THE De La Salle Lady Spikers will tread uncharted territory as they battle the UST Golden Tigresses in their Final Four match on Sunday to keep their four-peat championship bid alive.
This will be the Lady Spikers third attempt to finally capture the elusive feat in the UAAP women’s volleyball tournament.
But why do the powerhouse Lady Spikers, with 11 titles overall, seem to deal with extra trouble getting the job done the fourth time around?
“‘Yung pag four-peat kasi dapat nasa tamang tao, then sa tamang leadership,” seasoned La Salle coach Ramil de Jesus told SPIN.ph.
Ever since De Jesus was tapped to handle the team in 1998, the green-and-white squad from Taft has established itself as one of the most dominant collegiate volleyball programs in the country, winning three three-peat championships in the last 15 years.
La Salle’s first hat-trick happened in Seasons 66, 67, and 68. Desiree Hernandez, Maureen Penetrante and Sharmaine Penano led the way for La Salle which defeated Far Eastern University in 2004, University of Santo Tomas in 2005 and Adamson University in 2006.
In Season 69, however, La Salle was suspended when league officials discovered that it had fielded two ineligible players on its men’s basketball team in Season 68. The UAAP decided to ban La Salle in all 14 sporting events in Season 69.
Beaten but unbowed, the superior Lady Spikers then romped to their second three-peat in Seasons 73, 74, and 75.
In Season 73 (2011) Jac Alarca was the season MVP, while Cha Cruz went on to bag the Finals MVP. Aby Maraño and Cruz were named season and Finals MVP respectively in Season 74. In Season 75, Maraño and Ara Galang shared the top honor for the season, while Michele Gumabao was named Finals MVP.
Then in Season 76 in 2014, Alyssa Valdez and the coach Tai Bundit-led Ateneo Lady Eagles dashed La Salle’s four-peat hopes by pulling off an upset in the Finals.
“Well, natatapat siguro. Masasabi ko na hindi eh, hindi [meant to be], mas ginusto ng kalaban,” recalled de Jesus of their defeat
Even without Gumabao in Season 76, La Salle swept the 14-game elimination round to earn an outright finals berth that came with a thrice-to-beat advantage, forcing a stepladder semifinals instead of the usual crossover Final Four.
De Jesus still had Maraño, Galang, Mika Reyes, Kim Fajardo, Cyd Demecillo and Cienne Cruz on a team that also featured rookies Kim Dy, Majoy Baron, and Dawn Macandili.
While waiting for their Finals opponent, the Lady Spikers had to settle for tune-up matches. Experts say the lack of competitive play for 18 days led to their first loss in 30 games dating back to Season 75.
The Lady Eagles, on the other hand, had all the preparation they needed going into the Finals. They toppled Adamson in the stepladder semifinals before they overcame the twice-to-beat advantage of No.2 seed National University led by Santiago sisters Dindin and Jaja, Myla Pablo, Mina Aganon and Aiko Urdas.
Volleyball insiders claim that the four-peat could have been possible if not for a crucial call by the referee in Game Three of the finals.
With Ateneo at matchpoint, 16-15, a double violation was called on the floor against La Salle setter Fajardo as the Lady Eagles completed a comeback from 8-12 down in the fifth set to win a highly emotional Game Three, 25-21, 25-23, 18-25, 16-25, 17-15.
The series was extended to a Game Four and the Katipunan-based squad captured its first title in 36 years since joining the UAAP in 1978.
“‘Yung [Season 76] try namin sa four-peat, kumpleto ang players ko noon eh, hindi lang naglaro ‘yung Gumabao,” he said.
In Season 77, La Salle managed to beat NU in the semifinals to arrange a Finals rematch against Ateneo. Losing top-hitter Galang to major knee-injury in the semis, however, kept them from starting a new championship streak.
Undaunted, the Lady Spikers regained their form in Season 78, winning the first crown of their third three-peat behind Reyes, Fajardo, and Galang.
Dy, Baron, and Macandili then provided stability and leadership as the Lady Spikers bested Lady Eagles in 2017 and the FEU Lady Tamaraws in 2018.
But the La Salle troika had to leave and the pass on the torch to this new breed of Lady Spikers.
“Ngayon naman, madaming nawala pero kasi intact kasi talaga ang ibang teams eh,” De Jesus said.
In Season 81, De Jesus, whose team’s chances for bagging the four-peat hang in the balance, urged his team to step up.
In his 21 years of coaching the Lady Spikers, it’s the first time that De Jesus won’t have the twice-to-beat advantage in the Final Four after the Sisi Rondina-led UST secured the No. 2 spot via a four-set win in the playoff match last Wednesday.
“Ngayon very competitive ang UAAP so kung makakapasok ka sa Finals deserving ka umakyat doon kasi lahat naman ng teams eh nag-improve talaga. Dahil matataas na talaga ang laro, hindi ‘yung over over lang,” he said.
The former national team coach did not bother to sugarcoat his conclusion as to why a fourth consecutive title in the UAAP seems to be an elusive goal for La Salle.
“Siguro mailap kasi dumadating sa punto na nauubusan ka rin ng player,” he said. “‘Yung opportunity na nabitawan eh kasalanan na rin ng mga bata ‘yun, kasalanan na rin ng team ‘yun.”