Heading into Sunday’s end of the first match between Ateneo and La Salle, I had three thoughts:
1. Would the Ateneo Lady Eagles have the strength and legs to go up against the tough La Salle Lady Spikers after having played against the UE Lady Warriors one day before?
2. I felt the Lady Spikers were looking more towards this match than any other to see where they are at and to gain a measure of advantage and revenge.
3. How would Ateneo rookie Bea De Leon stand up to a frontline that still has elements that put the fear of the volleyball gods into opposing teams?
After the playoff-finals atmosphere of the five-set win by Lady Eagles, here are my observations:
The first set was a getting-to-know-you-once-more affair where each side took the measure of the other. I thought that the errors on Ateneo’s side were to be expected after having played the day before. They didn’t look sharp and played in spurts. Later, as much as La Salle played good defense in the second and third set, Ateneo didn’t play well. They had too many unforced errors. However, the first set provided a glimpse of what the Lady Eagles could be and accomplish when they set their minds to it. It wasn’t all Alyssa Valdez. Bea de Leon provided Ateneo their first real force in the middle since never. Ella de Jesus, Amy Ahomiro and Michelle Morente contributed too. When that happens, it makes life easier for Valdez and opponents cannot key their defense to one person.
The Lady Spikers have always had a lot of wondrous scorers, inspirational leaders, and terrific net and floor defense. That is what helped them become a volleyball power in recent years. After that first set, DLSU coach Ramil De Jesus dug into his bench and got some contributions from Christine Soyud and Mary Joy Baron who responded well by playing great defense.
This is where the adjustment is key. And while help from the bench is one, it oft falls upon the setter to get the offense going. This is where Jia Morado has been key for Ateneo. Last year, she showed great volleyball IQ for a freshman and that is huge.
In last Sunday’s game, during that third set, she kept feeding the ball to Valdez that the offense became predictable. It sort of reminded me of that match between Adamson and UP days earlier when Amanda Villanueva was oft set up from the open position and the Lady Maroons simply put up a wall where she was located. Mylene Paat scored some but Adamson forgot her. In the end, Villanueva got tired and made two huge mistakes in the endgame that cost them the set and ultimately, the match.
Back to La Salle’s blocking, in years past, the Lady Eagles, even during the time of Roger Gorayeb, tried to work around that wall. In Roger’s last year with Ateneo, he had Valdez attacking up the middle to give DLSU a different look. It was also contingent upon Fille Cainglet and Dzi Gervacio scoring from either side. It worked to an extent but consistency was the problem.
When Morado began to find her other teammates – including Jhoana Maraguinot – that opened up the floor for Ateneo.
Having watched both teams through the years, winning five-setters is due to several things – talent and the number of weapons on both ends of the floor that you have, experience, fitness, and mental toughness. When Ateneo’s former Fab Five were freshmen, they played about four five-setters in the first round and lost every one of them. When they learned how to win those, they next hurdle was getting past Adamson and later, La Salle. The lessons learned in the playoffs last year where they ditched Adamson and NU before erasing La Salle’s thrice-to-beat advantage is huge. The timeout where Anusorn Bundit told his girls to meditate cannot be underestimated – clear your thoughts and go back to your system and what got you there.
People think that the Thai coach doesn’t need to do a lot of coaching. If people thought that Gorayeb’s practices were tough, Bundit’s is punishing. That is where he does his coaching. Thai whether through the language barrier or not has learned to tread that line where you coach and do not over-coach and do not under-coach. Just reminders. I think this has helped Ateneo these past two years. I have always decried coaches who belabor the obvious and get mad at the slightest mistake that it makes players tentative.
When Morente, who isn’t 100% came out for Maraguinot, the player who had to wait two years to make her debut with Ateneo, got her best playing time this season and came through. I believe her points were crucial and when it came, La Salle had to mind where she was located. When de Leon and Ahomiro began to find some holes in the middle, La Salle got confused.
Ara Galang didn’t have a great game. She scattered her points but she was defended well. I thought that Mika Reyes needed to pick up the slack and ease the pressure on Galang. La Salle got significant contributions from several players but they needed to step up in the crunch.
In a turn of events, the Lady Spikers’ errors piled up, they got stopped, and they got blanked. And like any sport, you view it with either glee or dismay depending on which side you root for, or if an objective observer, wonder how sides can unravel in a huff and commit mistakes in bunches.
So correlating my thoughts on my pre-game musings, I still believe that fatigue was played a factor but just a bit. It became a mental game. La Salle looked forward to the match but Ateneo showed no fear against La Salle. They chucked that with their title run. Even with the disadvantage of having played a game before and you begin to get tired a bit, they dug deep and took the game from their tough rival. As for Bea de Leon, she was solid. What an impact rookie.
The second round meeting will even be more interesting. And who knows, maybe beyond.
Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.