Thursday, February 24, 2011

Sweeter the Second Time Around

....or Why the La Salle Women's Volleyball Team will Win the 73rd UAAP Women's Volleyball Championship

La Salle fans and critics have "marveled" at how the UST Tigresses managed to sweep the defending champions in last season's Finals. It was heartbreaking not only for the volleyball players themselves but also for their fans and supporters who taught, with the Lady Spikers' skills and almost-impeccable timing, that they were going all the way. They never lost a game in the eliminations until they met the roaring Tigresses who people said, "peaked  at the right time." That loss was the start of the Lady Spikers' spiral down to defeat.

This season, the 73rd of the UAAP, almost the same line-up that lost to UST in the 72nd season have come back to play. Except for the three players who graduated (Kaye Martinez, Camille Cerveza, Regine Diego), the line-up was intact. La Salle also recruited good players to include in their 14-woman roster.


Mika Esperanza. The advent of this gem of a setter shows a bright future ahead for the Lady Spikers--not only for this year but in the coming years ahead. In all the years that I have been a volleyball fan, I noticed that the La Salle offense (and even defense) relies heavily on the strength of their setter. We all know what Chi Saet did for La Salle in the late 1990s/early 2000s. After her, La Salle struggled to find an equally competent player to take Saet's place. But this year, they have successfully recruited Mika Esperanza of De La Salle-Lipa. For a rookie, Esperanza have shown composure and leadership on court by deciding well, and giving efficient sets. I will be surprised if she will not win the Rookie of the Year Award this season. (Note: La Salle rookies have won this award in the past two years, Melissa Gohing and Joanne Siy.)

Improved team offense and defense. Good sets translate to better scoring. Compared to the team last year, the line-up this year has stepped up in terms of scoring. Abigail Maraño and Michelle Gumabao have both improved on their game, and are now part of the scoring threats of the team. Their improvement, and involvement in offense lessened the pressure and attention (aka defense) given to veteran-graduating players Steph Mercado and Jacq Alarca. The players have gradually realized and adapted their roles in the team.

The players' improvement on offense is also evident in defense. The consistent and efficient blocking, and the remarkable improvement in floor defense (especially in Game 1 of the Finals against UST) make up for the deterioration of their libero's play this season. I guess she's suffering from Junior jinx (as opposed to sophomore jinx).

Luck. In some cases, skills and talent alone are not enough to win games and championships. Luck definitely plays a factor, although coaches do not want to heavily rely on this. This season La Salle had the breaks of the game going for them--most of the time. Also, they were lucky to have no injuries on their key players. More importantly, they were lucky (read: fortunate) to have just one game nullified in light of the controversy involving their players.

Cruz' leadership-by-example. Not to disregard or make less of Mercado's leadership as team captain last year, Cha Cruz's ascent as the captain this season translated to the improvement, versatility and consistency of her game. Whenever the team is down (in morale or in score) or the other team is threatening to make a comeback, she would step up and score to stave off the other team's rally. During the games, she is the first to cheer for a scored point and the first to move on and forget about a botched play. She keeps focused on court, and plays with smarts--evident of a true leader.

Experience. Losing the championship last year (in a sweep manner, no less) made the team this year tougher and consequently better. The players now know how to handle pressure and not back down to the challenge and criticisms the crowd throws at them. Before the Lady Spikers reached the Finals this season, they experienced two or three five-setter matches, all of which they won. In contrast to last year, when they lost the five-setter matches they had against UST, making the team vulnerable to pressure. They didn't have 'veterans' to turn to last season; whereas this season, Alarca, Mercado and Cruz step up during big games. As a whole, the Lady Spikers have developed the toughness of a Mich Datuin, the smarts of a Chi Saet, and the skills of a Des Hernandez. The question that remains to be answered is this: Will they have the heart of an Illa Santos?

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