'Heart-strong' Ateneo wins first volleyball title

by Camille Naredo, ABS-CBNnews.com

Posted at Mar 15 2014 05:37 PM | Updated as of Mar 18 2014 02:06 AM

The Ateneo Lady Spikers are crowned UAAP 76 women's volleyball champions after defeating La Salle in 3 straight sets. Photo by Mark Cristino for ABS-CBNnews.com

MANILA (4th UPDATE) - In a stunning finale to what has been a fairy tale run in the UAAP Season 76 women's volleyball tournament, the Ateneo Lady Eagles won their first championship by sweeping archrivals De La Salle in the do-or-die Game 4 of the finals.

Playing in their fifth do-or-die game of the playoffs in front of a 21,000-strong crowd at the SM Mall of Asia Arena on Saturday, the Lady Eagles shockingly swept the Lady Spikers, 25-23, 26-24, and 25-21 to end La Salle's dominance of UAAP volleyball.

Season 76 Most Valuable Player (MVP) Alyssa Valdez played a spectacular game with 21 points - including the last three of the game - to go along with 12 excellent digs to power her team to history.

"Naiisip namin na worth it lahat ng pinaghirapan namin," said Valdez. "Ang ine-expect ng lahat na Final Four 'yung goal namin, tapos andito kami ngayon, nakatayo. Nakuha pa namin 'yung award."

Valdez was also named the MVP of the Finals, completing a golden-double.

But there were several heroes for Ateneo in the game, including the rookie pair of Michelle Morente (11 points) and setter Julia Morado (24 excellent sets), as well as veteran Ella De Jesus (10 points) and Amy Ahomiro (six points).

Meanwhile, it was a heartbreaking end to the storied UAAP career of La Salle captain Abigail Marano, who scored eight points in her last game. Marano won three championships in her collegiate career, the last two at the expense of the Lady Eagles, but the third time proved to be the charm for Ateneo.

First blood

Ateneo drew first blood with a 25-23 victory in the opening set after holding off a last-ditch La Salle rally. They were up 15-10 when Ara Galang and Marano came alive to bring the Lady Spikers back in the game.

The score was tied at 21-all after Mika Reyes crushed a spike off the Ateneo blockers, but Morado scored on the second touch to give the Lady Eagles back the lead. They were at set point, 24-21, after an Ella de Jesus ace, when La Salle made a brief 2-0 run to make it a one-point game.

But Valdez surprised La Salle with an off-speed kill to give Ateneo the victory in the opening set.

La Salle looked as though they were on their way to tying the game, dominating most of the second set. They led by as much as seven points, 17-10, and had a 23-18 lead when Ateneo made a stunning comeback. 

An off-the-block kill by Morente touched off an 8-1 Ateneo run to end the game, compounded by hitting errors by De La Salle. The Lady Spikers were at set-point, 24-21, after a service error by Morente, but Ateneo showed that they truly embodied their motto of "heart strong" by not folding and clawing back from the dead. 

Attacks from Ahomiro and Valdez brought Ateneo to within one, and a setting error by La Salle's substitute setter Mika Esperanza tied the game at 24-all. 

Valdez scored again, and Ahomiro blocked a La Salle attack to complete the comeback, giving Ateneo a surprising 2-0 set lead in the do-or-die game. 

Ateneo carried the momentum all the way through the third set, when they raced to a stunning 19-10 lead thanks in part to Valdez's steady service. 

But La Salle, showing the fighting hearts of champions, clawed back into the set, with the pair of Reyes and Galang, along with Cyd Demecillo, taking turns to score points for the Lady Spikers as the Lady Eagles looked to be on the brink of a meltdown. 

It was Valdez who took charge for the Lady Eagles. After a mishit by Galang made it 19-22, Valdez scored on a down-the-line kill to bring Ateneo to within 2 points of a championship. 

Galang delayed the Ateneo celebration with a kill of her own, but a Valdez kill off a combination play went through the La Salle blockers. After a Denden Tan point, it was Valdez again who took matters into her own hands, with a spike that bounced off the hands off La Salle's players to give Ateneo the final point. 

"Sobrang overwhelming, sobrang fulfilling na umabot kami sa point na ito," said Lazaro. "Start ng season, mababa lang 'yung goal namin - mag Final Four. 'Yung hard work talaga, nag pay-off." 

With their stunning three-set win, Ateneo became only the second team in UAAP history to overcome a thrice-to-beat disadvantage in the Finals. 

Fairy tale run 

It was a fairy tale run for the Lady Eagles, who were considered a 'rebuilding team' this year after losing their fabled "Fab Five" to graduation after Season 75. But thanks to an MVP-campaign from Valdez and solid play from their veterans and rookies, they made it to the Final Four as a third seed. 

They defeated Adamson in the step-ladder semis - their first do-or-die game of the playoffs - and then overcame a twice-to-beat disadvantage against the second seeded National University to make it to the Finals for the third year in a row. 

They were massive underdogs against La Salle in the Finals, however, as the Lady Spikers had swept the elimination rounds, were riding a remarkable 30-game winning streak, and had a thrice-to-beat advantage.

La Salle had also beaten Ateneo in straight sets in both of their games in the elimination round. 

But Ateneo fired a warning shot with a four-set win in Game 1, and though they lost Game 2 to again be pushed to the brink, they fought back with a classic five-set victory in Game 3 to set up today's do-or-die game. 

With their victory, the Lady Eagles snapped La Salle's string of three consecutive championships in the UAAP women's division. 

"Noong start ng season, we just wanted to play this year, and we just wanted to go to the Final Four," said Morado. "We didn't expect that we'd get this far. We're just really, really happy." 

"We really exceeded our expectations this season," she added. 

It was also the crowning moment of Ateneo coach Anusorn "Tai" Bundit, who was coaching the Lady Eagles for the first year. He instilled the "heart strong" mentality that carried Ateneo throughout the season and became the rallying cry of the Lady Eagles and their supporters all throughout.