MANILA, Philippines—For the past two seasons, Far Eastern University (FEU) has been the team that no one wants to face in the Final 4. Is this the year that they finally make the leap to the finals?
Last year's record: 8-6
What happened in Season 79?
The FEU Lady Tamaraws were brimming with confidence heading into Season 79. The year before, they pushed eventual champions De La Salle University to a do-or-die game in the Final 4, but fell short in the deciding contest. They were determined to prove that their performance then was no fluke.
Instead, the Lady Tamaraws did just enough in Season 79 to advance to the Final 4 again. They beat the teams they were supposed to beat, notching impressive wins over National University and University of the Philippines.
However, they were unable to take down any of the other Final 4 teams – La Salle, Ateneo de Manila University, and University of Santo Tomas. The silver lining was that they gave the Lady Eagles a very real scare in the eliminations as both of their games went the full route.
They met the top-seeded Lady Eagles in the Final 4, and again, they pushed Ateneo to the limit. Much like in their elimination round encounters, however, FEU simply could not get over the hump. They dragged Ateneo to an extended fourth set, but a brutal attack error by Heather Guino-o, followed by a kill by Michelle Morente, ended FEU's campaign.
Key losses: Remy Palma, Coach Shaq delos Santos
Key additions: Czarina Carandang, Celine Domingo
Key returnees: Rosemarie Vargas, Bernadeth Pons, Chin-chin Basas
FEU went through an overhaul ahead of Season 80.
They lost middle blocker Remy Palma, the emotional leader of the team, to graduation at the end of Season 79. In June, they announced that George Pascua was going to replace Shaq delos Santos as the team's head coach.
It was a surprise decision from FEU, given that delos Santos had led the Lady Tamaraws to the Final 4 in three straight seasons. Remarkably, it won't even be the most shocking news to come out of Morayta that year. In August, it was revealed that Rosemarie Vargas intended to return to the team for Season 80.
Vargas had not played in the UAAP for five years. She was a former UAAP Best Scorer, but left at the end of Season 75. Since then, she has bounced around club teams, last seeing action for Creamline in the Premier Volleyball League.
"Dito, ako na 'yung pinaka-ahead, ako na 'yung pinaka-matanda," Vargas said. "Kung tutuusin, ako 'yung pinaka-matagal na. Sabi ko naman sa kanila, hindi lang ako nandito para maging teammate niyo. Andito rin ako para maging ate niyo, na pwede niyong takbuhan in and out the court."
The 25-year-old open spiker joins a team that is loaded with expectations. They lost Palma to graduation, but found a diamond in the rough in Czarina Carandang. Celine Domingo, a transferee from University of the East, also makes her debut in Season 80.
But throughout the season, the spotlight will shine brightest on Bernadeth Pons, and with good reason. The high-flying spiker is in her final season of eligibility and this is her last chance to lead FEU back to the Finals.
"Mag-level up siya ulit," FEU coach George Pascua said simply when asked what he expects from Pons. "Ang laro naman na ito ay para sa kanila eh, 'yung mga ga-graduate."
What can we expect?
There will be plenty of pressure on Pons this season. She is far and away FEU's best player and may well be the best all-around player in the UAAP. But if the Lady Tamaraws want to return to the Final 4 and progress even further, Pons is going to need plenty of help.
Vargas is there to add firepower, but FEU will need more consistent production from spikers like Toni Rose Basas, Jerrili Malabanan, and Heather Guino-o – all of whom were up-and-down in Season 79. Ria Duremdes is one of the best young liberos in the UAAP, and should make another leap in Season 80.
"Nakikita namin 'yung willingness ng mga bata, na uhaw na uhaw sila na manalo, or kunin ulit ang championship," said Pascua.
The biggest question mark in FEU's roster is their setter position. In Season 79, delos Santos alternated Kyle Negrito and Gel Cayuna in the spot and it remains to be seen whom Pascua will throw to the fire this year.
If FEU works out their issues at the setter position, there's no reason for the Lady Tamaraws not to make it back to the semifinals.
They Lady Tamaraws open their campaign on February 4 against the Ateneo Lady Eagles.
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