MANILA, Philippines -- An golden era came to an end on Sunday evening when the De La Salle University Lady Spikers failed to make it to the UAAP women's volleyball finals for the first time in 10 years.
After being suspended in Season 69, and forfeiting their victories in Season 70, the Lady Spikers dominated the UAAP women's volleyball scene. They marched steadily to the finals every year from 2009 until 2018, winning seven titles along the way.
But that glittering run came to an end on Sunday at the hands of the University of Santo Tomas (UST) Golden Tigresses, who defeated the Lady Spikers in the Final 4 of UAAP Season 81. It was a hard-earned triumph for UST: the defending champions had rallied from a two-set deficit, before eventually falling in five sets.
Afterward, de Jesus said the loss came down to the breaks of the game, along with that old adage of "who wants it more."
"Wala eh, kasi kapag umabot kasi ng ganoon na naunahan ka ng two sets tapos biglang hahabol ka ng two sets again, pagdating ng fifth set, breaks na 'yun eh," he noted.
"Kung sino mas gusto and then kung sino swertehin doon. Mas nakapitan ng UST 'yung fifth set so mahirap maghabol, lalo na pagka alam mo na marami sa players mo na pressured noong fifth set," he added.
The win -- a 25-19, 25-19, 20-25, 23-25, 15-10 result for UST -- sent the Tigresses to the finals for the first time since Season 73. Back then, they played La Salle for the championship, and the Lady Spikers swept the Tigresses in what turned out to be the first of three straight titles.
De Jesus was frank in his assessment of the end of their decade-long finals streak.
"Ganoon talaga. Dumarating naman sa isang tao o sa isang team 'yung pag na-reach mo 'yung dulo, possible kang bumagsak," he said. "Hindi naman lahat ng panahon nandoon ka sa taas eh."
The multi-titled mentor -- De Jesus has led La Salle to 11 women's volleyball titles -- had always known that the Lady Spikers would face a tough road in Season 81.
"Nasabi ko na sa team owners, sa managers, sa admin ng La Salle, na pagdating ng Season 81, medyo hirap tayo dahil doon sa K-to-12. Hindi namin napaghandaan 'yun," he admitted.
They also had a relatively late build-up to the season, due in part to his players' injuries. According to de Jesus, they were supposed to begin building their team in September 2018. Instead, they only managed to complete the team in January -- a month before the start of the season.
The delayed preparation, the loss of last year's championship core, even de Jesus's packed schedule due to his responsibilities with F2 Logistics in the Philippine Superliga -- all these played a factor in the Lady Spikers' performance in Season 81. For the first time since de Jesus took over, they failed to clinch a semis edge in the Final 4, and that proved to be their undoing in the semifinals against UST.
"Para sa akin kasi, every year naman may nawawalang players. So ang point ko kasi, every year humihina 'yung team, pero may mga player na willing mag-step up," he explained. "This time, siguro medyo late na rin kasing nabuo 'yung team namin."
"Dahil sa mga injured players ko, nabuo kami siguro ng January na. So parang late talaga. Dumadating sa point na halos sa game makikita mo, parang hindi magkakakilala, merong may mga lapses," he pointed out.
"Hindi ganoong ka-fluid 'yung galaw. 'Yun na siguro, effect 'yun dahil late na rin nagka-sama-sama," he added.
Season 82 promises to be different. La Salle will lose only two players -- skipper Desiree Cheng, and one-and-done middle blocker Lourdes Clemente. They are set to welcome a strong recruiting class that is headlined by Thea Gagate, the former Nazareth School of National University star, among other standouts.
De Jesus can only hope that this incoming crop of rookies can form La Salle's next championship core, in the same way that the trio of Majoy Baron, Kianna Dy, and Dawn Macandili anchored their last run to three straight titles.
"Hopefully, 'yung nakita nila, hindi maging reason para panghinaan sila ng loob and mas makita nila na kailangan pa nila mag-extra effort para mas ma-iangat pa nila 'yun and maiahon 'yung team sa susunod na mga UAAP season," said de Jesus.
Can these rookies finally be the batch that delivers La Salle its elusive four-peat? The Lady Spikers have twice put a "three-peat" together -- from Season 73 to 75, and again from Season 78 to 80 -- but the fourth straight title continues to frustrate them.
"Mag-champion ka lang, mahirap na eh," de Jesus pointed out. "Pero 'yung mag-four-peat… kailangan kasi hindi nababawasan 'yung team mo. Every year nawawala 'yung core noong team mo."
"Para makapag-four-peat ka siguro, umpisahan mo na ng rookie year nila hanggang matapos sila nagcha-champion sila. Hindi ka nagpapalit ng tao. Kasi 'pag nagpalit ka ng isa, dalawang tao diyan sa core ng team, medyo mabigat na 'yun eh," he said.
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