MANILA, Philippines – Season 81 was an unforgettable one for University of Santo Tomas (UST) and its supporters.
For the first time since 2011, the Golden Tigresses reached the finals of the women's volleyball tournament. Leading the way for them was the dynamic and explosive 1-2 punch of veteran spiker Sisi Rondina and freshman standout Eya Laure, who would go on to win MVP and Rookie of the Year honors, respectively.
They were just a game away from clinching their first title since 2010, but ultimately, the Tigresses bowed to Ateneo de Manila University in three games.
Still, to reach the finals was a dream come true for Laure, who was the league's second leading scorer as a rookie and also earned First Best Open Spiker honors.
"Ang dream namin, 'yung mabalik 'yung suporta ng UST community, 'yung makita ulit kung gaano kadami 'yung yellow. 'Yun 'yung parang mas masarap kasi sa feeling kesa sa individual award," Laure said.
"Sobrang binigay ni Lord last year -- 'yung sea of yellow, 'yung finals appearance, and 'yung individual awards," she added.
Still, to have come so close only to fall agonizingly short was disappointing. The Tigresses were saddened that they could not give Rondina the golden sendoff that she so richly deserved, after the diminutive spiker poured her heart and soul into playing for the squad.
That they had taken a 1-0 lead in the best-of-3 series only to drop the next two matches made the loss all the more painful.
"Siyempre, nakakapang-hinayang, kasi 'yung sabi na andoon na. Tapos, isang laro na lang 'yun tapos nawala pa," said setter Alina Bicar, who inherits Rondina's mantle as UST captain.
"Pero sabi pa naman nila coach na hindi pa doon nagtatapos. Oo, kinapos tayo ngayon, pero siyempre kailangan natin bumawi this coming season. Kaya ngayon, susubukan namin ulit," she added.
Another finals appearance – and perhaps a championship breakthrough – is definitely what the Tigresses are shooting for in UAAP Season 82. To get there, however, is another matter entirely.
Losing Rondina to graduation is quite the blow, though the Golden Tigresses still have Laure in the fold – along with her older sister, EJ, who finally made her return to the team after a two-year break to recover from a nagging shoulder injury.
However, former Rookie of the Year Milena Alessandrini has yet to be cleared for action after suffering an ACL injury last season.
Thus, the Tigresses are aware that their road back to the finals will not be an easy one.
"Hindi muna kami mag-iisip sa ganoon," said Bicar. "I mean, one at a time."
"This time, year, parang kailangan muna, one game at a time. First game, kailangan mapanalo, mapanalo, hanggang makapunta kami sa top. 'Pag andoon na sa top, eh 'di laban ulit," she added.
Laure went one step further, saying that their focus is on performing well in each game. The wins, she added, will follow for as long as they do what they are supposed to do.
"Step by step," the young spiker said. "Ayaw kasi namin na madaliin lahat."
"Manalo muna every game, or like, siyempre maipakita 'yung magandang performance every game, ganoon. As a team ah. So ayun," Laure added. "Kasi, 'yung Final 4 naman at saka 'yung championship appearance, susunod naman 'yan eh pag nanalo ka."
She warned that the Tigresses could trip up if they look too far ahead.
"The more na naka-tingin ka sa taas, like sa goal, hindi mo minsan alam kung paano pumunta doon. 'Yun lang 'yung iniisip mo. Gusto mong mag-champion, gusto mong mag-championship appearance, pero alam mo 'yun, hindi mo alam kung paano kuhain 'yun," she pointed out.
"So mas more on andoon kami sa maka-perform kami ng maayos as a team, as an individual. Manalo game per game, and then ayun, to follow na 'yung Final 4, championship appearance, hanggang sa maging champion," Laure said.
UST opens its campaign against Far Eastern University on Saturday, February 15, at the Mall of Asia Arena.
(For more sports coverage, visit the ABS-CBN Sports website).