MANILA, Philippines – There is no way to sugarcoat it: the Ateneo Lady Eagles are simply not a good receiving team.
At the end of the first round of the UAAP Season 80 women's volleyball tournament, their receiving efficiency is at 19.54% -- dead last in the league. They have already given up 88 aces in their first seven games – including 20 to Far Eastern University in their season-opener, and 16 to De La Salle University in their last game of the first round.
It is frankly impressive that Ateneo ended the first round with a winning record, 4-3, given how much trouble they have just to receive the ball. Plenty of credit should go to their middle blockers, Maddie Madayag and Bea De Leon, who have anchored Ateneo's top-ranked net defense, and to setter Deanna Wong, who has done a solid job in setting up transition plays for her spikers.
Indeed, despite their receiving woes, Ateneo is still ranked third in attacking in the UAAP, with a 30% efficiency.
But unless the Lady Eagles can shore up their reception, it will be difficult for them to maximize the considerable attacking power of their roster.
This problem was in full display in their game against the Lady Spikers last Saturday, when Wong was forced to chase all over the court for the second ball, struggled to give touches to their middles, and tossed some tough sets to their wingers.
"Kilala naman natin 'yung La Salle, na talagang good servers," said Ateneo assistant coach Sherwin Meneses, who called the shots in place of Tai Bundit on Saturday. "Pero sa tingin ko, nahirapan lang talaga doon sa first ball."
"Medyo malakas 'yung serves," he added.
La Salle's serving proved to be the factor that decided the game. Ateneo held its own in attacks, 40-44, and blocks, 11-12. They even had one less unforced error, 27-28. But the 16 service aces that they gave up – seven of which were courtesy of Desiree Cheng – were too much to overcome.
"Sobrang clear naman. It was just the receive," de Leon said when asked about their problem. "How many aces did they have?"
"Sabi nga ni Coach Sherwin, our score isn't too low. Kayang-kaya. But wala, receive lang talaga. (We) give away four points per set," she added.
The absence of rookie libero Dani Ravena was glaring. Ravena had been Ateneo's best receiver entering the game, and both Ria Lo and Sydney Eleazar struggled to step up in her stead. Indeed, the Lady Spikers blatantly targeted them on their serves, as if to test their skills.
In one stretch in the second set, Eleazar was sent in to replace Lo after the latter gave up an ace. Cheng proceeded to score back-to-back aces off Eleazar, prompting a frustrated Meneses to sub Lo back in.
"Very critical 'yung wala si Dani," said de Leon. "But what can you do? Sabi ni Coach Sherwin, 'di ka pwedeng maghanap ng wala. The test of a good team is kapag wala ang isa, dapat kaya pa rin."
Ateneo's receiving issues were so profound, that Meneses asked de Leon if she could receive at the back row as well – a job that is not usually done by a middle blocker.
"Wala, ganoon talaga," said de Leon.
More than any other player, it is the pair of de Leon and Madayag who are most affected by their first ball problems. Wong can still set up their open spikers, no matter how awkward the toss, but not their middle blockers.
"My position is very dependent on good passes, good sets. So it's a bit frustrating," de Leon conceded.
"All you can really do is try to lift them up with your words, your encouragement. It takes twice as much energy to pump yourself and your teammates up," she added.
Madayag said that as much as possible, they try to make up for it with their presence at the net. "Kung hindi naman kami makapalo ni Bea, at least nababawi naman namin sa blocking," she explained.
Truthfully, there is no quick fix for Ateneo's first ball problems. They have not been a good receiving team for a while now, at least not since the graduation of celebrated libero Denden Lazaro and Ella de Jesus at the end of Season 77. They still found success in Seasons 78 and 79, making the finals in both of those years, but this time around it is clear that they are having more trouble than usual.
The Lady Eagles remain optimistic. De Leon is confident that they can bounce back in the second round, and Madayag said they just need to get back to training, where they will try to fix what ails them.
"Back to the gym na lang," said Meneses. "Practice for next game."
But the coach also said that there are some things that the Lady Eagles can do in order to improve their receiving, other than working on their skills.
"Unang-una, dapat gusto mo mag-receive," Meneses pointed out. "At saka training. 'Yun lang."
Ateneo opens the second round of the women's volleyball tournament on Wednesday against Far Eastern University, which ended the second round as the best serving team in the league.
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