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After humbling defeat to UP, Lady Spikers must answer wake-up call

HUMBLING DEFEAT. The DLSU Lady Spikers looked less like the defending champions and more like a team just trying to enter the title picture. Photo by Josh Albelda/Rappler

MANILA, Philippines – If you’re wondering what the DLSU Lady Spikers were up to following their troubling 3-set defeat at the hands of the UP Lady Maroons on Wednesday, February 15, the answer is that the team was back on their practice court at De La Salle University, following their forgettable performance with a gruelling training session under the watchful eyes of an irked Ramil De Jesus.

“Wag niyo tangalin mga sapatos niyo (Don’t take off your shoes),” are the words De Jesus usually says following a lackadaisical defeat by the Lady Spikers, as told by Kim Dy. The loss to UP, which snapped a 16-match losing streak against the defending champions and beat La Salle for the first time under head coach Jerry Yee, is a prime example of such a situation.

Losses happen in UAAP volleyball; it’s not an every-year occurrence that teams will go undefeated in the elimination round, even one as talented and experienced as De La Salle. But examining the manner of how the Lady Maroons wiped the floor against the Lady Spikers, and it’s fair to debate whether those in green should truly be considered the favorite to reclaim the crown.

For the one hour and 24 minutes duration of the one-sided contest, it was UP which looked like the actual defending champion, and La Salle the team which was trying to get in the title picture.

“Makikita mo kasi sa kanila na nagda-doubt na sila at kwinekwestiyon na nila sarili nila kung maitataas ba nila,” reacted former DLSU superstar Ara Galang following the game on the team’s performance.

(You can see from their performance that they were having doubts and were questioning themselves.)

“Ang UP, sobrang ganda ng energy nila,” said former La Salle MVP Aby Maraño, who later added about her former team: “With La Salle, kumbaga sa dalawa, hindi balanced ‘yung energy.”

(UP’s energy was really good…. With La Salle, compared to its opponent, the energy wasn’t balanced.)

While DLSU didn’t have a single player score in double-figures, Nicole Tiamzon and Diana Carlos registered 16 and 11 points, respectively, mostly on kills which were relatively easy given La Salle’s non-existent floor reception. The Lady Maroons finished the game converting on 39 spikes, 16 points more than DLSU, which essentially provided the difference in the contest. While La Salle looked lost on what it was supposed to do, UP kept on pouncing, displaying the type of confidence made of champions.

The Lady Maroons entered the Season 79 volleyball tournament with lofty expectations. After making the Final Four last year and keeping most of its core players – including reigning Rookie of the Year Isa Molde – UP advancing to the finals and challenging for the crown was considered the next step. Three games in and on top of the league standings, and it feels like there’s a new powerhouse volleyball team from Katipunan aside from the Heartstrong girls in Ateneo.

“Nakaka-overwhelm and sobrang saya kasi ngayon lang namin natalo ang La Salle after ilang taon,” said a clearly-happy Tiamzon after the match.

(It’s really overwhelming and gratifying because this was the first time we beat La Salle after so many years.)

The most impressive part of how the Lady Maroons claimed victory was their counters each time the Lady Spikers went ahead. After losing the first set, La Salle raced off to a quick start in the second set before UP stole momentum and cruised to a 2-0 lead. When it seemed as if DLSU was going to force a fourth set by taking 9-5 and 15-12 leads, Yee’s girls shut down the defending champions late in the third set with aggressive spiking and ran away with the sweep.

UP has talent, that was never a question, but to be a championship squad, the Lady Maroons needed to learn to play with poise and maturity, especially when they were facing deficits. Against La Salle, they passed all tests with flying colors, sending a warning message to the rest of the collegiate league while at it. Three games in, and the girls from University of the Philippines have yet to even lose a single set.

For DLSU, all is not lost. In the Lady Spikers 2016 season, De Jesus also fumed at head-scratching defeats against NU and UP, both of which swept La Salle in 3 sets. Each time they fumbled, DLSU bounced back in emphatic fashion – just ask the Lady Eagles. Dy admitted before the season that last year’s title team had a bad habit of overconfidence and at times needed extra motivation to play at its best – such a reality is tough to muster, but could be considered a silver-lining.

Here’s the caveat: last year’s crew had established veterans in Mika Reyes and Galang aiding Fajardo. The returning setter has done a good job so far this season of leading a younger La Salle line-up, but it’s also up to the new veterans in Dy, Mary Joy Baron, and Dawn Macandili to answer the call following DLSU’s loss. It doesn’t get easier for the Lady Spikers, with the undefeated, also 3-0 NU Lady Bulldogs up next on their plate. The rest of the UAAP is catching up to DLSU, and now the defending champions face their first real test of adversity.

Last year’s run to the championship, as much of a dream-like story as it was, is in the past, and the future holds many challenges for De Jesus’ team as he aims to win a 10th UAAP title.

Inside the San Juan Arena on Wednesday, it felt both like a celebration and a warning. With each point scored, UP stole momentum from La Salle, driving its loyal fans cladded in colors of maroon and black to leaps and high-fives rooting from the kind of satisfaction only sports can bring. University of the Philippines hadn’t defeated La Salle since 2008 – and that was also due to a forfeit. But it’s a new era 9 years later, one wherein the Lady Maroons have established themselves as a bonafide title contender.

There’s nowhere to go but UP, they say. It looks like that time is finally here. –