers. The responsibility and load is shared by all the players on the floor. This alone speaks volumes about the consistently high skill levels of the members of the team. All players are capable of defending at the net (except our liberos) or on the floor, and none of them are defensive liabilities who need to be subbed out or parked somewhere at the edge of the court.
So our team stats aren’t good?
Now that’s another story altogether. As a team, the Lady Spikers are among the leaders in most of the team categories.
In spiking, they are second (33.79%) to NU (37.60%). Note that NU’s taller frontline is effective against all the other teams except the Lady Spikers. On the other hand, our defense contributes to our scoring not only through “kill” blocks but also by forcing opponents into mistakes by hitting out or into the net in an effort to avoid our blockers.
In blocking, the Lady Spikers are the leaders with 2.80/set, leading the taller NU squad which has 2.24/set. This stat measures the direct points scored by each team from blocks. Despite playing the least sets of all the teams, the Lady Spikers had the most “kill” blocks with 123. The effective blocking probably helped reduce our stats for digs and receptions.
The service proved to be an important weapon in the Lady Spikers’ arsenal, as their loaded serves gave them an average of 2.23 points/set due to aces. They placed second to Ateneo which had 2.43/set. Even though we didn’t score outright on aces, the opponents’ poor reception often resulted in free balls or weak attacks because of a poor first ball.
As a team, the Lady Spikers were only #5 in digging at 6.89/set, far behind #1 Adamson which averaged 9.29/set. The so-called “great wall of Taft” prevented many attacks from crossing the net, reducing the need to dig by our backrow players.
In setting, due to Kim’s excellence and Mika Esperanza’s able support, the Lady Spikers were #1 with 7.41/set. NU surprisingly was second with 7.24/set despite most of the setting being done by the famously erratic Perez.
In reception, the Lady Spikers were #2 with 21.10%, second only to Ateneo which led with 21.34%. Most of Ateneo’s receptions were done by Lazaro, the league’s top receiver, who padded her individual stats by covering a lot of shots intended for Valdez whenever Valdez was in the backline.
Who will challenge us for the title?
By sweeping the eliminations, the Lady Spikers forced a stepladder series, with second placer NU having a twice-to-beat advantage over whichever team emerged from a playoff between the 3rd placer Ateneo and 4th placer Adamson. Last weekend, Ateneo eliminated Adamson in straight sets. This Wednesday, Feb 26, Ateneo upended NU in 4 sets to force a do-or-die game on Saturday, March 1. This results in an additional 4 days delay before our Lady Spikers finally get to meet their challenger on March 5.
The surprise win by Ateneo over heavily favored NU cast doubt on NU’s ability to perform under pressure, while it enhanced the image of the Ateneo Thai coach as a turnaround mentor. Ateneo played beyond expectations, and it will be a toss up on Saturday as the Lady Spikers watch with interest. NU probably will get its act together and prevail, but it will be close.
So what are our chances of a 4peat?
The Lady Spikers have proven that they can adapt quickly to whatever the opponents have cooked up, and are tough and resilient enough to overcome the different tactics thrown at them. For example, against NU in the second round, they were sluggish at the start, probably due to not having gone through their usual pre-game routines. NU easily took the first set, and although the Lady Spikers battled back to take the 2nd, NU came on strong in the 3rd and almost took it, but a strong finishing kick by our team allowed them to hurdle the challenge. The 4th was a foregone conclusion as the will of NU was broken by the strong response of the Lady Spikers.
Rust due to the enforced inaction might affect the Lady Spikers. Two seasons ago, in the same situation, Ateneo came on strong in the first game to take it and hand our team their first loss, but the Lady Spikers dominated in the next 2 games.
Expect whichever team emerges from this weekend’s playoffs to come at us with varied attacks from all positions in an attempt to prevent predictability and avoid our potent blocking. This will probably have some success at first, but once our players start reading the moves of the opponents, they will adjust, and the blocking will come into play. And we’ll see the same result as in the eliminations, with the Lady Spikers notching the two victories needed to nail the championship.