Heart Strong Ateneo Forces Do-or-Die Game 4

UAAP Season 76 Women’s Volleyball Finals

Heart Strong Ateneo Forces Do-or-Die Game 4

By Joseph W Buduan

Not given much of a chance to return to the Finals the Lady Eagles are now on even footing with powerhouse archrival La Salle and are poised to make UAAP Volleyball history

SMOA Arena, 12 March 2014 – Heart. Strong.

It started out as a joke on rookie Ateneo head coach Tai Bundit. Bundit is a native of neighboring Thailand, and his command of English is more of a non-command, hence the one-word construction and reverse syntax. Now however Bundit’s broken English admonition has become the battle cry of his Ateneo Lady Eagles in their third straight appearance in the UAAP Women’s Volleyball Finals.

They weren’t really given much of a chance to even make it this far. They lost five 5-year veterans, four of whom were starters for at least the last two seasons.

They have a lot of rookies and players who have three or less years of UAAP experience.

Their biggest rookie is actually Bundit, who despite being a veteran international coach as an assistant on the Thai national team, is handling the UAAP’s undisputed crowd darling with barely any idea what that really entails. Yes, he was a trainer for the team before being named head coach. But no one can say for certain if he knew exactly what he was getting into by taking the job.

In short, there were just too many things going against the Lady Eagles this season.

Or so everybody thought.

They found their way into the Top 4 at the end of the eliminations. La Salle beat them handily in both elimination rounds en route to sweeping the regular season and earning their suddenly-useless thrice-to-beat advantage.

They beat Adamson University easily enough in their stepladder elimination. But by the time they faced National University it looked like it would be the end of the blue and white road. With the towering and powerful Santiago Sisters anchoring the NU Front 3, the Ateneo was given the slimmest of chances to return to the Finals. NU also enjoyed a twice-to-beat advantage as the Number 2 Seed in the stepladder. In fact many pundits and other observers penciled in a La Salle-NU Finals to finally happen this season.

Alyssa Valdez, this season’s Most Valuable Player, Denden Lazaro and Amy Ahomiro made unbelievably short work of NU, with timely help from the rest of the Lady Eagles. Dindin Santiago, the older of the two sisters, was already doing her goggle-eyes dance in Set 2 of Game 2 on their way to taking that period 13-25. She was crying her eyes out by the time Valdez hammered home the game and series winner in Set 4. That’s right: the underdog Lady Eagles yielded only two sets in two games. Twice-to-beat, twice beaten.

Finally the return match arrived. It would be Part III of Ateneo-La Salle in the Women’s Volleyball Finals. Finally, many thought, the Ateneo would run out of luck against a foe that seems stronger now than even in their previous three championships. The Ateneo would need to pull off the near-impossible feat of beating La Salle three times, while La Salle needed only to beat the Ateneo twice. The teams wound up splitting the first two games in identical 3-1 fashion.

And now here we are.

Bundit and his girls dug extra deep into their heart strong reserves and beat reigning champion La Salle 25-21, 25-23, 18-25, 16-25 and 17-15 to force a winner-take-all Game 4 also at the SMOA Arena this Saturday (15 March).

In the first two sets it looked like the Lady Eagles would sweep Game 3, with Valdez, Ahomiro, power-hitting rookie leaper Michelle Morente and Lazaro smoothly joining forces to take Sets 1 and 2. Tai was already getting a little jiggy with it with his signature jogging dance on the sidelines after each won set.

Then La Salle inevitably bounced back strong. Champions are still champions until they are dethroned after all. Ara Galang, herself a former MVP, Mika Reyes, Cyd Demegillo and the love-her-or-hate-her Abby Marano all went on a tear in Sets 3 and 4 to take the game into the deciding fifth set.

In Set 5 the Lady Spikers went up as much as 8-12 behind Galang’s continuous power hitting. With the La Salle gallery chanting “4-Peat!” it did indeed look like a celebration would ensue. That turned out to be premature.
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Lazaro kept saving the kill with excellent reception and digging. Ella De Jesus, Morente and Valdez brought the Ateneo to match point at 14-13. La Salle grabbed the lead right back at 14-15. Valdez however slammed one from her favorite back line area followed by a score off a Morente block as the Ateneo once again returned to match point at 16-15. In the return play after match service center Kim Fajardo was tagged by the net umpire with a violation, handing the match point and the game to the Ateneo.

La Salle head coach Ramil De Jesus was stunned and later on incensed by what he thought was a bum call. As of this writing, a protest was in the works. Commissioner Otie Camangian will review game video and make a ruling soon.

In the meantime, Valdez jumped on Bundit for her usual piggyback victory ride after Bundit had finished his own celebratory jogging dance.

“Laging sinasabi sa amin ni Coach na hangga’t hindi pa naka-25 or naka-15 hindi pa tapos ang laban. We just played happy today,” Valdez beamed. She led the Ateneo with 22 points, followed by Morente with 18. “Na-instill talaga ni Coach sa amin ‘yung heart strong,” she quickly added.

Galang meanwhile exploded for 28 big points and was hugely disappointed after her monster effort went for naught.