What a great weekend for sports fans!
Last Saturday, we were treated to not one, but TWO epic volleyball championships in the UAAP. There was action, there was drama; there were cheers and tears, there was noise and more NOISE.
The defending champs Ateneo Blue Eagles squared off with the NU Bulldogs for the men’s crown for the second year in a row. And on the distaff side, the defending champs De la Salle Lady Spikers mixed it up with arch-rival Ateneo Lady Eagles for the 6th consecutive year! For the crown, for honor and glory, for the right to swag and brag, and for the opportunity to strut those blings and ribbons before a galant, but nonetheless fallen opposition.
The high-flying Eagles had earlier taken Game 1 of the best-of-three series via a come-from-behind 5-set thriller, 25-22, 21-25, 22-25, 25-18, 15-13. Another win would clinch a rare three-peat for the Ateneans. But that exciting match had been seemingly won by sheer luck alone, taking into account the 5th set score of 15-13. The 2 teams were oh-so evenly matched, until the Eagles got the breaks at the end of the game.
For the second time, the Eagles would trail the Bulldogs 2 sets to 1. One more set and the Bulldogs would have snapped a three-year losing slump against the Eagles! One more bulldogging set and the championship would go to a third and deciding match. But the Eagles would engineer another dramatic comeback to tie the match, and eventually bring the match to another do-or-die 5th set! It was deja vu, as the 2 teams squared off at 13-all, and the whole stadium on its feet, screaming and shouting and crying themselves hoarse.
Amidst the blaring noise, an animated Ateneo coach Oliver Almadro would be seen alternately cajoling and pleading to his troops to “show the heart of a champion”. The team would majestically respond to his challenge, with veteran Rex Intal detonating a bomb-of-a-kill at pointblank range, and high-flying Marck Espejo providing the key block to end the set and the match! After 3-plus hours of power booms and pummeling bangs, after countless twists and turns of awesome runs and spectacular stops, Ateneo had – for the third straight time – captured the men’s volleyball crown with another ‘horrific’ nail-biter 18-25, 25-16, 20-25, 25-18, 15-13!!! Horrible for the Dawgs, terrific for the Eagles.
Ateneo was led by the power-game of league MVP Marck Espejo, Finals MVP Tony Koyfman and Best Setter Ish Polvorosa. NU’s gutsy challenge was led by league Best Server Bryan Bagunas, plus high-flying hitters Fauzi Ismael and Nino Kim Malabunga. With an almost intact line-up for next year, the twice-denied NU Bulldogs are aching to exact sweet revenge and finally overcome their Eagle bogey. But the Katipunan crew will definitely not be sitting on their laurels as well. This searing rivalry between Ateneo and NU in men’s volleyball is now so scorching hot, it has gained the attention of a discerning, yet highly-appreciative fan base.
Not to be outdone, it is now the 6th consecutive year that we see a La Salle – Ateneo eyeball-to-eyeball encounter in women’s volleyball. The old rivalry between the blue and the green nurtured in the cage court has now moved over to the volleyball court. This celebrated duel has become immensely popular, with more than 20,000 wild and highly-vocal fans trooping to the gladiators’ arena to witness this latest edition. This center-stage show of epic proportions has been credited largely for the fast-growing fan interest in women’s volleyball.
The De la Salle Lady Spikers and the Ateneo Lady Eagles were expected to be on the rebuilding mode with the graduation of Mika Reyes, Ara Galang and Cyd Demecillo for La Salle; and superstar Alyssa Valdez, Amy Ahomiro and Mae Tajima for Ateneo. But both teams would have none of that. Pride and their competitive juices decreed that they rise to compete for crown and glory.
La Salle took first blood with a thrilling 21-25, 29-27, 25-22, 25-20 come-from-behind win in Game 1. Another win and they’d get bragging rights for the whole year! But the Lady Eagles were not ready to give them the crown without a catfight. In fact, the Lady Eagles had upended the Lady Spikers on the 2 occasions they had met in the preliminary rounds.
Thus, the two proud teams treated us to rally after glorious rally of finesse volleyball, invoking the ooohs and the aaahs of a wildly fanatic crowd. There were rival setters and captains in their respective teams, Kim Fajardo and Jia Morado, directing the offense and providing order and stability inside the court.
For La Salle, there was last year’s Finals MVP, Kim Dy, or KD, short for the Katipunan Destroyer. There was Majoy Baron, the regular season MVP, the Baroness of Blocks. There was Dawn Macandili, the Dawn of Defense, diving to save seemingly lost points. And there was the winsome Desiree Cheng, whose bash-and-gush routine would later win for her the adulation of the fans, and the Finals MVP award to boot.
Ateneo would respond with heavy gunners Jho Maraguinot and Mitch Morente, plus net specialists Bea De Leon and Kat Tolentino. Equally lethal on offense, equally stacked at the frontline, equally stout-hearted and mentally prepared.
The coaches themselves would demonstrate to us contrasting styles in bringing out the best in their respective crews. On the one hand, there was La Salle’s cool and collected cat, Ramil De Jesus; while opposite him would be the animated ‘Play happy’ practitioner, Tai Bundit.
No team would have a significant advantage in the stat sheets. In the end, the game and the championship would have to be won with those intangibles such as desire, focus, passion, intensity, maturity and what-have-you. Plus a whole lot of luck!
By the end of 4 grueling sets, the score was tied 2 sets apiece: 19-25, 25-14, 18-25, 25-18. It was winning time once again, folks, with just 1 abbreviated set to determine the year’s best in lady’s serve-and-volley. After one whole year of shedding precious blood, sweat and tears, one short sprint-of-a-set would determine who would reign supreme at the women’s podium. It would’ve been great to accommodate both in the winners’ circle, but that’s just how it is in life.
And as the crucial set progressed, it was clear that it was the Lady Spikers who had adapted Coach Tai’s ‘Play Happy’ style much better. With the game and the crown on the line, the Taft ladies were smiling and giggling and dancing their tense moments away. The Greens were grinning, and the Blues were blue. In the end, green and white confetti would shower down the rafters as the Lady Spikers cruised through the final set 15-10!
The UAAP Volleyball season has ended. The reigning King and Queen have both quashed the serious attacks posed by equally worthy contenders. They can remain seated on their thrones and rest easy. For now, the sounds of serious strife are silent. That is, till the trumpets of war blare again next year.
Two dramatic 5-set heart-stoppers in the UAAP’s 2 Final volleyball offerings! All in one Saturday. How else can you beat that?
Photos courtesy of Inquirer,net, Philstar, Fox Sports Asia, Rappler, ABS-CBN, Twitter, Arvin Lim.