GONE are the days when La Salle-Ateneo finals are all about the 'Fab Four' versus Aby Marano and Co., Alyssa Valdez vs Ara Galang, or Valdez vs Mika Reyes.
When the two longtime rivals meet for the first time in the UAAP Season 79 women's volleyball tournament on Saturday, the show will be run not by attackers but by two setters who also happen to be the best in the league at what they do.
Kim Fajardo, who stayed on for one last season at La Salle to lead the drive for a title repeat, will be leading the defending champions against a Lady Eagles side that marches to the beat set by setter Jia Morado.
Morado and Fajardo lead the setting department this season with averages of 12.10 per set and 11.89, respectively, and the two are expected to have a big say on the result of this marquee match-up between the two teams that met in the league's last five finals.
With Valdez and Reyes gone, La Salle coach Ramil de Jesus said it will go down to the systems which the two schools run - and how well Fajardo and Morado will run the show.
“Siguro nasa systema ‘yun eh, kahit wala na ang mga key players last year,” said de Jesus, whose La Salle team holds a 3-2 edge over Ateneo in their finals face-offs. “So depende kasi hangga’t nandoon ang setter, pareho ang galaw noon (team).
“Nandoon ang Morado, nandoon ang Fajardo. Magkakatalo lang siguro sa tyagaan, kung sino makapasa, kung sino maka-service receive. Kung hindi ka makapasa, wala kang play,” he added.
Ateneo assistant coach Sherwin Meneses agreed, saying the match - unlike in the Alyssa and Mika era - will be decided not by two women but by a collection of players.
Teamwork, he said, will be key in this match-up.
“Labanan ng walang star (ngayong season),” said Meneses. “So hindi lang isa or dalawa (ang aabangan), anim, pito, walo ganoon ang labanan sa Saturday. So kung sino mas maganda teamwork, ‘yun ang mananalo.”
The two rivals have dominated the league the past five seasons and this year has been different.
With University of the Philippines and National University struggling of late, Ateneo and La Salle have taken over top spot on 5-1 (win-loss) records, making the 4 p.m. game at the Mall of Asia Arena a battle for the league lead at the end of the first round of the eliminations.
Despite the departure of three-time MVP Valdez, the Lady Eagles are not lacking in top-notch spikers as they are set to rely on Jhoana Maraguinot and Michelle Morente along with middle blockers Maddie Madayag, Bea de Leon and Kat Tolentino.
On the other hand, last year’s Finals MVP Kim Dy is set to lead the La Salle attack with help from Majoy Baron, Ernestine Tiamzon and Duke Ogunsanya.