The Ateneo Lady Eagles showed no fear.
Let me harp about confidence once more. These girls sure have found it. And through it all, there’s that innate joy about playing. Sort of like when they first played the game. You have to credit that a lot to their coach Anusorn Bundit.
When I first wrote about the Lady Eagles’ game this year (a three-set loss to NU on Opening Day), this is what I put down, “The final score will show a three-set sweep (25-17, 25-22, 25-17) by the NU Lady Bulldogs over their Ateneo counterparts but as always, it doesn’t always begin to tell the whole story. Not unless the scores were by lopsided margins.”
And: “They (the Lady Eagles) were however fun to watch. There was an innate joy to their game and I really could appreciate that. Love of the game. That’s why you play this.”
It sounds so simplistic when Coach Thai repeatedly reminds his charges “Happy Happy” that he sounds like a character out of Ren and Stimpy. But a lot of his coaching (not to mention getting mad) is during practice that is pretty intense. In the practice before Game Three, middle blocker Aerieal Patnongon lost a tooth! That’s how intense it was.
When it’s game time, it is time for the coach to simply remind the girls to focus (he uses the word meditate) aside from some pointers.
Even when they were swept by La Salle in the eliminations, the team knew they could play the three-time defending champs. I spoke with Alyssa Valdez and Denden Lazaro before the finals and they were quite unshakable in their belief they could play the champs. Of course, no one will say, “Yeah, we’re going to lose” but they were quite adamant and I came away convinced they could hang with Aby Maraño and company. For them, it was just a matter of time and for all the disparate parts of veterans and newcomers to jell.
Much is made about them walking into a no-pressure situation. I myself have said that. But that is no longer the case. They are here now. After the Game Two loss that put DLSU a win away from their fourth straight title, they were unflinching in their belief they could get it done.
Down a game in the series. Down by several points in the fifth set of the fourth match. La Salle was getting ready to celebrate. They came back and won to forge the improbable.
Moral victories aside, they want a title and they aren’t thinking about next year.
Why do I say they are not afraid? I have watched this La Salle team of the past four seasons dismantle foes more often than not with relative ease. Sometimes, the game hasn’t even started you know the opponent is beaten by just watching their body language on the court. That’s how good these Lady Spikers teams have been.
So what has changed. It starts with the coach who has given confidence to players like Amy Ahomiro, Ella De Jesus, and the next one who is so crucial to their offense…
For the second time in recent memory, a rookie setter has stamped her class and her importance to the team.
As huge as Alyssa Valdez is for Ateneo, Jia Morado has claimed the mantle of heir to Jem Ferrer – she who jumpstarted the offense and defended at the net like she was a foot taller. Jem was special because she got her rookie-laden team fighting in their very first year together. Everyone thought, a few years of seasoning and they’ll be in the finals.
It is the same with Morado. Cool as a cucumber and smart as they come.
She’s been unpredictable making it difficult for the La Salle Lady Spikers to figure out the attack.
Really, did you think she’s set up Amy Ahomiro for those crucial points? Those are Valdez shots. But Jia (along with Michelle Morente and Amy who came alive in Game Three to massively support Valdez) have stepped up to the plate and delivered.
For the second time in this finals series, she has performed better than Master Kim (sorry for the pun, I couldn’t resist) as she notched a high of 48 excellent sets to the 35 of Fajardo. That’s huge!
And of course, there’s the defense that begins with Denden Lazaro.
Lazaro had as many excellent digs as Ara Galang and Cyd Demecillo put together (read: 24 excellent digs). She also registered 15 excellent receptions. I thought she was good during her rookie year but this season is her best performance yet.
So much for a ankle injury that swelled immediately after Game Two.
What’s up with La Salle?
The simple answer is they’re just being challenged like no one has in these past two seasons. They are getting a lot of scoring from different players. Coach Ramil De Jesus has made excellent bunots as well and fantastic in-game adjustments. Ateneo has just matched them. But for them to have a shot at winning their fourth straight, they have to receive better and Kim Fajardo has to play like she did in Game Two. If she can keep the Ateneo defense guessing then they’ll cause them problems as well.
La Salle could have rolled over and lost the third set when Ateneo was up 12-10 but they came back and won the next two sets to go to a deciding fifth set. That is championship pride. Hard-won at that too. So the Lady Spikers can never be counted out.
However, in a Game Four setting (the last of this series), they’ll have to pull out all the stops. And Aby Maraño has to continue to be inspiration for her team.
Just to give you an idea of how deep and talented this team is, Coach Ramil sent in veteran Kim Esperanza in lieu of Fajardo and she delivered too.
It came down to breaks and a weird (but ultimately correct) call to end the match.
So we’re in for a fourth game. It’s going to be a classic. The ultimate winner here is the sport of volleyball. Good show, girls. Good show.
Notes: Might not have anything to do with the game but: for the past three games, the team that won the second set won the match.
Remember, Ateneo lost the second set of Game Two, 25-20, when they were without Denden Lazaro. While winning the first set is huge, thus far, the second set has been pivotal.