Thanks to Twitter® and the power of the replay on Balls, I can write about this much anticipated first game of the Best-of-Three for the championship in Women’s Volleyball in the Universities Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP) Season 75 before a modest crowd of 17,480 paying spectators at the Araneta Coliseum. Just to get it out of the way, I was working the Asean Basketball League (ABL) home stand of the San Miguel Beermen against the Westsports Malaysia Dragons and I’m happy to announce that the lone Philippine representatives in this regional cage league won against the visitors despite playing with only one import.
However, throughout the game, I was pressing the “refresh” button on my phone just to follow what I was visually missing and I got home just in time to catch the tail-end of the first set. I was glued to the television all the way (and it was commercial free—so there).
Before we get into the distaff battle, let me announce that host school National University (NU) bucked adversity to rally past the defending champions Far Eastern University (FEU) in five enthralling sets: 16-25, 18-25, 25-13,25-17, 15-8 in the Men’s Volleyball title dispute. The Bulldogs snatch Game 1 of their own series behind Peter Torres’ 18 point output ably supported by Rueben Inaudito’s 16 and Jan Paglinawan’s 14. John Ian Depamaylo led all scorers with 19 points for the Tamaraws and now must win on Wednesday, March 6 at NU’s “unofficial” home turf, the MOA Arena to extend the affair. Their tiff precedes Game 2 of the Women’s finals.
Now, the main event breakdown begins.
The big surprise I noticed was that the Ateneo de Manila University (AdMU) Lady Eagles employed a different approach in this opening salvo for the crown against the reigning titlists, the De La Salle University (DLSU) Lady Spikers. I got so used to seeing scoring champ Alyssa Valdez start at the open-hitter position for the Lady Eagles and Gretchen Ho starting at center. Well, lo and behold, Lady Eagles mentor Roger Gorayeb placed “Baldo” at center, placed Ho at the utility spiker slot and inserted Ella de Jesus in the open. It looked and felt strange.
It seemed like DLSU Head Coach Ramil de Jesus was waiting for Gorayeb to abort his gambit and revert to his standard rotation because the Lady Spikers had a hard time adapting—at least initially. Even when Valdez darted out after her service duties were over and libero Den-Den Lazaro assumed her back row defensive post did it feel even more bizarre. Valdez is usually a solid option for a back row attack and placing her at center with the libero coming in to take her back row spot took that element away from Ateneo’s offense.
But in the first two sets it worked!
Apparently, the Lady Spikers came in with a very distinct game-plan that when Ateneo unexpectedly shook up their line-up, DLSU looked baffled—to the tune of unforced error after unforced error. It also helped the Lady Eagles that Team Captain Dzi Gervacio waxed hot from the service line and her wicked jump-serve just tore apart the La Salle reception alignment. The Lady Spikers just couldn’t generate any consistent offense because their reception was in shambles that even the early entry of back-up setter Kim Fajardo for starter Mika Esperanza and reserve utility spiker Cyd Demecillo for Wensh Tiu still couldn’t stem the tide for the Taft Girls. AdMU was playing almost flawless volleyball with an unforeseen strategy that was working to the hilt.
(1)DLSU 20 17
(2)AdMU 25 25
In the third set, Ateneo still stuck to the same system. It was producing results so as the old adage goes, “…why fix it if it ain’t broke?” Coach De Jesus returned Esperanza to begin the third and again yanked her out for Fajardo when Ateneo threatened to pull away leading 9-3. It was at this point when the defending champions remembered who they were: The Defending Champions.
Vocal leader Michele Gumabao began engineering a major uprising supported by timely incursions by sophomore sensations Mika Reyes and Ara Galang and things started to come together offensively for the Lady Spikers. Melissa Gohing—also playing in her last season, like her batchmates endearingly referred to as Ateneo’s Fab Five—began diving for everything that came her way. Sportscaster Boom Gonzales even said, “Melssia Gohing has mopped every corner of the floor at Araneta today…” Gohing’s incredible display of tenacity infected her previously lacklustre mates and—like in their first match-up—DLSU denied the Katipuneras a straight-sets victory by claiming the third to extend the match.
(1)DLSU 20 17 25
(2)AdMU 25 25 22
After DLSU stole that third set, the momentum had clearly shifted. Even if Ateneo was the squad “enjoying” a two sets to one advantage, it felt as if the Lady Eagles were the ones who had to rally. Former Lady Spiker Stephanie Mercado—during a brief chat with the TV panel—likened DLSU to a Diesel engine; takes a while to warm up but when it does, it performs at full efficiency. The parts of that engine that began performing at full efficiency were Gumabao, Reyes, Galang and joined by reigning MVP Abigail Maraño.
Again, akin to their first encounter, AdMU were leading for a good part of the set. Fille Cainglet continued her torrid pace and showed no signs of the ankle injury that slowed her down for a better portion of the season’s latter half. Valdez quietly yet effectively got her numbers in, but the Gervacio serve began to wane in power and coercion and this was when the Lady Spikers began getting the first balls they wanted. Fajardo showed nerves of a veteran as she masterfully orchestrated attack pattern after attack pattern and Ateneo were now the ones back-pedalling to the noticeably more aggressive La Salle juggernaut.
Yet it was Ateneo who were leading 21-20 when—like in their first meeting—the unthinkable happened.
No, it was not another key injury to a front-liner, but something grizzlier: Alyssa Valdez forgot she was a center.
How did this cost the Lady Eagles? After Valdez had completed her service rotation, Lazaro came in to take her spot—as the libero should. Valdez, so used to being an open-hitter, stayed on the court as La Salle served. The buzzer immediately sounded and second referee Rodrigo Rojas blew his whistle to indicate the incomprehensible violation against the Lady Eagles: too many players on the court. This cost Ateneo a crucial point and the Lady Spikers held them to only one point hence, taking the fourth set and—like in their first game against each other—came back from two sets down to force a decider. The sea of green at the Big Dome came to life as DLSU officially had AdMU on the ropes—again.
(1)DLSU 20 17 25 25
(2)AdMU 25 25 22 22
Set #5: Race to 15 points
For the OBF Faithful, this must have been excruciatingly difficult to fathom. Ateneo won the first two sets, were leading 9-3 in the third set and now they had to deal with an extremely confident champion squad entering a race to 15. Unlike their first round battle though, the Lady Eagles were at full strength coming into the decider. Cainglet wasn’t only at 100% healthy, but she had been playing exceptionally well.
Coach Gorayeb reset his line-up and Valdez was back at her natural open-hitter position entering the fifth set. This is when the Lady Spikers finally got a chance to execute the game-plan they prepared for. Time and time again Valdez was denied at the net by the trademark defenses of DLSU and the Gumabao-Galang-Reyes triumvirate connected repeatedly, thanks to the impeccable distribution of a now infallible Fajardo.
Somehow, the traditional rotation sort of backfired for the Lady Eagles when at two crucial junctures of the last canto, Ateneo setter Jem Ferrer sent the set back to the back row expecting Valdez to pounce. It never happened. Now disorganized and demoralized, the Lady Eagles could only muster six total points as La Salle once again showed incomparable poise down the stretch and trounced the hapless Ateneans to move to within a triumph away from sealing their date with destiny; a third consecutive crown.
(1)DLSU 20 17 25 25 15
(2)AdMU 25 25 22 22 6 F
DLSU leads Best-of Three series 1-0
Game 2: March 6, 2013—4:00PM, MOA Arena, Pasay City
La Salle: V. Galang 17 pts (17/58 attacks), M. Gumabao 15 pts (13/44 attacks), M. Reyes 15 pts
Ateneo: A. Valdez 17 pts (12/47 attacks), F. Cainglet 14 pts (11/56 attacks), A. Gervacio 9 pts
Notes: Unforced Errors—DLSU 48, AdMU 25. Attack Points—DLSU 62, AdMU 40
It is tough to critique Gorayeb’s decisions in this match. His starting Valdez at center threw off DLSU at the onset and appeared to be a stroke of genius. However, when the Lady Spikers began adjusting to this variable, Ateneo apparently didn’t do the same in time, leading to struggles in the next two sets. By the time Gorayeb reverted to his normal rotation, DLSU was ready. The fifth Fab Five member Aillysse Nacahi as well as reserves Amy Ahomiro and Gizelle Tan even made cameo appearances—in the fifth set, spelling de Jesus, Ferrer and Ho. That must have been a head-scratcher for many aficionados.
But again, I cannot second-guess Gorayeb. He’s been in volleyball longer than most of us have. I cannot get into the psyche of the players, too—especially now that BOTH teams have gag orders.
I was, however, able to pick the mind of former University of Santo Tomas (UST) star setter Denise Tan on the matter.
“In terms of blocking Valdez is much more effective than (Mae) Tajima or (Marge) Tejada (who were benched in this game),” the former volleybelle turned TV broadcaster explains. “But when it comes to offense, I think dun lang talaga siya (dapat) sa open. Even the missed receptions of Ateneo get converted to a point when she gets the ‘missed ball’ sets. Probably adding to the ‘affectivity’ of that strategy is La Salle’s poor and diesel start.”
“Kaso they gave the Archers (Lady Spikers) hope and that’s what they got in return.”
Valdez is running for MVP and if the votes and stats can fend off the obvious challenge from Reyes and Galang, she may go on to claim that honor. Can this catapult her to an inspired showing in Game 2 and give the ultimate gift to her departing Fab Five core? Will the Fab Five extend their final season? Or will Tiu (a transferee from La Salle Dasmariñas, hence with no more eligibility after this season), Gohing and Gumabao mark their last hoorah with another DLSU triple crown?
This Wednesday, traffic jams and gridlocks will not be blamed solely on the weekly pilgrimage to Baclaran, but also on the influx of rabid fanatics attempting to get the best seat to witness history. DLSU has never swept in their last two title runs. The Lady Eagles and the throng known as the OBF faithful will attempt to keep that blemish intact. However, the New Legion of Doom will be pumped knowing they are one victory away from yet another dynasty. They’ve won the General Championship and would very much love to make the Women’s Volleyball title the cherry on top of their sundae.
So: work or game? School or game? Shopping or game? I think you already know the answer.
Follow Noel Zarate on Twitter: @NoelZarate