UAAP Preview: Lady Maroons seek greater heights after impressive Final Four stint last season
After a rookie-laden team made the Final Four last year, UP aims to gain higher ground in Season 79. Jaime Campos

THE rookie-laden University of the Philippines squad turned heads last year with a top four finish, and the Lady Maroons are bent on taking greater heights with a more experienced roster for the UAAP Season 79 women’s volleyball tournament.

UP made a big leap to the No. 4 spot from a sixth place finish two years ago and Lady Maroons coach Jerry Yee expects to see his young team exceed their previous record.

“Hopefully, improvement pa rin. 'Yun lang naman talaga hanap natin, always na mag-improve from last year so ganun lang,” he said.

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Yee’s reliable newbies from last year - UAAP Rookie of the Year Isa Molde, Justine Dorog, Diana Carlos, Mae Basarte, and Maristela Layug - along with third year Marina Buitre are expected to step up their game and help graduating Kathy Bersola, Nicole Tiamzon and Princess Gaiser leave their alma matter with a title.

“Hopefully, nagmature and magmanifest sila sa game,” said Yee. “And then, ‘yung katawan physically and strength-wise sana lumakas kasi hindi naman kami tumigil mag-workout.”

“Improvement any habol namin, core namin talaga sila pa rin, hindi naman na secret yun. Hopefully maganda ‘yung result this season. We got trainings, different sessions, so ‘yun,” he added.

Indeed, UP kept busy in 2016 to prepare for the coming season. 

The Lady Maroons joined the year-long tournament of the Shakey’s V-League Season 13 from the Open Conference, Collegiate Conference and the Reinforced Conference, where they fielded an all-Filipino lineup against import-backed Bali Pure, Bureau of Customs and eventual champion Pocari Sweat.

The team also went to Thailand to train and get international exposure.

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But Yee is always the first to remind the team that improving their mark is easier said than done, especially with the pressure that comes with the contender tag given to the Lady Maroons this season.

“Pressure is always there. Expectations na maging better than last year, better than fourth place, ang bilis sabihin nun eh pero hindi naman ganun kabilis gawin ‘yun,” he said.

UP fell short in the Final Four against then top-seeded Ateneo and Yee still considers the Lady Eagles among the top contenders this season even with Alyssa Valdez no longer around. The veteran mentor also stressed that it’s not only Ateneo that they should be wary about, as all the other teams have been tirelessly getting in shape and mentally preparing for the UAAP wars.

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“Ang daming teams na as if hindi naman kumikilos. Syempre nagte-train sila, gumagastos sila. They strive to improve everyday,” he said.

“To overlap them, hindi ganun kadali ‘yun,” he added. “So ang sabi ko sa kanila, ang focus sa sarili na lang namin kasi gugulo lang ang isip namin nun eh. Basta  magawa lang namin, ma-execute lang namin ‘yung plans namin, ‘yung pina-practice namin, okay na ‘yun.”

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Meanwhile, skipper Arielle Estranero takes on a new role as she replaced Basarte as the team’s playmaker. But Yee is confident that his third year spiker-turned-setter can deliver.

“‘Yung leadership niya, no doubt nandyan. ‘Yung communication skills niya, malaking malaking factor and then ‘yung personality niya,” he said.

“Kumbaga lahat ng sinabi ko, bukod pa ‘yun sa physical traits niya, able naman siya. Mabilis naman siya, marunong siya maglaro at magbasa. Konting adjustment na lang naman in converting her to a setter,” he added.

UP will kick off its campaign in the UAAP on February 5 against Adamson at the Araneta Coliseum.

[See UAAP Preview: NU Lady Bulldogs eye end to 60-year title drought]

Follow the writer on Twitter: @meilinlozada