MANILA, Philippines – It speaks to the quality of De La Salle University's women's volleyball program that they can lose a setter of Kim Fajardo's caliber and still head into the new UAAP season as the favorites to win the championship again.
Fajardo cemented her place in UAAP history in Season 79, when she led the Lady Spikers to a second consecutive championship in women's volleyball, while winning Best Setter and Best Server honors in the process.
La Salle's "KAF-tain" has moved on, however, and exhausted her playing years. In her place, coach Ramil de Jesus has handed playmaking duties to young Michelle Cobb.
Cobb is already familiar to La Salle fans. She was tipped to be La Salle's new setter last year, when it was not yet certain if Fajardo will return for her final season. With Fajardo back, Cobb had the chance to sit back and watch one of the best – if not the best – setter in the country run the show for the Lady Spikers. Sometimes, when De Jesus felt it necessary, he would send Cobb in to be a setter and shift Fajardo to utility.
Those moments, however, were seldom. More often than not, Cobb watched from the reserve box as Fajardo pulled the strings in La Salle's offense, deploying the team's variety of weapons in the best possible ways.
"Last year, my role was to deliver quality minutes," said the 18-year-old Cobb.
That role, obviously, has changed. Now, she is the full-time setter of the Lady Spikers – a role that she has been preparing for quite some time, under the watchful eye of de Jesus.
"He made it clear that I should accept a very big role, because someone left a really big mark," Cobb said. "Pero siyempre, gets ko na rin naman, even before pa, before Ate Kim graduated, na there will always come a time (for me to take her place)."
By all accounts, Cobb is ready. Some UAAP coaches have already gotten a glimpse of the diminutive playmaker during various preseason tournaments, and they believe that she is perfectly capable of running the La Salle offense.
Yet questions about Cobb cannot be avoided, especially when considering how exceptional Fajardo was as a player, and as a leader. There are people who have come up to Cobb, and asked "Uy, grabe, kaya mo ba?"
"One time, may parent 'yung isang teammate ko na nagsabi, 'It's your time.' Alam mo 'yun?" Cobb said. "Parang, saglit lang."
Cobb herself admits that the adjustment to being the starting setter has been gradual. "I'm taking it one game at a time," she said.
Support from teammates
Even though they are heading into Season 80 with a virtually untested playmaker, La Salle is still the favorite to win the title. One reason: they did not lose anyone outside of Fajardo. The Lady Spikers are a virtually intact team.
Reigning MVP Majoy Baron is back, as well as Finals MVPs Kianna Dy and Desiree Cheng. The best libero in the country, Dawn Macandili, is still in the fold as well, and ready to provide Cobb with steady passes all game long.
All these seniors have expressed their full support for Cobb as she heads into her first season as the starting setter.
"Naga-adjust pa rin sila sa set ko," Cobb said of the La Salle spikers. "Coach Ramil would always say na different 'yung setting styles namin ni Ate Kim."
"Sila rin, naging big factor kasi they were very flexibile," she added. "It's as if I wasn't doing anything wrong. They were adjusting. Lagi nilang sinasabi sa akin na, pag kunyari napag-iinitan na ako, parang sinasabi nila na backbone tayo ni Mich. Tayo 'yung foundation."
To the La Salle seniors, their support of Cobb was a non-issue. Dy was the loudest voice in the "KAFOneMoreYear" movement of early 2017, yet she was nothing but gracious when asked about Cobb.
"She knows that she has to fill big shoes, big shoes. So she's adjusting, and also we're doing our part na maga-adjust din kami sa kanya, siyempre. Naga-adjust din kasi bata siya, so kailangan din namin siya i-guide," said Dy, who is in her final season with the Lady Spikers.
"I actually told her na her style of playing is different from Ate Kim. So we don't necessarily want her to be exactly like Ate Kim. She has her own strength, her own weaknesses," she added. "Ate Kim has her own strength, her own weaknesses."
"So every time, I just tell her to play her game, do what you do best, and we're all behind you. You're not alone."
Their libero, Macandili, will perhaps be the biggest factor in determining Cobb's success. La Salle was the best receiving team in the league last year, and if they can keep that up, Cobb's job will become easier.
Already, Macandili is determined to help their young playmaker.
"I think as a libero and as a senior, dapat ngayon mas mataas pa 'yung percentage ko (in reception), and the other players na mahatid ng maayos kay Michelle 'yung bola," said the player known as "Miss Everywhere."
"Kasi ngayon pa lang niya kinukuha 'yung kumpyansa niya as a first setter, so kailangan naming tulungan siya na makuha 'yung kumpyansa niya na makapag-play, makapag-hatid ng bola, in all situations."
Like Dy, Macandili is not putting too much pressure on Cobb to immediately reach the standard that Fajardo had set.
"I told her before na, you are not Ate Kim, you are Michelle Cobb, you have to make a name for yourself," Macandili said bluntly. "You have to discover what your technique is."
"It's good that you learn something from Ate Kim and from the other setters that you look up to, pero in the end, ikaw pa rin ang gagawa ng sarili mong pangalan and sarili mong technique as a setter."
Help from 'Ate Kim'
Fajardo may have graduated from La Salle and their women's volleyball program, but she remains a big factor in Cobb's development.
According to Cobb, she has spoken to Fajardo about some of the difficulties that she is going through, and the veteran playmaker has assured her that these struggles are normal – that even she had to battle through those hardships.
"Every time na may sinasabi ako sa kanya, sinasabi niya na, 'Oh my god, I've been there. I've done that.' Parang ganoon palagi 'yung pinaparating niya sa akin," said Cobb. "So sabi ko, okay, normal itong nararamdaman ko, itong mga hardships. As in, ganoon palagi. Sobrang very mature si Ate Kim."
"Pag nagku-kwento ako sa kanya, sasabihin niya, 'Grabe naalala ko na dati, ganyan rin ako.' Ganoon. Ganoon din siya," she added.
Cobb knows very well that she will still have plenty of hardships to go through if she hopes to reach Fajardo's level. She describes herself as a work in progress, and admits that she is feeling the pressure of being the setter for the top women's volleyball program in the country.
Yet Cobb does not seem at all overwhelmed. "I feel like normal lang 'yung pressure," she says. "I was expecting it."
"It's normal, given the legacy that Ate Kim left," she added.
Even though she is still adjusting to her new role, Cobb appears to be ready to take on the bigger responsibility. She knows that she is not alone: her entire team has her back, and the La Salle seniors in particular have been supportive.
She is determined to play a positive role in their drive for a third straight title, and not be the one to hold the team back.
"Coach would always remind me na as a setter, ikaw 'yung dapat last. If ayaw na ng mga teammates mo, ikaw dapat 'yung last na mag-ayaw. 'Yun ang palagi niyang sinasabi sa akin," said Cobb. "I feel like this season, mabi-build ko muna siguro 'yung (kumpyansa ko)."
"One game at a time," she concludes.
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