UAAP Volleyball: The Eagles Have Landed

GAMES ON WEDNESDAY (February 26) at the San Juan Arena

2:00 PM (4) Adamson University vs. (1) National University* (M)

4:00PM (3) Ateneo de Manila University vs. (2) National University* (W)

*Twice-To-Beat Advantage

Last Wednesday (February 19th) it was Adamson University (AdU) that enjoyed double success in the sudden-death Final Four qualifiers. Now, it’s the Eagles’ turn.

Ateneo freshmen Michelle Morente (#3) and Jia Morado (#12) react to a point (Photo: Czeasar Dancel/NPPA Images …

Both the men’s and women’s teams of the Ateneo de Manila University (AdMU) defeated their respective opponents in contrasting styles to move in the Final Four phase of the UAAP Season 76 volleyball competition before almost four thousand fans in the San Juan Arena.

(2) AdMU def. (3) FEU (M)—23-25, 19-25, 25-17, 28-26, 15-13

The first of the men’s semifinal matches pitted the Blue Spikers against the school that has won the most titles: the Far Eastern University (FEU) Tamaraws with Ateneo earning that all-important twice-to-beat edge for finishing the elimination round ranked second.

Ateneo's Joshua Villanueva cuts one through the FEU defense (Photo: Czeasar Dancel/NPPA Images)

That alone was already quite an achievement for a volleyball program that has zero UAAP championships to speak of since the school’s transfer to the UAAP in 1979. The Blue Eagles had never finished higher than third place and their last Final Four appearance was way back in 2010 when they were led by MVP AJ Pareja. Another feat for the program is that at one point of the season Ateneo was seventh place in the standings. Head Coach Oliver Almardo (who is also the mentor of the Meralco Power Spikers in the 2013 Shakey’s V-League Open Conference) began leading his charges to impressive victories—including that astounding straight sets romp against erstwhile undefeated National University (NU) Bulldogs last January—en route to sweeping all their second round matches.

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This time, Ateneo had to find all sorts of inspiration and energy to overcome a two-set deficit and barge to its first Finals appearance ever.

FEU started determined to send the series to a rubbermatch with veteran attackers Karl de la Calzada and Alexis Faytaren keeping the Blue Eagles’ frontliners busy with a serious array of power shots and misdirections that appeared to sap the Ateneans early. Tamaraw playmaker Manny Refugia was in rhythm from the onset; easily finding his two favorite targets and even getting added support from winger Raymond Bautista. Refugia also scored a lot on his almost unreadable dump balls and FEU proceeded to take a commanding two-sets-to-nothing lead as it looked poised to forge a rematch with what seemed to be an inexperienced group of youngsters.

Season-long connection: Manny Refugia (#3) sets up Karl de la Calzada (Photo: Czeasar Dancel/NPPA Images)

But it was the youngsters that responded over the next two sets—particularly in that fourth set epic where detonations were exchanged by both camps, to the delight and frayed nerves of not only the audience in the venue but to the millions who witnessed the game around the world through the auspices of ABS-CBN Sports and Action channel.

Rookie spiker—and national team frontrunner—Marck Espejo joined forces with quicker Rex Intal to fuel the furious Ateneo resurgence. Intal combined with talented libero JP Pareja and proceeded to defuse the Tamaraws’ offense; Intal with his game-high seven blocks and Pareja patrolling the floor to the tune of ten excellent digs.

Ateneo's Rex Intal (R) had a great all-around game in the win vs. FEU (Photo: Czeasar Dancel/NPPA Images)

However, Espejo just had a special day.

The 17-year-old freshman scattered a game-high 24 points (23 of which came from mostly wicked kills) and also helped contain FEU’s serving proficiency by coming away with an astonishing seventeen excellent receptions—just seven off of the Tamaraws’ team total. Espejo’s reception prowess allowed Blue Eagles’ orchestrator Joner Polvorosa a more efficient conducting of the offense (which mostly set-up Espejo anyway) and Ateneo showed resilience at just the right time.

Rookie sensation Marck Espejo (R) had a field day on receptions as well (Photo: Czeasar Dancel/NPPA Images)

The match—being hailed as the best in the season—took over two hours to complete.

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Ateneo now awaits the winner of the clash between the Bulldogs and Adamson—which also came from two sets down to eliminate La Salle in their sudden-death tiff last Wednesday—with NU holding that crucial twice-to-beat advantage against the Falcons.

Espejo got ample contributions from Intal (19 points), Ysrael Marasigan (11) and Joshua Villanueva (11). For FEU, de la Calzada came away with fifteen markers, while Bautista and Faytaren added fourteen and eleven, respectively.

Ateneo advances to its first ever Finals appearance against either NU or Adamson (Photo: Czeasar Dancel/NPPA I …

(3) AdMU def. (4) AdU (W – stepladder)—26-24, 25-23, 25-21

That now set the stage for the distaff battle, as for the second time in less than a week the Adamson Lady Falcons needed to emerge victorious in another do-or-die encounter to keep their title hopes alive. This time, however, they were matched-up against the two-time silver medallists in this stepladder playoff.

Adamson skipper Marleen Cortel (L) defies the Ateneo defenses (Photo: Czeasar Dancel/NPPA Images)

The one thing perhaps working for Adamson is that if they are able to play their “A” game and catch the Katipuneras off guard and on a bad day, they pull off an upset that will cost their rivals their season.

During several stretches, it almost happened.

When the match began, it looked like Adamson might just have the firepower to pull it off as the graduating tandem of MVP candidate Sheila “Bangnita” Pineda and Mayette Zapanta scored heavily against the Ateneo frontline defense still without controversial middle-hitter Marge Tejada (who was once again a healthy DNP-CD).

The Lady Falcons celebrate a hard-earned point against Ateneo (Photo: Czeasar Dancel/NPPA Images)

But Ateneo skipper Alyssa Valdez began entering what she referred to as “Beast Mode” as she singlehandedly duelled the two Lady Falcon veterans and got a big boost from freshman sensation Michelle Morente who has now gotten really used to her new role as the squad’s utility spiker.

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Morente—one of the youngest national team candidates when she was tapped to join the Bomberinas last year—racked up twelve points to compliment Valdez’s game-high nineteen and veteran winger Ella de Jesus’ eleven points. Converted center Amy Ahomiro added ten points and is easily among the most improved players in the league this season.

UAAP scoring queen Alyssa Valdez (L) finished with a game-high 19 points (Photo: Czeasar Dancel/NPPA Images)

Adamson battled valiantly but the firepower of the Lady Eagles coupled by probably the best efforts by rookie setter Jia Morado (28 excellent sets—and making a strong case for Rookie of the Year) and declared league Best Digger and Best Receiver Den-Den Lazaro (26 “excellents”) gave enigmatic Thai Head Coach Anusorn Bundit all his team needed to barge into a duel against the Lady Bulldogs—a team Ateneo has not beaten all season long. Their series (with NU having that all-important twice-to-beat edge) begins on Wednesday (February 26th).

Now that that match has finally soaked in, I don’t think it has registered in many consciousnesses that Pineda, Zapanta and ace setter May Macatuno have played in their final volleyball match as student-athletes.

The fans will probably take Pineda’s departure the hardest as we’ve seen her blossom from a serve-specialist/bench warmer to a substitute with potential, to being the other half of Adamson’s main one-two punch, literally (Pineda dons jersey #1 while former quicker turned Lady Falcons’ assistant coach Pau Soriano wore #2), and to finally being an MVP candidate this season.

Adamson wunderkind Sheila Pineda (#1) has soared for the final time (Photo: Czeasar Dancel/NPPA Images)

Adamson is tied with NU as the school losing the most number of players in its women’s volleyball program. I will write a separate piece on the nine players who will no longer be in their school’s uniform in Season 77.

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Now, the questions remain:

In the men’s tussle, can NU avoid the upset axe dealt to them by Ateneo and La Salle during the eliminations and finish off Adamson without a hitch? Will Adamson draw inspiration from their miracle victory against the Green Spikers and use that to forge a rubbermatch against the Bulldogs on Wednesday? Which squad do the Blue Eagles prefer and why? Almadro is the only coach in the league without an assistant. Will that take its toll in the Finals?

In the women’s draw, can the Lady Eagles buck a severe height disadvantage and somehow push their match-up against NU into a decider? Will the Lady Bulldogs dispatch Ateneo on Wednesday to enter their first ever UAAP Finals appearance? Is this long respite a help or a harm to the idle defending champions the De La Salle University Lady Spikers?

Can the NU Lady Bulldogs attain their first ever UAAP Final? (Photo: Arnold Z. Cruz)

It’s climax time and you know it.

Follow Noel Zarate on Twitter (@NoelZaratre) and email