THREE-time defending champion La Salle and archrival Ateneo begin their campaign in the 76th UAAP volleyball season against separate opponents on Sunday at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.
The La Salle Lady Spikers start their bid for their eighth tiara as they face last year's fourth placer Adamson at 4 p.m.
Gone is last season's Finals MVP Michele Gumabao, but the Taft-based squad remains a force to reckon with Season 75 top players Abby Maraño and Ara Galang leading the squad.
"Bilang team captain, responsibilidad ko na pagtagpi-tagpiin ang teammates ko upang kumilos kami ng iisa," said Maraño.
With the towering Mika Reyes, Kim Fajardo, Cyd Demecillo, Mika Esperanza and Alexa Tan, the Lady Spikers have a steady floor defense to match their opponent's powerful attacks and they are favored to go deep in the tournament anew.
"Inaasahan ko pa rin ang pagsi-step up nina Galang, Reyes, Fajardo, Demecillo, Esperanza at Tan na katuwang ko sa pagpapatakbo ng team na ito," she said.
The Lady Falcons have lost former team captain Pau Soriano, but the core is practically intact with last year's Best Setter Bhebs Pineda, Mayeth Zapanta, May Macatuno and Amanda Villanueva.
Crowd favorite Ateneo and National U clash in the 2 p.m. match.
Alyssa Valdez will again be expected to carry her team back to the Finals although it is a tall order with the team now without Fille Cainglet, Gretchen Ho and Dzi Gervacio, who have already maximized their eligibility in the UAAP.
Ateneo not only lost its senior players but mentor Roger Gorayeb as well, and the Lady Eagles are hoping the new system of Thailand juniors national coach Anusorn Bundit and Parley Tupas would work right away. Gorayeb has moved back to San Sebastian.
"Naniniwala ako na lahat talaga kami malaki yung part para madala yung team," said the third year open hitter. "Naniniwala ako na kahit sino or lahat sa amin have different roles para dalhin yung team."
"Sympre every team naman goal maka abot ng finals eh. Pero siguro for us yung every game muna namin goal namin to play well and learn from that game. Hopefully makaabot din kami sa dulo," she said.
National University has also emerged as a contender, entering the Final Four last year and showing it can go all the way to the top with a title run in the V-League, although that conference featured guest players.
With the dreaded Santiago sisters Dindin and Jaja, the former cellar dwellers are now the favorites to steal the show from La Salle.
NU mentor Edjet Mabbayad believes the team has gained confidence that will be a huge factor in their performance.
"Nagkaroon sila ng kumpyansa na magagamit talaga nila this season," he said.
But the 26-year-old coach said he can’t be complacent and admits they still have a lot to work on
their game for them to reach their goal — to make it back to the semifinals.
With Dindin, who stands 6-foot-2, and younger sister Jaja, who is two inches taller, NU is expected to tower over its rivals.
"Gagamitin na rin namin ’yung advantage namin sa height," said Mabbayad.
Meanwhile, University of Santo Tomas aims to the glory days back after a disappointing Season 75.
The Tigresses, who fell short of the semifinals for the first time in 14 years, will have to work as one unit to compensate for the loss of their veterans who already graduated.
The modest goal this year is to be back in the Final Four.
“Goal this year basta maka Final Four,” shared UST coach Odjie Mamon. “It was a big blow last year losing against National U sa playoffs. After sa Final Four we'll see from there. Ang team na ito kasi ’di mo
Mia Hirotsuji and Loren Lantin will be this year’s co-captains for the Tigresses, while Pam Lastimosa, Carmela Tunay and Jessey de Leon are also expected to step up.
Ria Meneses, niece of PBA great Vergel Meneses, Kikay Depante, sister of former UST men’s volleyball player John, and Shannen Palec are this year’s notable rookies for the black-and-gold spikers.
Far Eastern University, sixth last year, are hoping to crab a piece of the limelight with a different coaching setup.
Kid Santos took over as head coach late December in 2012 gut gave his assistant coaches the
job of calling the shots during games for the Lady Tamaraws.
"Ako assistant pa rin until now pero si coach Kid binigay niya sa amin 'yung tiwala niya na kami na lang maghandle ng team, pero lagi pa rin niya sinu-supervise 'yung team lagi pa rin siya andyan para i-guide
kami," said FEU assidtant coach Shaq de los Santos.
"Sa game ako na magiging head coach pero pag sa mga kulang namin sa ibang bagay si coach Kid talaga ang bahala," he added.
De los Santos hopes for a better team chemistry coming in to the season especially with the coaching system.
"Kailangan maging united ang team namin, bonding, kasi medyo malaking bagay 'yun even though they have all the potential. Pero ang importante mabuo kami," said De los Santos. "Sa training nagagawa naman individual pero as buo medyo nag-aajust pa."
Veteran players Gyzelle Sy and Majorie Roxas are also expected to step up as they are on a rebuilding stage.
Not to be discounted are seventh and eighth placers University of the Philippines and University of the East, teams that could pull off surprises and steal the show.