With perfect season, NU Lady Bulldogs live up to own expectations

Camille B. Naredo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jun 23 2022 12:21 PM | Updated as of Jun 23 2022 02:50 PM

The NU Lady Bulldogs made history with their perfect campaign in UAAP Season 84. UAAP Media.
The NU Lady Bulldogs made history with their perfect campaign in UAAP Season 84. UAAP Media.

MANILA, Philippines -- Most teams, even those packed with talent, will try to temper expectations when they enter a UAAP season. Coaches and players will say that they have a modest target -- to try and make the Final 4, and see what happens from there.

The National University (NU) Lady Bulldogs of Season 84 are not like most teams.

These Lady Bulldogs knew, even before the women's volleyball tournament started, that they had a chance not just to win the championship -- but to do so in dominant fashion. 

"Ako, noong una pa lang, bago mag-start, naisip na namin ni Jennifer [Nierva] at saka ni Ivy [Lacsina], na kaya namin mag-sweep ngayong season," NU team captain Princess Robles said on Tuesday night, as the Lady Bulldogs basked in their triumph.

It's a bold expectation from the usually low-key, soft-spoken Robles. It was also a departure from the usual expectations from NU, at least in recent years. Before Season 84, the Lady Bulldogs last made the Final 4 in Season 80, when they were the fourth seed. In Season 81, Robles' rookie season, they missed out on the semis with a 4-10 win-loss record.

NU's own head coach, Karl Dimaculangan, didn't want to put too much pressure on his players. "Noong magi-start ang season, hindi ko naman in-expect," he said. "But sila, confident pala sila."

This confidence is not unearned. Robles had every reason to expect that her team could win a championship in Season 84, and even pull off a rare sweep of the tournament. 

"Siyempre, hindi naman madali 'yun. Kailangan pag-trabahuhan muna namin," said Robles. "So ayun po 'yung sinasabi namin sa isa't isa, na kaya namin mag-champion ngayong season."

FULFILLING EXPECTATIONS

Before the season even started, NU captain Princess Robles already believed that they can sweep the women's volleyball tournament. UAAP Media.
Before the season even started, NU captain Princess Robles already believed that they can sweep the women's volleyball tournament. UAAP Media.

For most pundits, it was clear that NU will be a top contender in Season 84. They had Robles, libero Jennifer Nierva, and middle blocker Ivy Lacsina returning for their junior campaigns, while also incorporating an outstanding rookie class from their high school program.

The entry of those rookies changed the narrative around the NU program. Bella Belen was a two-time Most Valuable Player in the juniors, and a prodigious talent who merited a national team call-up before she played a single set in the collegiate level. Alyssa Solomon was a towering presence at the opposite spiker position, and the likes of setter Camilla Lamina and middle blocker Sheena Toring were also multi-awarded in high school.

Just as important, all of them already had experience in playing with Robles, Nierva, and Lacsina during their high school days. Chemistry was not going to be a problem for the Lady Bulldogs, a crucial factor in a year where UAAP teams did not get the benefit of a true preseason.

Season 84 eventually played out as Robles and her teammates expected. The Lady Bulldogs passed every test thrown at them in the elimination round, where they dropped just five sets. Against De La Salle University -- the gold standard of UAAP women's volleyball for the past couple of decades -- they won in straight sets in both rounds.

There were some concerns, notably when it came to their unforced errors. Dimaculangan had NU playing a fast-paced, aggressive style, and it backfired on them at times. In their second match of the season -- a four-set win against Ateneo de Manila University -- the Lady Bulldogs committed a whopping 38 unforced errors.

Despite their penchant for errors, NU still sailed through the elimination round unscathed. No team in the UAAP could match their offense, as Lamina orchestrated a brutally efficient attack that saw the Lady Bulldogs convert nearly 40% of their hits. In the game against Ateneo where they had 38 unforced errors, they also had a massive 61-37 advantage in kills.

As the season progressed, it became increasingly clear that the Lady Bulldogs were on their way to ending a 65-year title drought. They racked up the individual awards, with Belen emerging as the first ever player in UAAP women's volleyball to earn Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player honors. 

In the finals, they played against the De La Salle Lady Spikers and made quick work of them in both games. A 25-15, 25-15, 25-22 victory in Game 2 gave NU a perfect 16-0 campaign, only the second time that it has happened in UAAP women's volleyball. The Lady Bulldogs swept La Salle in all four of their matches in Season 84.

"Si [La Salle] Coach Ramil [De Jesus], ang dami niya na pong championship crown. So kami po, parang 'yung La Salle po kasi, sila po 'yung team na nakakapagpalabas ng best namin," Belen said after the finals. 

"Kasi 'yung history nila, sobrang laki na and ang dami na nila pong championship. So it's time naman po na NU naman ang magkaroon," she added.

BEHIND THE SCENES

The NU Lady Bulldogs drew confidence in their work behind the scenes, as well as in their chemistry born from years of playing together. UAAP Media.
The NU Lady Bulldogs drew confidence in their work behind the scenes, as well as in their chemistry born from years of playing together. UAAP Media.

The Lady Bulldogs were the only team in Season 84 who did not play in a five-set match. Even in the finals, against the second-seeded Lady Spikers, they were dominant. There were even stretches where they made it look easy.

This, according to the Lady Bulldogs, is a result of the work that went on behind the scenes. Nierva, NU's outspoken libero and emotional leader, is convinced that no team in the UAAP worked harder than they did, and this is why their games played out in such dominant fashion.

"Every single day po na magte-training kami and magi-step po kami in the court sa gym ng NU, kahit sobrang init, kahit hihimatayin na po kami sa hirap po ng training, walang bumibigay sa amin," said Nierva.

"Walang gustong i-stop na 'yung training. Kahit sobrang pagod po ng bawat isa, sobrang willing pa din po matuto and magpalakas po," she added.

Belen's assessment of their training was even more blunt: "Grabe po 'yung training namin. Halos makita na po namin 'yung langit."

The work that they put in gave the Lady Bulldogs their absolute, unshakeable confidence every time they stepped on the taraflex at the Mall of Asia Arena. It's what they leaned on during the few times in the season that they were threatened, particularly during the third set of Game 2 where La Salle took a 20-17 lead, prompting Dimaculangan to call a timeout.

Robles and Nierva huddled their teammates before play resumed, and the Lady Bulldogs responded with seven unanswered points to seize control of the set, the match, and ultimately, the season.

"Every set, kahit ahead 'yung kalaban, talagang pag tiningnan ko 'yung mga teammates ko, mata sa mata, kita ko talaga, walang takot. Or in case man na makikitaan ko na sila na may glimpse na nagda-doubt, or natatakot, lagi ko lang talaga silang ina-align," Nierva said. 

"Lagi ko silang nire-remind na hinde, tayo 'yung sobrang nag-trabaho dito. Maniwala lang kayo," she stressed.

Later, after yet another win, after they celebrated with confetti and unfurled a banner with the words "Sweep 16" on it, the Lady Bulldogs relished their monumental achievement. They ended a title drought that has lasted over six decades, and did so via one of the most dominant campaigns in recent memory. For many of the players, they wrote their names in the UAAP history books.

They fulfilled the expectations they set for themselves before the season started, when they set a lofty goal and steadily marched towards it.

"Confident po ako na masi-sweep po namin," said Belen, who has now won a stunning 30 straight matches since she last played high school volleyball in Season 82. "Kasi 'yung gutom po namin sa panalo talaga, andoon po."

"And sa training pa lang po, makikita niyo na po na gusto namin manalo, and 'yung pukpukan po namin sa training," she added. "Happy naman po ako na nalabas po namin sa game, and na-apply po namin lahat ng pinag-trabahuhan namin these past few months."

After such a historic campaign, what comes next? The Lady Bulldogs are not shying away from even higher expectations next season: indeed, even as they express their pride in their achievement, they are already setting their sights on more.

This is a group that, after all, is used to winning. Robles, Nierva and Lacsina may have endured losses in their rookie seasons in college, but they won multiple championships in high school. And when they left the NU girls' volleyball team, Belen and Solomon were there to ensure that the winning tradition continued.

It's a tradition that they now want to establish in the seniors division.

"Since high school pa lang po kasi kami, may experience na kami ng championship. And I think 'yun 'yung big factor na na-sweep namin 'yung UAAP season ngayon," said their middle blocker, Sheena Toring.

"Since first season pa lang ngayon, for sure itong championship na 'to, gagawin naming inspiration talaga, hanggang tuloy-tuloy na."

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