UAAP volleyball preview: Lady Bulldogs still hungry as rest of the league looks to knock them off their perch

FILE–NU Lady Bulldogs complete sweep of UAAP Season 84 on their way to the title. –UAAP PHOTO

MANILA, Philippines —  After ending a 65-year title drought last season with a perfect 16-0 campaign, the National University Lady Bulldogs have a target on their backs when they defend their throne this UAAP Season 85 women’s volleyball tournament starting on Saturday at Mall of Asia Arena.

The Lady Bulldogs, bannered by reigning season MVP Bella Belen, Cess Robles, Alyssa Solomon, Lams Lamina, Sheena Toring, and Jennifer Nierva, were far from satisfied despite their historic run as they made the most of the busy offseason to become stronger and better.

Contenders La Salle, Ateneo, and University of Santo Tomas also beefed up their respective rosters, joined the preseason leagues, and held training camp as they are out to redeem themselves after failing to capture the crown last year.

Adamson, Far Eastern University, and University of the Philippines hired seasoned coaches to bolster their programs, while University of the East was able to acquire key additions to improve its line-up.

INQUIRER Sports takes a look at the eight teams before the women’s volleyball tournament fires off as the UAAP brings back the pre-pandemic rituals and protocols as well as the men’s volleyball league for the first time in three years.

NU Lady Bulldogs

NU Lady Bulldogs complete sweep of UAAP Season 84 on their way to the title.

FILE–NU Lady Bulldogs in UAAP Season 84. –UAAP PHOTO

Head coach: Karl Dimaculangan
Key losses: Ivy Lacsina, Chinnie Arroyo, Kamille Cal, Jacqueline Acuna
Key additions: Vangie Alinsug, Shaira Jardio
Season 84 elimination record: 14-0 (Champion)

Coming off a perfect title run, the Lady Bulldogs remained hungry for more, which makes them more dangerous this season.

NU coach Karl Dimaculangan stressed to his wards that they won’t be approaching this season as defending champions. He wants them to stay focused on becoming a better team and reaching greater heights.

“The team’s mindset right now is not how we will defend the crown but how we will improve our skills and gameplay.  We’re focused on our day-by-day [progress],” said Dimaculangan in Filipino. “We expect this season to be tougher and more exciting.”

Although Ivy Lacsina and key bench players Chinnie Arroyo and Jacqueline Acuna opted to turn pro in the Premier Volleyball League and backup setter Kamille Cal transferred to UP, the Lady Bulldogs remained dominant in the preseason, sweeping all of their eight matches in the Shakey’s Super League, capped by a straight-set win over the La Salle Lady Spikers in the one-game final last November.

The defending champion, which added prized rookies Vangie Alinsug and libero Shaira Jardio to its already stacked roster,  also went to Japan last December to level up their game.

The UAAP women’s first-ever rookie MVP Belen knows that they have a target on their backs that’s why her team keeps on striving.

“We’re not complacent despite sweeping last season. Our mindset is to surpass our previous performance from last season,” said the reigning Best Outside Hitter, who is in her best game shape.

“Coach Karl told us that it’s harder to defend a crown because everyone wants to beat us. So we focused on [improving] ourselves,” she added.

La Salle Lady Spikers

La Salle Lady Spikers Shakey's Super League

FILE–La Salle Lady Spikers in the Shakey’s Super League. SSL PHOTO

Head coach: Ramil De Jesus (will miss the 1st round), Interim coach Noel Orcullo
Key losses: Erika Santos, 
Key additions: Angel Canino, Amie Provido
Season 84 elimination record: 10-4 (runner-up)

For the first time in 25 seasons, decorated coach Ramil De Jesus will miss several games but he trusts his longtime assistant and interim Noel Orcullo to run the team and the system he built that won 11 titles.

Orcullo, who handled the Lady Spikers in another runner-up finish in the Shakey’s Super League, admitted he’s a little bit nervous about calling the shots in the UAAP for the first time. But the trust of De Jesus fuels him and his wards to redeem themselves this season.

The Lady Spikers acquired Angel Canino from La Salle Zobel, which dethroned Belen and Co’s Nazareth School to rule the UAAP girls tournament last 2018 as well as Amie Provido to bolster their line-up.

With La Salle seeking to end its two-season title drought, Orcullo insisted that the Lady Spikers, bannered by Thea Gagate, Jolina Dela Cruz, Mars Alba, Fifi Sharma, Alleiah Malaluan, and Justine Jazareno, will have to overcome themselves first in order to reach the top.

“Our main [team-to-beat] is ourselves. Because we have to surpass our previous finish and overcome the challenges within ourselves,” said Orcullo.

Ateneo Blue Eagles

Faith Nisperos leads Ateneo past Adamson and into the UAAP Season 84 semifinals. UAAP PHOTO

FILE–Faith Nisperos and Ateneo Blue Eagles in the UAAP Season 84 semifinals. UAAP PHOTO

Head coach: Oliver Almadro
Key losses: Dani Ravena, Jaja Maraguinot, Erika Raagas, Pia Ildefonso, Jaycel Delos Reyes
Key additions: Yssa Nisperos, Geezel Tsunashima, Jean Licauco
Season 84 elimination record: 8-6 (third)

Ateneo lost several key players namely libero and former captain Dani Ravena, setter Jaja Maraguinot, and spiker Erika Raagas, who helped them overcome a slow start last year and still finished with a bronze medal after beating Adamson in a playoff and eliminating third seed UST in the stepladder semifinal.

Despite the departure of their veteran players, coach Oliver Almadro says working hard every step of the way will make them achieve their goals.

“If we want to make it to the finals, let’s work hard and have an opportunity first to be in the Final Four. When you’re in the Final Four, you gave a chance to be in the finals,” he said. “That’s the realistic goal. First, be in the Final Four and being there, hopefully, will inspire us going further. It’s really one step at a time and being better every day.”

Almadro is pinning his hopes on co-captain and go-to scorers Faith Nisperos and Vanie Gandler, who will lead a young core composed of AC Miner, Lyann De Guzman, setter Takako Fujimoto, and libero Roma Mae Doromal.

The animated coach, who steered the team to a Season 81 championship in 2019, said defending champion NU, La Salle, UST, and Adamson are the biggest threats this season with their intact rosters but they can’t count out FEU, UE, and UP.

“I agree with the other coaches all of the teams are the teams to beat this UAAP — one of the best leagues in the country. So being here is being one of the best. Every team is the best so we have to prepare for them,” he said.

UST Tigresses

UST Tigresses in the UAAP Season 84 women's volleyball tournament. UAAP PHOTO

FILE–UST Tigresses in the UAAP Season 84. UAAP PHOTO

Head coach: KungFu Reyes
Key losses: Ysa Jimenez, Camille Victoria, Rachelle Roldan
Key additions: Milena Alessandrini (returning), Xyza Gula, Cassie Carballo, Regina Jurado, Pierre Abellana, Pia Abbu, Jonna Perdido
Season 84 elimination record: 9-5

Last season’s top scorer Eya Laure has more help this year as Milena Alessandrini returns after four years and several promising rookies beefing up UST for Season 85.

Laure, who took some time before deciding if she’ll return to the UAAP, was pleased with her rookie teammates like Xyza Gula, Cassie Carballo, Regina Jurado, Pierre Abellana, Pia Abbu, Jonna Perdido, who made waves during their preseason leagues in the V-League and Shakey’s Super League.

The Tigresses may not have reached the podium of both leagues but the UST captain was impressed with their young guns, who make her believe that they will avoid their semifinal meltdown from the third seed this time.

“I think last year’s [collapse] won’t happen again. As you saw how my young teammates played in the preseason. I am so proud of them. They really fought hard,” Laure said in Filipino. “I’m excited and happy to join my new teammates this season.”

UST coach KungFu Reyes also held training camps in Japan and Baguio as the team reunited with Alessandrini, who skipped last season after suffering a knee injury in 2019.

Laure said their preseason experience will help them reach their goals this year.

“We had enough time to train and we were able to bond to get to know more each other on how we play. As a team, internally and externally, we’re healthy. We just need to know how to play as one during games,” she said.

Adamson Lady Falcons

Adamson UAAP volleyball

Adamson Lady Falcons. UAAP PHOTO

Head coach: Jerry Yee (1st season)
Key losses: Trisha Genesis, Krich Macaslang
Key additions: Trisha Tubu, Antonette Adolfo, Ayesha Juegos
Season 84 elimination record: 8-6

Adamson brought back seasoned coach Jerry Yee to the UAAP after it fell a game short of the Final Four, losing to Ateneo in a playoff last season.

The Lady Falcons will be starting life without their leader and go-to scorer Trisha Genesis and middle blocker Krich Macaslang, they will be led by Yee, who was coming off a perfect title run with College of Saint Benilde in the NCAA, to replace former coach Lerma Giron.

Adamson assistant coach Jay Chua, speaking for Yee in the press conference, said they are raring for redemption this year.

“We have one goal: Top four,” said Chua in Filipino. “We want redemption since we fell short last year.”

“Coach Jerry also focused on the players’ mental toughness,” he added.

Besides Yee, a former UP coach, ushering a new era in his UAAP comeback, setter Louie Romero is also confident that they can make it to the Final Four this year with newcomers Trisha Tubu, Antonette Adolfo, and Ayesha Juegos joining them holdovers Lucille Almonte, Kate Santiago, Lorene Toringm, and Rizza Cruz.

“[Our new players] are dauntless. We have what it takes to make it to the Final Four this season,” said Romero in Filipino.

UP Fighting Maroons

FILE–Alyssa Bertolano and the UP Fighting Maroons in Season 84. –UAAP PHOTO

FILE–Alyssa Bertolano and the UP Fighting Maroons in Season 84. –UAAP PHOTO

Head coach: Shaq Delos Santos (1st season)
Key loss: Lorie Bernardo, Jaila Atienza
Key addition: Abi Goc
Season 84 elimination record: 5-9

UP tapped former women’s national team and current Cignal coach Shaq Delos Santos to strengthen its program this UAAP Season 85.

Although big changes can’t happen overnight and a Final Four contention is not guaranteed, Delos Santos, who replaced Godfrey Okumu during the off-season, promises his wards will give their best this season.

“All I can promise this UAAP is my team will give its best every game and conquer all of the challenges,” said Delos Santos in Filipino. “All the teams are facing different challenges. But those challenges make us stronger. It’s all about how to solve and accept it and then be strong on our next move.”

Delos Santos, who last coached in the UAAP last 2017, is happy to handle the young Fighting Maroons team, bannered by Alyssa Bertolano, Jewel Encarnacion, Marianne Sotomil, Nina Ytang, and Ethan Arce.

UP may not be as stacked as other teams but Delos Santos hopes that their passion and hard work will take them to places this season as the school has yet to make it to the Final Four since 2016.

“Every day I share my knowledge about volleyball and I’m very thankful to this group of people because they are hardworking, they are always all-out, and they are always excited in training,” the new UP coach said. “I just keep on telling them to keep on giving their 100 percent commitment and passion, and then never stop until we reach our goals.”

UE Lady Red Warriors

UE Lady Red Warriors celebrate ending a long losing streak. UAAP PHOTO

FILE–UE Lady Red Warriors in UAAP Season 84. UAAP PHOTO

Head coach: Jumbo Dimaculangan
Key losses: Erin Navarro, Dalrymple Lingay, Von Dimaculangan
Key additions: KC Cepada, Shainely Tequin, Kamille Dionisio, Angelica Reyes, Vanessa Bangayan
Season 84 elimination record: 1-13

UE coach Jumbo Dimaculangan hopes his new players teaming up with holdovers Ja Lana, Dara Nieva, and Rhea Manalo will get them more wins this season.

After saving the best for last year, Dimaculangan hopes to translate their season-ending win over FEU into a better season with newcomers KC Cepada, Shainely Tequin, Kamille Dionisio, Angelica Reyes, and Vanessa Bangayan beefing up their team.

“The rookies that we have, they are potential players so we’re still developing them,” the UE coach said.  “Hopefully,  they can show what we’ve been doing in training this coming season.”

The Lady Red Warriors, who also played in the Shakey’s Super League, are seeking to pull off surprises against other teams with their under-the-radar players.

FEU Lady Tamaraws

New FEU coach Tina Salak. –UAAP PHOTO

New FEU coach Tina Salak. –UAAP PHOTO

Head coach: Tina Salak (1st season)
Key losses: Lycha Ebon, Martha Mora
Key additions: Mitzi Panangin, Alyzza Devosora, Angelica Guzman
Season 84 elimination record: 1-13

After winning two UAAP championships and the 1995 MVP as a player, Tina Salak is out to slay the ghost of Season 84, which was FEU’s worst season in the Final Four era winning only one match.

Salak, who replaced George Pascua in the offseason, admitted that rebuilding is a “very big challenge” as her last UAAP experience was way back in the 90s.

But she is determined to become a good coach for her team, which is composed of holdovers Chenie Tagaod, Jovelyn Fernandez, setter Christine Ubaldo, and libero Max Juangco as well as rookies Mitzi Panangin and Alyzza Devosora.

“I hope this time I will be able to develop myself as a coach and we will be able to slay the ghost of Season 84 or any aspect of that,” said the former UAAP champion coach from La Salle Zobel in Filipino. 

The former national team setter, who last played for Chery Tiggo in the Premier Volleyball League bubble in 2021, hopes to erase the team’s last-place finish in Season 84 by taking one set at a time this year.

“Our game plan this year is to take it set by set. Hopefully, we’ll enjoy this season,” Salak said.

Season 85

The NU Lady Bulldogs open their title retention bid against the Ateneo Blue Eagles on Saturday, 2 p.m., at MOA Arena, after the Adamson-UE game at 12 noon.

La Salle and UST will have an early marquee match on Sunday, while UP coach Delos Santos battles his alma mater, FEU on the same day.

The UAAP volleyball tournaments will have to wait longer for the implementation of the video challenge this season, but pre-pandemic rituals–including the traditional handshakes and change of courts–return amid eased restrictions.

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