Road to four-peat only gets tougher for Ateneo in UAAP men's volleyball

Camille B. Naredo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Feb 07 2018 04:51 PM | Updated as of Aug 28 2018 05:23 PM

Ateneo's Marck Espejo (15) rises for an attack against NU. Arvin Lim, ABS-CBN Sports

MANILA, Philippines – After seeing their 30-match winning streak snapped in emphatic fashion last Sunday, the Ateneo de Manila University Blue Eagles responded with a convincing triumph over their rivals, the National University (NU) Bulldogs, on Wednesday in the UAAP Season 80 men's volleyball tournament.

Ateneo's 26-24, 25-21, 17-25, 25-19 win over NU put their bid for a fourth straight title back on the right track. It was a confidence-boosting win for the Blue Eagles, who have now beaten the Bulldogs in 13 consecutive meetings since Season 77.

The four-set win must have brought a sigh of relief for fans of the Ateneo men's team, especially as they could have easily lost to the Bulldogs on Wednesday. For the first time in a long while, NU appears to have a more talented, more experienced squad than Ateneo.

"If you take it negatively, talagang mahirap," said Ateneo coach Oliver Almadro. "Coming from a loss, then 'yung isa sa contender right away ang kalaban namin."

"But we take that as an inspiration. Sabi namin, pressure is a privilege," he added.

After playing perhaps the worst game of his celebrated UAAP career against Far Eastern University (FEU) last Sunday, four-time MVP Marck Espejo came up with a solid bounce back performance. He scattered 24 points, including 22 attacks, and added seven digs and 19 receptions.

Ateneo's much-maligned middle blockers – Gian Glorioso and Chumason Njigha – combined for 19 points this time around and outplayed the veteran NU pair of Kim Malabunga and Francis Saura.

"It was a terrible loss for us," Almadro said of their three-set defeat to FEU on Sunday, which saw the three-time defending champions be thoroughly outclassed by the Tamaraws.

"But my leaders stepped up (against NU)," he added. "Marck, Ish (Polvorosa), Karl (Baysa), they stepped up. And 'yung mga role players ko, talagang nag-deliver."

"I guess everything should be done with teamwork lang talaga, and the only thing is to never, ever give up. Whatever happens, never, ever give up. You should take everything as an experience," he also said.

Almadro stressed that Ateneo will approach the season with a "one game at a time" mentality, which is only fitting as they are anticipating a tough road to a four-peat. The Blue Eagles have been the most dominant force in the UAAP in the past three years, but in Season 80 the league appears to have caught up with them.

FEU, of course, snapped their long winning streak. NU, despite their performance on Wednesday, will surely bounce back and figure out a way to utilize their advantages in height and experience over the Blue Eagles. Teams like University of Santo Tomas (UST), De La Salle University, and Adamson University can never be counted out.

And Almadro knows that all of these teams are gunning for the Blue Eagles.

"Sabi ko nga, every team lumalakas kapag defending champion ang kalaban. Every sport, any sport. May added energy," he pointed out. "So sabi ko, we just have to match 'yung energy ng kalaban natin every time. 'Yan ang kailangan natin."

"Kailangan din namin mag-prepare," he also stressed. "Everybody should prepare for every team in the UAAP, because talagang balanced na lahat ng teams."

For now, he will happily take Ateneo's win over NU and hope that his team can build from it, especially as they will be taking on an unbeaten UST squad on Sunday.

"Medyo malaking isda 'yun," said Almadro, referring to the Bulldogs. "We hope na magtuloy-tuloy 'yung momentum and preparation namin towards the game."

For more sports coverage, visit the ABS-CBN Sports website.