DOC VOLLEYBALL: An Evolutionary Call
AJ Pareja on Mar 26, 2019 05:52 PM
This season, the DLSU Lady Spikers have been noted to find some struggles on the offensive with low attack output from the middle that then led to opposing blockers overburdening La Salle’s left wing. - AJ Pareja
Finding the Lost Edge
When the defending champions opened UAAP Season 81 with quick work of two dominant pre-season teams in Ateneo and Adamson, the quest for the crown was off to a good start. Weathering a revamped rival in the Lady Eagles with their trademark heavy serving, the De La Salle Lady Spikers proved that the tried and tested system of head coach Ramil De Jesus is the key in obtaining the elusive four-peat championship. With a rookie revelation in Jolina Dela Cruz, steady defense performance from CJ Saga and the inclusion of NCAA standout Des Celemente, it seemed as if that the Lady Spikers’ loss of Kim Dy, Dawn Macandili and Majoy Baron would not much be of a concern.
However, if there’s one thing that has made the UAAP interesting especially from last season, it is its unpredictability. While it’s nothing new for the Lady Spikers to face a few road blocks early on in their campaign even in past seasons, the team often builds momentum enough to power them through the eliminations and eventually claim the crown. While the defending champs’ first round performance is quite similar to previous seasons based on win-loss records alone, the quality of play has been worrisome with regards to stats and performance. With a recent sweep by the UP Lady Maroons, the De Jesus system is facing yet another major evolutional challenge last seen with coach Tai Bundit’s arrival almost half a decade ago.
On the Verge of Identity Crisis
Throughout UAAP Women’s Volleyball history, when talking about the DLSU Lady Spikers, usual associations would be height, serving and blocking. Though bannering some once-in-a-generation power hitters like Iris Patrona, Carissa Gotis and Ara Galang hitting hard for the team at some point, the Lady Spikers have been better known for their size, serve, and net defense more than raw power in the attack. While the recent error-laden encounter against the Lady Maroons could plant doubts on the Lady Spikers’ chances of defending the crown, that aforementioned game is not a reliable (nor fair) absolute assessment of DLSU’s overall performance.
The Lady Spikers won Season 80 in dominant fashion primarily because they were relatively the best serving, passing, and defending team. In a league where their contenders were either struggling with passing formations brought about by outdated rotations or faulty individual passing biomechanics, the Lady Spikers were unchallenged throughout the second half of last season primarily because they were able to disrupt opponents' attack strategies while holding their own ground on the defensive. To date, save for the embarrassing 17 service errors against the Lady Maroons, the Lady Spikers still hold an iron grip on the service department and that has kept them at bay for now.
It is in the best interest of the defending champions not to sit on their laurels when it comes to their serving as their contemporaries for the crown are embracing the much needed evolutions from last season. With UST and FEU finally joining in the fray of using the modern Setter-Open-Middle rotation to free up passing spaces for the open hitters and with UP and Ateneo’s passers gaining more consistency, the Lady Spikers are pressed to look for different avenues to put pressure on.
In past seasons, the Lady Spikers have undoubtedly been one of if not the best blocking team in the UAAP. The famed “Taft Wall” has been the one of the crowning glory of De Jesus’ long time system. La Salle’s blocking has always been the second half of the equation. First is to serve hard to deal an initial strike and disrupt the opponent’s attack. With a handicapped offensive, deliver the coup de grace with a solid wall shutting down the offensive. If opponents are lucky enough to make it through the wall, the floor makes easy work of the transition and the tall middles strike with a quick or a slide. This tactic has been the trademark of La Salle and has been the winning formula the past seasons but amongst a field of contenders rapidly evolving their own games, the rigid reliance on the aforementioned system is starting to show signs of exhaustion especially this season. In their first encounter against UP, the gaps within the wall have been exposed and has been exploited by their contenders from there on.
Though raw power as mentioned has never been La Salle’s trademark offense, the Lady Spikers’ artillery has always had a balanced offensive with high flyers from the left, tall quick middles, and consistent scorers from the right. The front left has never been lacking for the Lady Spikers more so the right side with the likes of Kim Dy when up front and strong slide attacks from the likes of Aby Marano in recent seasons. The Lady Spikers, save for Ara Galang in response to then rival Alyssa Valdez, never had to rely on engaging the back row as all fronts are covered and has worked enough for them in past seasons.
This season however, the Lady Spikers have been noted to find some struggles on the offensive with low attack output from the middle that then led to opposing blockers overburdening La Salle’s left wing. Coupled with slow and high sets often sent to the left wing, Des Cheng and May Luna have found difficulty circumventing opposing defense. Though with tremendous potential, rookie opposite Jolina Dela Cruz has only provided some balancing factor on the offense whenever she’s up front. The catch however is that Dela Cruz, the top scoring Lady Spiker to date, becomes a non-factor once she rotates to the back due to a lack of backrow attack capability. This scenario has been compensated for in the past with a slide from Marano or a back quick from Baron but such threatening offensive presence from the middles have been sorely missed this season. Perhaps the middle who has come closest to the speed and power of these former stalwarts would be Julia Ipac. Though a good candidate for a first middle to just deliver some offensive threat despite the lack of relative height, it is quite surprising how Ipac hasn’t seen much court time as first middle. Unless the system adapts in a way to sharpen the right side of the court be it from the front or back row, the left wing will continue to be burdened hurting the Lady Spikers’ cause further.
Volleyball Arms Race
Last time the tried and tested De Jesus system was challenged to such extent was the introduction of Tai Bundit. Challenging the conventional style of play at that time, Bundit proved to be an unsolvable riddle for a couple of seasons despite De Jesus’ extensive championship history in the UAAP. Not to be left behind however, the Lady Spikers proved to be capable of adaptation. Utilization of the modern S-O-M rotation, making the libero set when setter gets first ball, and making open hitters defend zone 6 in anticipation of counter pipe attack, are some of the innovations De Jesus assimilated to equalize the battle against Bundit and eventually reign supreme once more.
Season 81 is proving to be another call for the Lady Spikers to embrace evolution. With old powerhouse squads like UST and FEU looking to claim superiority with the adaptation of a modern rotation and with new powerhouses UP and Ateneo boasting of dominant opposites who can hammer balls, be it from the front or back, the defending champs are pressed to draw out something new to make them standout once more from these battle-hungry contenders. The call to evolve is by no means an abandoning of the tried and tested system. Rather, incorporation of additional options, most especially in their offensive strategy, is a notable consideration should the defending champs aim to fend off the offensives coming from different fronts.