MANILA, Philippines – A Final 4 appearance was not in the cards for University of the East (UE) in the UAAP Season 81 women's volleyball tournament, despite the best efforts of its graduating players.
Libero Kath Arado, setter Lai Bendong, team captain Roselle Baliton, and spikers Judith Abil and Jasmine Alcayde all concluded their UAAP careers without once coming close to the semifinals, but it wasn't for lack of trying.
After enduring brutal campaigns in their first three years in the league, the Lady Warriors moved towards respectability in Seasons 80 and 81. They won two games last year, and three this year. Along the way, Arado proved herself to be one of the finest liberos in the country, Bendong became a contender for Best Setter honors, and Abil grew into a triple-double threat.
And along the way, the Lady Warriors became a very real threat in the league. Gone were the days that UE lost quickly – even their three-set defeats in Season 81 were grind-it-out contests. They competed in four five-set matches this year, and though they lost all of them, they also displayed the team's growth and competitiveness, after years in the doldrums of the UAAP.
For rookie coach Karl Dimaculangan and the graduating UE players, this is all they could ask for.
"Kasi ang UE kasi, iba eh. Iba 'yung culture dito, 'yung ranking din pati. 'Yung ano pa lang ng tao, UE, alam na agad, bottom, parang kasali lang," said Dimaculangan.
"Sila, katulong ko naman sila na, ano ba gagawin namin, paano ba kami magi-improve, paano ba kami makipag-compete talaga, na hindi kami kasali lang," he added.
It took them five years, the entirety of their collegiate careers, but the graduating Lady Warriors believe that they have raised the profile of the UE women's volleyball program.
It almost didn't happen: Arado and Abil admit that there was a time that they all wanted to leave, given how difficult their adjustment was to the UAAP. Part of it was homesickness, part of it was all the losing that they were experiencing.
"Noong una first year namin, aaminin talaga namin na hindi kami sanay na laging talo. Hindi kami sinanay talaga. Kasi sa amin, nasa champion team kami, nagpa-Palaro, kami lagi ganoon," said Bendong, who along with Abil and Arado were recruited from Iligan City.
"Tapos pagdating dito, pinaka-dulo. Pag hindi pinaka-dulo, sumunod naman sa dulo. Dulo pa rin!" she added.
Thankfully for the UE women's volleyball team, they stayed put. A change in coaches in their fourth season served as the spark for the team, as Rod Roque steered them to back-to-back victories. Dimaculangan then took over in the offseason, and oversaw their most successful campaign in seven years.
Their 3-11 record was their best since Season 74, when the Lady Warriors finished at 4-10.
Looking back, Arado said staying in UE was the right decision.
"'Yung time kasi na, parang gusto na talaga naming umalis. Pero kumakapit pa rin kami sa feeling na, sa thoughts namin na gusto naming baguhin ang tingin nila sa UE," she explained.
"Tapos natutunan din talaga naming mga senior 'yung tibay ng loob talaga, na kahit anong mangyari, andoon kami sa isa't isa. Kailangan namin gampanan ang role namin as a senior," she added.
"Mahirap pero 'yun nga, sinabi ko, hindi rin talaga ako nagsisi na nasa UE ako ngayon."
Bendong shared the sentiment, and further expressed pride at the role they played in UE's ascension.
"Ako, no regrets talaga ako na nag-UE ako. At saka 'yung three wins namin, nakaka-proud kasi sa batch namin nangyari 'yung three wins," she said.
"Ngayon, ga-graduate kami, masarap sa feeling kasi noong una, nakapanalo ng isa 'yung UE andoon kami, hanggang sa dalawa, hanggang sa ngayong tatlo," Abil said, for her part. "Andito kami hanggang sa natapos na kami. Ang sarap sa feeling kasi after five years, natapos namin yung UAAP na hindi kami sumuko."
The challenge for UE now is to sustain their growth and development. Dimaculangan is well aware that losing five seniors is a huge blow to their program, especially as the seniors carried the squad all year long both on offense and defense.
"Iba ang halaga nila sa team," said Dimaculangan of his seniors, noting how having Abil ensured that he has two liberos on the floor at the same time, while both Bendong and Baliton served as the team's leaders.
"Medyo mabigat talaga," he said. "Pero susubukan pa rin namin."
Dimaculangan has one thing working for him that previous UE coaches did not. Thanks to the work of his graduating players, their women's volleyball program is truly on the rise, and the perception of their team around the league has changed. While they remain a work in progress, he believes his seniors have put them on the right track.
"At least, 'yung iiwanan naman nila, 'yung culture na hanggang sa ma-reach namin 'yun. Culture muna, 'yung attitude, then skills to follow na lang," he said.
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