MANILA, Philippines – Heading to the UAAP Season 82 women's volleyball tournament, the De La Salle University Lady Spikers find themselves in an unfamiliar situation.
For the first time in two seasons, they won't enter the tournament as defending champions. They won't even enter as runners-up. The Lady Spikers finished third in Season 81, their lowest placing since 2008, when they ranked just sixth after forfeiting a bunch of victories.
It's a foreign feeling for the La Salle players and their supporters. The Lady Spikers have been the league's standard for two decades, since Ramil de Jesus took over the team. Winning 11 titles in 20 years is a testament to the consistency and excellence of their program.
Last season marked an end to 10 straight finals appearances for the Lady Spikers, and it was an experience that they would not soon forget.
"Siyempre, it's very hard, kasi medyo na-disappoint namin 'yung mga tao na sumusuporta sa amin, especially the coaches," said middle blocker Aduke Ogunsanya.
There were signs that Season 81 would be an uphill climb for La Salle. They lost three key cogs from their most recent three-peat in Majoy Baron, Dawn Macandili and Kianna Dy to graduation, and de Jesus acknowledged after the season that they did not prepare as early as he would have liked.
The Lady Spikers compiled a 10-4 win-loss record in the elimination round, and lost to a surging University of Santo Tomas team in the Final 4. They ended the season on a three-game skid, two of which were five-set heartbreakers.
The memories of last year's failure are what fuels the Lady Spikers in Season 82, as their eyes are firmly trained on regaining the throne.
"This year, medyo pukpukan kami," Agunsanya said. "'Yun 'yung hugot mo, like, hugot ko. Na paghihirapan mo talaga, gagapangin mo talaga."
"As in every day, sa training pa lang, 'yun na 'yung mindset mo, hindi ako papayag na hindi kami makaabot ng finals," she added.
This is not to say that the Lady Spikers are still dwelling on what happened last season. Setter Michelle Cobb shared that they went through the "healing process" after their defeat to UST, and started with a clean slate once they got back to training.
"It's a matter of how we like, how we get back up," she explained. "Kasi, hindi naman pwedeng lulugmok lang kami. I guess it's more of waking up every day and trying again, trying and trying until we get it."
Their road to "getting it" was a little unusual this year. The Lady Spikers still competed in the Philippine Superliga and the University Games, as has been their custom, but they also trained abroad.
"Usually, pumupunta kami sa Baguio so this one is new for us," Ogunsanya said of their trip to Thailand. "'Yung mga kalaban namin, hindi namin masyadong ano, kasi gulatan talaga. It's a nice experience naman. I think we gained a lot of insights and then experience doon."
The veteran said the primary beneficiary of their Thailand camp are their rookies, many of whom are expected to be immediate contributors to the Lady Spikers in Season 82.
"I think 'yung main reason, para sa mga bata. Parang, mas ano 'yung makuhang experience ng mga bata. Kasi it's for them talaga, 'yung exposure na 'yun," she explained.
These rookies will be counted upon to help Ogunsanya, Cobb, sophomore Jolina dela Cruz, and the rest of the La Salle veterans in their quest to bring the crown back to Taft. Already, there is plenty of hype surrounding de Jesus' latest recruiting class, many of whom have been training with the Lady Spikers since they were in senior high school.
Among the players expected to make an impact are Leila Cruz and Thea Gagate, who stand at 6-feet and 6-feet-2, respectively. Both Ogunsanya and Cobb said they, along with their batchmates, are ready to take the UAAP by storm.
"Since alam na nila 'yung sistema ni coach, parang hindi na sila kapa," said Ogunsanya. "Unlike sa mga bago na ito, 'yung makikihalubilo ka pa sa mga ates, awkward pa. Eto, two years preparation para dito sa first year nila. So parang it really helped them, na maging more comfortable na sa team and then hindi na masyadong mangapa."
"The rookies are very talented, and they have potential," Cobb said. "It's not really that like hard, and 'yun nga, very talented sila. So the work, 'yung work na gagawin na lang namin is jelling as a team."
With a handful of talented rookies and a bunch of determined veterans leading them, the Lady Spikers believe they are poised to regain their spot at the top of the league this coming season.
"Hindi namin pwedeng ipag-balewala 'yung mga sacrifices na binibigay, kasi for the past years, sobrang dami nang nabigay nila para lang sa glory na 'yun," said Ogunsanya.
"It's in nature naman na if nawala 'yung crown, that's the first feeling you get, na you really wanna go back," added Cobb. "You really wanna get the crown back."
La Salle opens their campaign against defending champion Ateneo de Manila University on February 16 at the Mall of Asia Arena.
(For more sports coverage, visit the ABS-CBN Sports website).