HOW big of a difference could defense specialist Denden Lazaro make in Ateneo's quest for a third consecutive title in the UAAP Season 78 women’s volleyball tournament?
A lot, say veteran coaches.
Lazaro was the star libero of the Lady Eagles' side that won back-to-back league championships, standing out not only for her digging and receiving skills but more so for her big fighting heart.
Her place in the lineup was taken over by Giselle Tan starting this season, and comparisons between the two became inevitable after the Lady Eagles' dropped a 22-25, 22-25, 21-25 loss to La Salle in Game One of the finals.
Current libero Tan registered nine digs and 20 excellent receptions in the loss, but Ateneo's defense has come under increased scrutiny this season as the Lady Eagles struggled to maintain dominance in the league.
Coaches now say the Ateneo defense has been left wanting since Lazaro's departure.
“Oo, malaking bagay 'yun (absence ni Lazaro) knowing ‘yung puso noong batang ‘yun ‘di matatawaran, makikita mo naman sa laro,” said Petron coach George Pascua.
Cignal coach Sammy Acaylar added: “Precisely, malaking kawalan ang dating libero na si Lazaro because she has the heart and she’s a seasoned player.”
However, former Ateneo coach Roger Gorayeb said any comparisons are unfair since Lazaro had more time to get used to the libero position during her time while Tan was only converted into a libero after Lazaro's departure.
“Malaking factor kasi talaga si Denden, kasi isipin mo, si Gizelle hindi siya talaga libero, converted lang siya,” said Gorayeb, now the coach of National University and San Sebastian.
Tan, Gorayeb pointed out, is not in her 'comfort zone' playing the libero position.
“Although si Denden spiker din siya dati pero pagdating niya sa Ateneo cinonvert ko na siya as libero, so mas may experience siya as libero. Si Gizelle naman, although she is trying her best, she’s not in her comfort zone,” he said.
“Naaawa nga din ako kay Gizelle kasi ang laki ng gap that she has to fill in, she has big shoes to fill kaya naman ‘yung pressure sa kanya napakalaki rin,” he continued.