Ateneo: Stronger heart, bigger fight
Mark Escarlote on Jan 27, 2016 03:52 PM
For sure it’s going to be an interesting and super fun and emotional season -- Alyssa Valdez
No. of titles: 2
Last title won: Season 77
Season 77 record: 14-0 (champion)
Head coach: Tai Bundit
The defending back-to-back champion Ateneo de Manila Lady Eagles are off to a bigger challenge this 78th UAAP women’s volleyball tournament.
Not only will the Lady Eagles have contend with other teams that prepared all year long to knock them off the throne but it will be more of a test on how Ateneo will remedy the loss of their key defensive players.
The Katipunan-based squad’s run for a three-peat won’t be as smooth as their domination of Season 77.
“For sure it’s going to be an interesting and super fun and emotional season,” said Queen Eagle and reigning two-time Most Valuable Player Alyssa Valdez.
Valdez and Amy Ahomiro are playing their last season for the blue and white but their job of leaving a winning legacy is an uphill climb especially after the departure of multi-titled libero Denden Lazaro, Ella De Jesus and Aeriel Patnongon while another good defender Michelle Morente was forced to sit out the season due to academic problems.
The Lady Eagles were left without their go-to defenders and vital cogs that played big roles in Ateneo’s conquests in the past two years including an impressive 16-0 sweep of the whole Season 77 – a total of 18-game winning streak since Games 3 and 4 of Season 76 Finals.
“We can’t give any excuse also but Den, Ella, Mich and Ate Aerial are really big factors din naman sa team,” said Valdez. “They’re really the seniors na nag-lead din sa team namin to get the two-peat so it’s gonna be a harder season for sure.”
“For sure every team prepared so well because siguro kasi mahaba rin ang time ng preparation ng lahat ng teams.”
The Lady Eagles may have lost the bulk of their floor coverage but Ateneo was able to shore up its net defense with the return of 6-foot-2 Mae Tajima, missed the cut in last year’s roster, to help Ahomiro and sophomore Bea De Leon.
Setter Jia Morado is also 100% healthy after a minor operation on her left knee July last year.
“Minor operation lang naman siya and after a few months pinabalik na ako ni coach Tai (Bundit) sa training. Ngayon OK naman. Stronger than ever I guess,” said Morado, who played for the national team in the Asian U-23 and Singapore Southeast Asian Games last year. “’Yung injury ko hindi naman ako naba-bother about it.”
Jhoana Maraguinot, Madeleine Madayag, Kassandra Gequillana, and Therese Gaston are back for Ateneo. Gizelle Tan is expected to be the main libero with Jamie Lavitoria as a reliever while Pamela Dungo, Jennele Lo, Cebuana recruit Deanna Wong of University of San Jose-Recoletos and Ponggay Gaston are the new Lady Eagles to look out for.
The Lady Eagles set up a training camp in Thailand twice to prepare for the collegiate war and specifically worked on improving their defense.
“Maraming nawala sa amin sa depensa kaya ngayon ‘yung tine-training talaga namin ay defense,” said Morado. “Defense talaga ang pino-problema namin pero slowly improving naman kami kasi inaaraw-araw talaga namin. Saka hindi na kami ngayon nagri-rely sa isang tao lang lahat talaga dapat gumagawa sa depensa.”
“Siguro ang gusto muna ni coach Tai ay malaman muna namin kung ano ang lugar namin and 100% makoberan namin ang lugar namin para hindi na kailangang mag-compensate ng ibang tao. So kanya-kanyang gawa talaga ng trabaho sa court,” she added. “Magtutulungan talaga kami this time.”
“Puro tune up (sa Thailand) at doon talaga namin nakita na kailangan talaga namin ng depensa. Doon itinuro sa amin ni coach Tai na 'yun ang isa na dapat naming makuha perfectly para manalo ulit kami this year.”
Upside: Alyssa Valdez. Having a prolific scorer and a strong leader at the driver’s seat is enough to give the Lady Eagles a good direction towards a three-peat.
Downside: Alyssa Valdez and defense. Relying too much on the Queen Eagle could be a problem. It is safe to say that all the teams are prepared to stop if not slow down Valdez. In the offseason leading up to the tournament, Valdez has been very busy and was all over the place. From leading her school and club teams in various tournaments, running a business, charity works, commercial and magazine photo shoots to television appearances - physical and mental exhaustion could take its toll.
Defense is also a tough challenge for the team. Who will step up to fill in the gaping void left by Denden Lazaro and Ella De Jesus?