Looking at Ateneo’s taking the top spot after the volleyball elims
by rick olivares
The Ateneo Lady Eagles sure teach a timeless lesson about patience, trust, and well, heartstrong.
The four-set win over La Salle to close out the elimination round and seize the top seed heading into the final four is one such reminder.
Mastery is important because it gives you a mental edge that is crucial especially against a superb rival. The two elimination round wins over La Salle were crafted in similar fashion. The first round saw Ateneo come back from five and four points down with the Lady Archers a point or two away from closing out the first two sets. The just-concluded second round battle (12-25, 25-20, 25-21, 25-19) saw the Lady Eagles start agonizingly slow and seemingly disjointed then pick it up. By the fourth set, they were rolling.
When next they play La Salle, they’ll have their foes thinking all the time that the Lady Eagles can and have come back so many times. Resiliency is perhaps Ateneo’s biggest trait these past four years.
With both teams already in the Final Four and having secured the twice-to-beat advantage over the third and fourth seeds, this was nothing more than a battle for pride. Sure it is. It always is. But you definitely want to go into the next round with a win. A feel good win if nothing more.
The Lady Eagles gave cause to doubt after the Lady Archers rolled all over them in the first set. There were reception problems and even more mystifying attacking concerns. Unlike in the first round where La Salle danced, celebrated exuberantly, and stared daggers from across the net, this time, they were a little more subdued in their celebration. After they fell in the second and third set, the smiles were pretty much gone.
The match won on pure grit. One point at a time, with increasingly better defense and then with the whole team, save for the injured Jhoana Maraguinot, contributing. Bea De Leon was a sparkplug with her huge points and display of emotion. Katrina Tolentino struggled all match long but she still factored in. Mich Morente once more scored in double figures in points, digging, and receiving – underscoring her all-around game.
That head coach Anusorn Bundit was willing to insert Ponggay Gaston in the starting six (and she chipped in a point) then later put in Deanna Wong, Jules Samonte, and Jamie Lavitoria at crucial junctures underscored the trust between coaching staff and the players, as well as the depth of the squad.
It was especially gratifying for Lavitoria, who had rocky season 78, entered with two points to win a set and she served admirably well.
Samonte played long minutes and had her best match of the season. In many ways, I am reminded of Bea De Leon’s rookie season where she gave a good account of herself during the previous V-League Collegiate Conference then parlayed it into a strong first UAAP campaign.
This is perhaps the best Ateneo has had in the middle position that was long their weakness. Think of the core that Bundit rotates there – De Leon, Maddie Madayag, Ana Gopico, and Samonte – and see what a luxury he has right there.
Bundit himself deserves plaudits for the strategy of slowly bringing in Gopico into competitive play. Gopico last played three years ago, had a good V-League season, then has come on strong this second round. Madayag also came in and delivered some hits and big time serves. Bundit has brought into play this Final Four a fully confident bunch.
The fourth year tactician stuck to a short rotation in the first round before slowly rotating in the bench. Furthermore, I sure appreciate his gesture towards his La Salle opposite Ramil De Jesus when he apologized for a bad call that went Ateneo’s way.
Can the defending champions beat Ateneo?
Of course. They have a very good team with four players who are arguably the best in their positions starting with Kim Fajardo and Dawn Macandili along with Mary Joy Baron and Kim Dy. They have capable players in Desiree Cheng, Tin Tiamzon, Aduke Ogunsanya, May Luna, and Michelle Cobb.
They have a top notch coach in De Jesus and a fantastic program and support system. They were points away from taking certain sets that could have swayed the match in an altogether different direction. Except it didn’t.
The reason why I think they’ve struggled is they have crucial pieces who are still lacking in big game experience – Tiamzon, Ogunsanya, and well, Cobb for obvious reasons.
Ateneo in the meantime has a huge core that has big game experience – Jia Morado, De Leon, Madayag, Morente, Gizelle Tan, Jhoana Maraguinot, Kim Gequillana, Ana Gopico, and Jamie Lavitoria. That’s an awful lot. Nine players.
While both Far Eastern University and the University of Santo Tomas are no pushovers for Ateneo and La Salle respectively, if form and relative strength play true to its trend, Ateneo and La Salle should meet for the sixth consecutive time in the UAAP Women’s Volleyball Finals. But that’s a game or two away.
In the meantime, that last Ateneo-La Salle match gives everyone, both teams and their different Final Four protagonists a lot to think about. There will be winners and well, losers, but the ultimate winner is the sport and their fans.