If there’s one thing to learn from the previous season when it comes to plot twists in the UAAP, the second round is where the real battle begins. While the first round is a good indicator of the whole season, it is never absolute as was seen with the downward spiral of round one top seed NU of last season.
While my primer for the first round shaped up to be almost how the first half of the league actually turned out, the crown is still all up for grabs. As of the current standings, five contenders are clearly favored in claiming the crown. Compared to the first round however, each game in the second round is much more critical for teams as one minor slip can prove fatal in their contention given the free-for-all nature of the league this season. It is during the second round where teams usually either lose steam or just start to peak and it is for that same reason that this campaign, wherein no school has shown total dominance, becomes more exciting.
Ateneo Lady Eagles (6-1)
After an initial hiccup losing to the defending champions, the DLSU Lady Spikers, on opening weekend, the Ateneo Lady Eagles proved that their runner-up finish in the PVL Open Conference was no beginner’s luck under a new coach and system. Though struggling early on in the UAAP most notably in the reception department, the Lady Eagles are starting to gain some high wind with the remarkable improvement in the performance of their left wings in Ponggay Gaston and Jules Samonte. Not surprisingly, teams that have really challenged the Lady Eagles such as DLSU, FEU, and rookie-laden NU are those currently dominating the service department. With perhaps the strongest right side of the court in Kat Tolentino, Maddie Madayag, and Bea de Leon, the Lady Eagles are poised to continue to be the best offensive and defensive team in terms of net play.
With Gaston and Samonte proving better at passing as the games progressed, it was very much expected that the middles were finally being maximized by Deanna Wong as shown by multiple solid performances by both Madayag and de Leon in recent games. Coupled with the most modern attack strategy by head coach Oliver Almadro as shown by his minimal utilization of fancy combination plays, the steady improvement in the Lady Eagles' passing would undoubtedly seal their spot in the final four.
De La Salle Lady Spikers (5-2)
After a hard-earned win against a young NU team and back-to-back losses against title contenders UP and UST, the Lady Spikers’ capability to defend the crown has been questioned. If recent memory would be observed however, the defending champs usually peak during the second round despite losses early on in the first half of the season (Editor's Note: The Lady Spikers swept the second round in Season 80). While the Lady Spikers maintain their dominance in the service department as it has been the previous seasons, the trademark “Taft Wall” has fallen short in its coverage.
While the Lady Spikers are expected to make up for a less than dominant first round as they usually do, some key adjustments can be considered to bolster their offensive firepower. Based on numbers alone, with a slightly lower attack output but a significantly higher passing efficiency, captain Des Cheng is best fit as the second open while May Luna is better suited as first open with her relatively higher attack stat. In addition, DLSU can look into further maximizing their best offensive option in rookie Jolina Dela Cruz by involving her more from the back row to ensure that her attacks are utilized well in a whole rotation.
University of Santo Tomas Golden Tigresses (5-2)
Despite losing a key attacker in Milena Alessandrini to injury, the UST Golden Tigresses have risen above handicap to continue their conquest from their pre-season dominance. While UST was quick to be discredited from the title run with their loss of Alessandrini, the long-time coming adaptation of a modern rotation system in Setter-Open-Middle order worked wonders for the team. With the utilization of the modern rotation, UST was able to fully exploit the passing efficiency of both Sisi Rondina and Eya Laure as well as open up easier footwork for setter MaFe Galanza to establish a clean play.
Though second to last in the passing department, UST is expected to improve on this department significantly since the shift to the better rotation has been towards the end of the first round. At this pace, UST will continue to be the best attacking team in the league and is poised to exact revenge against their first round tormentors Ateneo and FEU.
University of the Philippines Lady Maroons (4-3)
Perhaps the most unpredictable team this season, the UP Lady Maroons continue their conquest for the title albeit lagging behind other pre-season favorites like UST and Ateneo. Having one of the most experienced rosters in the league, their hopes of a title shot is currently hampered by a lack of consistency in performance as evidenced by a remarkable win over the defending champs and a painful upset dealt by a young NU squad.
Despite a solid trio of attackers in Tots Carlos, Isa Molde, and Justine Dorog, the Lady Maroons have yet to see a game where all three key attackers are delivering the numbers.
As of the moment, the Lady Maroons fall behind in the service and blocking departments, which are crucial skills in winning the UAAP crown. In keeping the hopes of a Final Four appearance alive, it is in UP’s best interest to give much attention in their service skill since the other Final Four contenders Ateneo, UST, and FEU are actually the three lowest teams with regards to passing efficiency.
Far Eastern University Lady Tamaraws (4-3)
With a stellar rookie in Lyca Ebon and a full pack of veterans from last year’s runner-up finish, the FEU Lady Tamaraws are still serious contenders for the crown despite lagging behind the other pre-season favorites at this point.
Perhaps the only notable limiting factor against FEU is that they are the only team left utilizing the outdated Setter-Middle-Open rotation in all their games. The rotation has been FEU’s own undoing as it prevents its passers from establishing a consistent formation where both open hitters and the libero are constantly involved in reception. Likewise, the rotation puts unnecessary stress in the distance to be run by the setters leading to numerous footwork establishment concerns which then result to error-prone setting by Negrito.
With FEU’s heavy reliance on an outdated attack system also in too much combination plays, their passing formation is not a good mix to their offensive strategy. FEU undoubtedly has some of the best individual players in their respective positions but the outdated offense and defensive strategy makes the team inefficient and limited to maximize their potential.
National University Lady Bulldogs (2-5)
Despite key losses in Jaja Santiago and Jasmine Nabor, the addition of new faces Ivy Lacsina and Princess Robles has been a revelation for the NU Lady Bulldogs. Proving capable of challenging top seeded teams despite the young roster, the future looks bright for NU as a title contender in upcoming seasons.
Robles is proving to be an ideal open hitter for the Lady Bulldogs with her impressive attack and reception stats. On the other hand, Ivy Lacsina, despite her impressive attack, seems not fitting as second open since the position inarguably has the most passing responsibilities next to the libero. Should NU continue to bank on the improvement of Lacsina, it would be in their best interest to fully commit her in a specialized position in order to prevent another identity crisis position-wise like with Santiago in previous seasons. Having Lacsina hit for left wing, go for quicks and slides, though entertaining, will prove more of a liability for the young squad in the long run.
Adamson University Lady Falcons (1-6)
It was hard not to root for the Lady Falcons last season when the team showed much heart in every game to prove a point that they’re no longer a pushover team. Last showing promise during the elimination round of the PVL Collegiate Conference, the Lady Falcons found much struggle this season on and off the court.
Despite having one of the league’s best passers and defenders in Thang Ponce, the Lady Falcons still finds difficulty in breaking wins compared to last season mainly due to a lack of consistency and minimizing their errors. Though remarkable in floor defense, the setting of the Lady Falcons need much work in consistency in order for the team to link the disconnect from defense to offense.
Under a new head coach, the challenge will be to instill the winning attitude or the tenacity shown by their former season roster.
University of the East Lady Warriors (1-6)
Currently having the league’s best passer and third best setter, it is quite a mystery how the Lady Warriors haven’t broken the higher ranks given that passing is the major flaw of three of the top four teams. While UE continues to challenge top teams to their limits with a couple of five-set thrillers, the team continues to struggle in the execution phase of claiming games for themselves. Severely lagging behind with their net play in terms of offense and defense, the team has been the punching bag of the season in such a way that they can definitely take other team’s offensive but lacks sorely in dealing a counter blow.
The team has a good mix of veterans much like UP and FEU and if this is undoubtedly the season where the Lady Warriors should already be breaking free from the lower ranks. With experienced hitters in Judith Abil and Mean Mendrez and a reliable blocker in Seth Rodriguez, UE’s triangle of attack is evident though not maximized to the fullest. Faster play to the pins and utilization of the middle would be their best bet should they want a big turn around for the second half of the season.