MANILA, Philippines – Three-time defending champion Ateneo de Manila University is in a precarious position heading to Final 4 of the UAAP Season 80 men's volleyball tournament.
For the first time since ace spiker Marck Espejo entered the UAAP, the Blue Eagles will not be armed with a twice-to-beat advantage in the semifinals.
A 23-25, 25-21, 23-25, 19-25 setback to rival National University (NU) in their last match of the elimination round sent Ateneo tumbling all the way to the third seed, as they finished with an 11-3 win-loss record.
That means that they will face Far Eastern University (FEU) – the only team that they have yet to beat in Season 80 – in the Final 4, with the second-seeded Tamaraws having the twice-to-beat edge.
"Kaming dalawang team, NU at saka kami, gusto naming manalo," Espejo said after their loss to the Bulldogs on Sunday. "Pero mas pinakita ng NU na mas deserving sila manalo."
For Espejo, the proof was in the statistics. NU went into Sunday's match as the sixth-ranked digging team, with an average of 9.38 digs per set. But the Bulldogs' floor defense was impressive against Ateneo, as they came up with 41 digs while limiting the usually potent Blue Eagles to only 50 kills in the game.
Ateneo, for its part, endured a troublesome game. Espejo admits that in certain stretches, the Blue Eagles did not play as a team, and they suffered for it.
"Parang madami kasi kaming iniisip, nagkanya-kanya kami. Hindi kami naglaro as a team. So doon, lumabas doon yung mga mali, lalo na sa dulo," said Espejo, who had 23 points in the defeat.
"Parang iba eh," he added. "Iba 'yung feeling, parang hindi kami team noong nag-laro kami. At ssaka ayun, mas pinakita ng NU na mas gusto nilang manalo."
It was Ateneo's first loss to NU since Season 76, when the two squads battled in the finals. The Bulldogs won that series in two games, but since then, the Blue Eagles have dominated their match-up. They have beaten NU in three straight finals series, and won 13 straight matches over the Bulldogs.
Espejo, the reigning four-time Most Valuable Player of the UAAP, feels that the Blue Eagles were very much capable of beating the Bulldogs last Sunday. Indeed, they had already taken down NU once this season, when they won their first round match-up in four sets.
"Siyempre noong bago kami pumasok sa court, alam naman namin na tinalo namin sila noong una, so nasa kanila 'yung pressure, nasa amin 'yung momentum," said Espejo.
"Noong nanalo kami noong second set, nakikita pa rin naman namin na nagda-doubt pa rin sila. Pero sa mga latter part lang talaga, mas tinrabaho lang nila. 'Yun lang naman 'yung nagkatalo, sa may dulo," he added.
With the result of the match, Espejo and the Blue Eagles are now in a very unfamiliar situation. They will be playing in a do-or-die game on Saturday, when they take on the Tamaraws in the Final 4.
This will be the first time that the Blue Eagles will play with their backs against the wall since the Finals of Season 76.
"We're the underdogs now," said Ateneo coach Oliver Almadro. "Who knows? Ang importante is, we work and pray hard for it. Tinalo kami ng FEU twice, so we will try to beat them twice also."
Espejo, for his part, is choosing to look at their tough situation as another blessing in a UAAP career that has been full of them.
"Siguro, blessing ito na kailangan namin na mag-trabaho talaga ng sobra, and bago ito eh. Hindi ito 'yung same na tinitingnan ng mga tao na, twice-to-beat. Siguro eto, challenge ito. Challenge sa amin ni God ito, and bawat isa sa amin, it's a challenge," he said.
For more sports coverage, visit the ABS-CBN Sports website.