MANILA, Philippines – A year after serving as the league's surprise package, the National University Lady Bulldogs are aiming even higher this time around.
Not much was expected of National U in Season 81, with superstar Jaja Santiago exhausting her eligibility while Risa Sato, another veteran middle blocker, sat out due to academic reasons. Much of the responsibility were on the shoulders of rookies like Ivy Lacsina, Princess Robles, libero Jennifer Nierva, and setter Joyme Cagande.
But the Lady Bulldogs immediately exceeded expectations. They gave Far Eastern University all it can handle in their first game, though it was a contest marked by an injury to Cagande that kept her out of the season.
Despite missing their young playmaker, however, NU still went on to win four games – including an absolutely thrilling five-set triumph over University of the Philippines in their penultimate game that knocked the Lady Maroons out of the Final 4 race.
"Wala kaming ine-expect last year na may matatalo kami eh," veteran spiker Audrey Paran says, when she looks back on their campaign in Season 81. "Kasi, 'di ba? Halos ilan lang kami naglaro, walo? Puro rookie?"
"Tapos, kami 'yung pagka-senior pa namin, kumbaga, rookie kami sa pagiging senior. So parang, na-survive namin," she adds.
"I think na nag-gain kami talaga ng experience, and siguro na-inspire namin 'yung ibang tao."
The Lady Bulldogs won't be surprising anyone this time around. Even with Robles (eligibility issue) and Cagande (injury) not playing in Season 82, the expectations have clearly risen for the young team.
This, as Lacsina and Nierva are both tipped to improve, and they welcomed back Sato for her final season.
"This season, mas better 'yung preparation," says Nierva, who emerged as the league's second best receiver last year just behind Kath Arado of the University of the East.
"We're lucky na bago pumasok sa season, 'yung mga nangyari -- like si Joyme, hindi makakapaglaro -- nangyari na. So nag-adjust lahat, ginawa agad 'yung adjustments, paano namin mabubuo 'yung team na wala na sila," she said.
Sato's return is massive for the Lady Bulldogs, especially as they lost the league's reigning First Best Middle Blocker, Roselyn Doria, to graduation after Season 81. Not only does she give National U's frontline a boost, but she also provides veteran leadership for a team that is still filled with rookies and sophomores.
Nierva says the Fil-Japanese standout was quick to embrace her role as captain, and immediately set the standard for the team.
"Every single training, she will remind us na we're doing this because we want to be a champion," says Nierva. "I want to be a champion. Na bago siya matapos, bago siya umalis, may maiwan siyang legacy sa amin and 'yun 'yung pagiging champion."
This, too, is exactly what Paran wants for herself and her team. Paran still remembers the pain from their campaigns in Seasons 78, 79, and 80, when they had loaded teams anchored by superstar middle blocker Jaja Santiago.
But circumstances – from injuries to internal strife -- prevented those NU teams from ever reaching their full potential, and not once did they make it to the Finals with Santiago on the roster.
"Siyempre, I want the best ending possible," Paran said.
"For the past few years lagi na lang kaming umiiyak kasi talo kami, kasi kulang kami, kasi kung anu-anong problema ang dumating sa amin," she recalled. "Parang na lang every year, 'Chance na natin 'to.'"
"Last year, biglang 'di makakalaro 'yung iba, ang daming nangyari, injured 'yung setter."
That they kept fighting despite those setbacks gave Paran a reason to be proud, and the way they prepared for Season 82 gave her hope. They spent 10 days in Thailand to train, and Paran saw how much they grew as a team in that short amount of time.
"Grabe, if ipu-put lang talaga namin 'yung all namin, 'yung body, mind, spirit namin doon sa paglalaro, ah, kaya namin," she said. "Parang eye-opener sa amin na mas nakikilala namin 'yung brand of playing namin, 'yung kind of playing namin na effective sa amin."
"Kasi siyempre iba-ibang team, iba-ibang style ng play. Kami, nadi-discover namin kailangan masaya lang kami, kailangan happy kami. Kailangan nagsasalita kami," she added.
Ahead of her last UAAP season, Paran is more hopeful than ever that this time, she will cry tears of joy in her final game.
"I think this year naman, sana, kami naman 'yung nandoon. Parang gusto ko, iiyak naman kami dahil masaya kami, dahil champion kami, dahil lahat ng paghihirap namin, sobrang worth it, 'di ba," she says.
NU opens its campaign against Adamson University on February 16 at the Mall of Asia Arena.
(For more sports coverage, visit the ABS-CBN Sports website).