It's the time of the year again when sports fans will be at the edge of their seats for every strong spike, solid block, and impressive save, as the UAAP Season 80 women's volleyball tournament kicks off on Saturday at the Mall of Asia Arena.
All eyes are on back-to-back defending champion De La Salle University, but last year's runner-up Ateneo De Manila University, semifinalists University of Santo Tomas and Far Eastern University, as well as National University, University of the Philippines, Adamson University, and University of the East will give the Lady Spikers a run for their money.
Although some key players of their respective teams have already graduated, everyone is still expecting a much tougher competition.
De La Salle Lady Spikers
Life After Kim
Gunning for its third straight title, La Salle is still the favorite coming into the 80th season even without seasoned setter Kim Fajardo. The Lady Spikers, in fact, are still a force to reckon with.
Veterans Kim Dy, Dawn Macandili, and reigning Most Valuable Player Majoy Baron are tasked to take the lead for the Taft-based squad to duplicate a three-peat—a feat La Salle has already done twice (2003-2005 and 2011-2013). Although pressure starts to creep in, the Lady Spikers set their focus on what is ahead instead on what other people expect from them. "I think mas ine-expect niya (Coach Ramil de Jesus) kami mag-lead since kami yung may last playing year," said Baron of these expectations.
Meanwhile, replacing Fajardo is Michelle Cobb, who admitted that while it's hard to fill in the void left by former three-time league best setter, she finds courage from her teammates. The sophomore playmaker shared, "Lagi nilang sinasabi sa akin na, pag kunyari napag-iinitan na ako, parang sinasabi nila na 'Backbone tayo ni Mich. Tayo yung foundation.'"
Ateneo Lady Eagles
Has Coach Tai regained his team's trust?
After the offseason "internal issue," Ateneo is ready to face another challenge.
Late last year, the Lady Eagles were at the center of controversy after some of the players reportedly asked the management to replace Head Coach Tai Bundit due to difficulty in training. But team captain Maddie Madayag believes the team grew stronger as a cohesive unit after what they've been through.
"(I learned) to trust the process; everyone on the team trusts the coaches. Just trust. Yun talaga," she said. "Every team has its problems. Siguro, it differs na lang on how people respond. We faced our problems talaga. It made us a stronger team."
Co-captain Kat Tolentino couldn't agree more. "Every team has their controversies and squabbles or politics. That's just one thing the team had to go through. In the end, it's the fact that we come together and learn from our mistakes and then we also adjust. We need to use that to push us forward."
UST Golden Tigresses
University of Santo Tomas hopes to move a notch higher after last season's finish. On Kungfu Reyes' first campaign as Tigresses head coach, the España-based squad came in sixth, then third the next year—a big leap and at the same time a big challenge for the outspoken mentor.
Reyes explained, "Actually, instead of pressure, it's a challenge for us. This time i-overachieve namin hanggang maaari." By exceeding expectations, he not only wants to get back to the Final Four but to be at either No. 1 or 2 spot for the twice-to-beat advantage.
But before reaching that point, they have to overcome their off-season struggles. Key players Pam Lastimosa, Chloe Cortez, Alex Cabanos, and Ria Meneses already graduated. Before the year ended, EJ Laure was ruled out of the competition due to an injured shoulder.
But he remains optimistic of what his team is capable of. "Kailangan mo maghanap ng panibagong solusyon. So ganoon din sila (players). We don't even talk about it na wala na si EJ," Reyes added. "Kasi pwede namang mabuhay pa yung team eh. Hindi naman to EJ's team, it's everybody's team. UST team kami."
FEU Lady Tamaraws
More emotionally equipped
A new coach and a relatively intact lineup, Far Eastern University was tagged to be an early Final Four favorite. Only team captain Remy Palma graduated from the Lady Tamaraws, and Bernadeth Pons, Toni Rose Basas, and returning Rose Vargas are expected to step up as leaders.
FEU coach George Pascua, who replaced Shaq delos Santos, was quick to tone down expectations. "One at a time ang sabi ko sa kanila, paunti-unti lang hanggang sa ma-reach natin. Ganoon naman ang instruction ko. Ang unang inayos namin, kaya ang tagal ng team building namin, almost five days, so inuna yung more on psychological and emotional aspect nila," he shared.
Once they had settled those things, the team camped in Baguio for three days. The veteran mentor gave his wards his living principle before the competition starts: "Every game, think that this is a championship game. Think na ito na yung huling laro mo."
NU Lady Bulldogs
Jaja's Last Hurrah
National University vowed to go all out to capture that elusive UAAP women's volleyball title. For the past four years, skipper Jaja Santiago has only one goal—the championship. What made her more hungry this time is their disappointing fifth-place finish last year.
"Sa apat na taon na nakalipas, ngayong last playing year ko hindi ako papayag na hindi namin makukuha yun at ga-graduate ako na wala kaming nakukuha sa UAAP," according to the NU star and national team member, who wants to end a six-decade title drought for a team that last won a championship in 1956 and 1957.
But NU assistant coach Aaron Velez stressed that winning is a team effort. "Volleyball is still a team effort," he explained. "I'd say the best system, the best jelling of the team, the best teamwork will truly deserve the crown."
UP Lady Fighting Maroons
Faster and better
University of the Philippines coach Godfrey Okumu believes that the Lady Maroons have what it takes to be title contenders. But a championship does not happen overnight. The Kenyan coach also pointed out that he's not imposing a new system or a new brand of play; instead, he will just polish the team's strong points and work on the weaknesses.
"I'm not trying to change the way they play, what I’m trying to do is to improve whatever they had," says Okumu. "So that you can make it faster and if they can spike then you spike stronger, if they can pass they should pass better."
Okumu emphasized that if the team wants to rise above the competition, old habits should be changed.
"Everything I'm trying to improve—speed, power, and accuracy—otherwise it's the same team," he explained. "I hope by changing the speed, the way they pass, the way they spike, improving their power, I think we will get somewhere."
Adamson Lady Falcons
Return to respectability
It has been four years since Adamson University last made it to the Final Four, and the Lady Falcons want to end their futility. Team captain Jema Galanza, who was a rookie back when Adamson faced Ateneo in the step-ladder semifinals, is itching to feel that same kind of happiness again.
The skipper said: "Sa tinagal ng Adamson na hindi pumasok ng Final Four sobrang gusto ko talaga as in. Hindi lang sa Final Four kundi Finals talaga yung gusto kong marating. Sana itong [season] palarin kami sa Adamson."
For head coach Air Padda, instilling a "we not me" kind of attitude on her second with the team will fuel her wards to work more as a team. The vocal American mentor, who experienced a 1-13 win-loss record during her maiden year, said they should learn from their mistakes so they don't end up in that position again.
Although there will still be struggles, the Lady Falcons are more motivated to do better this year.
"If there's one thing that's gonna keep you fighting, when you wanna give up, when you wanna come into practice and you don’t want to focus, when you wanna be mad at the coaches, when you wanna bring in your outside stuff, there's one thing that everyone can hold accountable to everybody and that’s to get in the Final Four," says Padda.
UE Lady Warriors
Cellar dwellers no more
University of the East Coach Francis Vicente wants his team to be treated just as the other teams—as title contenders. For the past years, the Lady Warriors are always at the bottom of the standings and Vicente hopes to change that, saying, "Ang kailangan namin yung ma-overcome namin yung nandun kami sa ibaba. Iangat namin ng mga at least dalawang ranks."
To the seasoned tactician, who discovered today's brightest volleyball stars like Alyssa Valdez, Kim Fajardo, and Santiago sisters Dindin and Jaja, it all starts in believing that they can. And while other people doubt their capabilities, they have to be each other's strength and "perform at the highest level."
"Pag na-overcome nila yung feeling na talo na agad pag nakita yung kalaban, at inisip na, 'Hindi, kaya namin 'to. Gagawin namin lahat, three sets, five, basta pipilitin namin manalo dito.' Yung mindset dapat ang magiging advantage ng isang team."