UAAP VOLLEYBALL: Jaja Santiago's last stand

Mark Escarlote on Apr 03, 2018 09:16 AM
UAAP VOLLEYBALL: Jaja Santiago's last stand
Jaja Santiago's legacy will be determined on how she would rise up against tremendous pressure and adversity to bring glory to National University.

Graduating National University ace Jaja Santiago was self-assured that there won’t be another second round collapse for the Lady Bulldogs in her final year.

In fact, the towering Lady Bulldog was so confident that they have exorcised the ghost of seasons past that she gave a bold answer to ABS-CBN Sports' question about the infamous last half of the elimination round dip that haunted NU in the previous years. 

“Siguro meron (pressure) pero sa akin kasi sa nakikita ko sa team namin ngayon mas malaki ang in-improve namin kaysa dati,” she said.

“Towards the second round hindi ko nakikita ang team ko na pababa, mas nakikita ko ang team ko na paakyat,” Santiago added.

That was after the Lady Bulldogs’ conquest of University of the Philippines that handed new NU coach Babes Castillo his sixth win after seven contests in the 80th UAAP women’s volleyball tournament.

NU was in cloud nine.

With all the needed pieces already surrounding Santiago in her swan song, the Lady Bulldogs achieved their best start in years as they occupied the top spot at the end of the first round.

NU, the pre-season favorite to challenge the rule of traditional power and two-time defending champion De La Salle University, was good as advertised.

They looked poised to give the Lady Spikers a run for their money.

But championships aren’t won in just the first round alone.


Muffled Bark

Santiago walked past a small group of reporters waiting outside the Lady Bulldogs’ dugout with setter Jasmine Nabor in tow.

“No comment,” she said as she continued to stride towards the exit of the FilOil Flying V Centre in San Juan with Nabor shuffling her feet double time to keep up with Santiago’s pace. 

Scribes – seasoned and new – know that no word can accurately describe a loss, what more for a series of setbacks.

Santiago and the Lady Bulldogs quietly leaving the venue was a clear picture of it.

Just three matches after their successful first round, NU is now looking like the Lady Bulldogs squad that sputtered in Seasons 78 and 79.

Santiago, who is averaging 19.1 points per game, could only do so much as the energy, ferocity and grit that brought NU to new heights in the opening round suddenly vanished.

From high above the top spot, the Lady Bulldogs slid to a 6-4 slate for fourth place behind Far Eastern University, the squad that handed them their lone loss in the first half of eliminations.

Losing games is one thing, but dropping contests the way NU did in their first three second round matches was devastating for the team’s psyche.

Pitted against DLSU to begin the make or break stretch, Lady Bulldogs looked poised to make a repeat of their five-set win over the Lady Spikers.

NU was in control of the first set, building enough of a gap to keep the Taft-based squad at bay at least for most of the frame’s rally.

Up 21-14, the Lady Bulldogs let the set slip away as they allowed DLSU to mount a comeback as Santiago committed two of NU’s last three errors that gave the Lady Spikers the extended frame.

NU again took a commanding 17-10 lead in the second set but it was DLSU that came up on top in another extended contest. Frustrated and already in disarray, the Lady Bulldogs were easy picking in the third.

It was a stinging 27-25, 27-25, 25-16 loss.

NU’s poor reception was revealed. ABS-CBN Sports volleyball expert AJ Pareja in his column, Doc Volleyball, gave a detailed breakdown of that match.  

But Santiago, silenced to 13 points, was still optimistic. After all, it was just their second loss.

NU licked its wounds only to suffer more a week after.

The Lady Bulldogs may have failed to advance to the Final Four last year but NU, aside from the Lady Spikers in the championship round, was the only team to sweep Ateneo in the elims.

They floored the Lady Eagles once again in their first meeting this season.

Following the strategy of its archrival, Ateneo targeted the Achilles’ heel of the Lady Bulldogs – service reception.

What was expected to be a tight battle turned out to be a one-sided affair.

The Lady Eagles needed no comeback. They just punished NU with 14 aces in their 25-22, 25-16, 25-17 win. They made life miserable for Nabor and chained the offense of Santiago’s usual supporting cast.

Santiago had three more points than her previous outing, as if it mattered.

Then it turned worse.

From giving DLSU and Ateneo easy points from the service line, NU became generous with a limping Adamson University.

The Lady Bulldogs opened their first round romp with a four-set conquest of the Lady Falcons.

This time they needed a win to regain their confidence.

Adamson could give them that especially after the Lady Falcons needed five sets to survive a feisty cellar-dwelling University of the East side a few days back and crippled with the loss of injured rookie Chiara Permentilla (ankle).

The victory remained elusive for NU.

Adamson pulled off a shocker in the first two sets. NU behind Santiago snatched the third frame – the team’s first set win in the round.

But the Lady Falcons completed their revenge and left the Lady Bulldogs cut and bruised in four sets. 

NU allowed only five service aces but they gave away 39 points off errors.

Santiago was the only bright spot with 21 points. She even contributed 21 digs on defense but to no avail.      

In their last five matches, the Lady Bulldogs lost four.   

Santiago, with all her effort, is slowly treading the same lonely path that University of Sto. Tomas top hitter Sisi Rondina took during the Tigresses’ five-game slump.

The two will cross paths on Sunday before the league goes on a long hiatus in observance of the Holy Week.


Rosy Road Turned Thorny Path

Heading into the season, volleyball pundits were already considering NU as the team with the best chance of landing a Finals spot.

The Lady Bulldogs were armed to the teeth.

They have an intact and experienced crew centered on a 6-foot-5 hitter who could play middle and on both wings.

Save for the exclusion of libero Bia General, who failed to meet the academic requirements needed in her return stint after a one-year absence, NU’s 10-woman squad remained formidable.

In fact, the road to the Finals seemed to be paved exactly for the Lady Bulldogs.

DLSU lost its top setter Kim Fajardo and Ateneo had clipped wings after playmaker Jia Morado decided to forego her final year then lost hitters Michelle Morente (academics) and Kim Gequilliana (knee inury).

Most teams were rebuilding. The title is ripe for the picking, if NU will just try to reach for it.

But the road turned out to be rougher than expected.         


Burden of Winning

“’Yung mga panalo nila sa labas ‘yun ang pressure na pumapasok sa kanila pagdating sa UAAP.”

Former NU coach Roger Gorayeb may have hit the answer to NU’s woes with his statement.

Gorayeb handled the squad for two and a half seasons and in his tenure saw firsthand how the Lady Bulldogs crumbled from within with high expectations proving to be the burden Santiago and the rest of the team have to carry all season long.

For the past three years the Lady Bulldogs have dominated the V-League and PVL Collegiate Conference, making NU an easy pick to vie for the UAAP title.

“Marami kasing factors na nangyayari na nasa loob ng team,” said Gorayeb, who was replaced by Castillo after Season 79. “Iba kasi ang pressure sa mga bata kasi kung titingnan mo malakas ang team and nananalo sa mga tournaments sa labas ng UAAP.”

The expectations for NU to capture the elusive championship has been in Santiago’s shoulder from his rookie year when coach Francis Vicente plucked her and her sister Dindin Santiago from the Tigresses' lair in Espana.

A celebrated middle in UST high school alongside the likes of Ateneo’s legendary spiker Alyssa Valdez and Fajardo, Santiago transferred to NU in Season 76 to join her sister, who before joining the Lady Bulldogs was a member of the last Tigresses champion team in Season 72.

In her rookie year, Jaja Santiago averaged 10.7 points per game, had an impressive 41.99% success rate in attacks and normed 0.50 blocks per set to earn the Rookie of the Year honor.    

With her towering presence, Dindin’s experience and a crew composed of Aiko Urdas, Desiree Dadang, Myla Pablo and Mina Aganon, NU was poised to challenge DLSU’s four-peat bid under Edjet Mabbayad, who replaced Vicente after Season 75.

All they needed was a win over the Valdez-led Lady Eagles in the stepladder semis.

But fate was cruel.

The Lady Bulldogs were beaten twice by the eventual champions in Dindin Santiago’s last year.

But it was OK. The younger Santiago still had four more playing years to deliver NU to the Promised Land.

On her second year, Santiago averaged 18 points per game with a season-best 39.13% attack percentage despite adjusting to setters Jocelyn Soliven and Ivy Perez under new coach Gorayeb, who replaced Dong Dela Cruz midway in Season 77.

However, the Lady Bulldogs fell short in the last phase of the stepladder semifinals at the hands of DLSU, who during their match lost Ara Galang to a knee injury.

Santiago’s scoring average (15.2 ppg) dipped the following season as NU’s offense was spread with Pablo on her last playing year and with the improvement of Aiko Urdas and Jorelle Singh.

But for the first time in four years, the Lady Bulldogs failed to advance in the semis, closing the elims with a 7-7 record.

Season 79 proved to be a promising year for NU, Gorayeb made huge changes in his lineup opting to field a lean 11-woman squad with the inclusion of Fil-Japanese recruit Risa Sato and switching Nabor to setter.

Prior to the UAAP tournament, NU captured back-to-back V-League Collegiate Conference crowns. Santiago, particularly, was showered with success both in the V-League, Philippine Superliga under Foton and stints in the international stage. 

It was just natural to expect a lot from Santiago and the Lady Bulldogs.

“Pinakamabigat ang pressure niyan kay Jaja. Kasi nakita n’yo naman ang NU as a team nananalo sa V-League na ilang beses na. Siya naman nag-national team tapos ‘yung exposure niya sa international, talagang malaki ang expectations sa kanya,” said Gorayeb.

The Lady Bulldogs’ return to the semis seemed to be within reach but three straight losses in their last three games in the elims did them in. For the second straight year NU was out of the Final Four cast as they equaled their record the previous year of 7-7.

Santiago collected the Best Scorer, Attacker and Blocker awards while averaging 19.4 points per game, but she ended the season lacking. 


Not Pressing the Panic Button

Before the start of the season, Santiago drew the interest of Thai League team Bangkok Glass, but the fifth-year player decided to turn down the offer and suit up for NU for the last time.

She wanted a graceful exit.

The Lady Bulldogs looked like they were going to her give her that.

Then the second round came.

“Makikita mo naman na masigla sila sa first round tapos pagdating sa second round nananamlay,” Gorayeb observed. “Maraming factors yan na involved. Siyempre maraming ini-expect sa kanila ang mga tao sa loob pati na rin yung mga fans lalo na’t nananalo sila.”

“Kahit ako di ko na-control yun during that time,” he added. “Could you just imagine yung pressure sa amin. Yung expectations kasi mataas talaga.”

Even with their string of losses, Castillo remains adamant that there’s no reason to push the panic button.

"No panic. If you can take the best, you have to take the worst. Yun ang tingin ko,” said Castillo.

“No problem how great it may be, may solusyon yan. You just have to choose to be part of the solution and I think that is one thing that is very important. Now is the time to support each other,” he added. 

But then again, Santiago running out of time.

NU is already out of excuses for losing.

If Santiago, the last of the Lady Bulldogs’ cornerstones when they tried to build their own Tower of Babel to challenge the UAAP volleyball powers five seasons back, falls short once again, her legacy will be like the one thing they feared the most: a ghost of their own making.

This season is for Santiago to win… or lose. 



Follow this writer on Twitter, @fromtheriles

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