[Editor's note: This piece kicks off our eight-part preview of the coming UAAP Season 81 women's volleyball tournament]
Last Season: 4th Place (7-7)
Key Holdovers: Roselyn Doria, Audrey Paran
Returnee: Rica Diolan
Departures: Jaja Santiago, Jasmine Nabor, Jorelle Singh, Aiko Urdas, Babes Castilo (coach)
Newcomers: Ivy Lacsina, Princess Robles, Joyme Cagande, Jennifer Nierva
Head Coach: Norman Miguel (1st season)
NATIONAL University’s new head coach Norman Miguel is firm in his belief that eight champion rookies can spell the difference in their UAAP Season 81 campaign.
The Lady Bulldogs did not only lose reigning MVP Jaja Santiago, but also endured a controversial offseason that saw the alleged removal of key players Jasmine Nabor and Jorelle Singh, the sudden pullout from the Premier Volleyball League Collegiate Conference where they were eyeing a four-peat, and the departure of coach Babes Castillo just two months before the season.
Adding to NU's woes is the situation of Risa Sato, who is forced to miss the upcoming wars due to her academics.
Miguel said that those departures, especially of the 6-foot-5 Santiago, now an import in Japan, have left big shoes to fill for the new breed of Lady Bulldogs.
“Malaking pressure din 'yun na kailangan talaga namin paghandaan," Miguel said.
Despite laden with a young core, their goal is not just a return to the Final Four, but also an end to the 62-year title drought of NU since last winning in the 1956-57 season.
Miguel is raving about the potential of their rookies led by 6-foot-1 Ivy Lacsina, Princess Robles, prized setter Joyme Cagande, and libero Jennifer Nierva, who are members of the powerhouse Nazareth School of NU high school team that won a four-peat in the juniors division.
"Para sa akin malaking edge ‘yun na maisama sila sa senior team,” Miguel said. “Mai-share nila yung experience nila, mailabas nila yung skills nila not only on the technical, tactical din pati ‘yung character nila dahil champion players sila."
Team captain Roselyn Doria, along with fellow holdover Audrey Paran, agreed that the championship poise of the rookies will be a big boost to the seniors team that has never experienced the UAAP Finals atmosphere — not even when sisters Jaja and Dindin Santiago-Manabat played together.
But being the youngest team in the league, NU’s youth could also be its Achilles heel when it goes up against experienced sideslike reigning champion De La Salle, Ateneo, and University of the Philippines.
Nierva admitted it will be hard to reach the level achieved with Santiago last year, where the Lady Bulldogs returned to the Final Four to end a two-year absence before falling at the hands of twice-to-beat three-peat champs Lady Spikers.
“Of course, siyempre pressured talaga kasi paano mo iki-keep up ‘yung ganoon level na iniwan ni Ate Ja, ‘yung level of the game kung paano siya maglead, paano niya dinala ‘yung team sa Final Four,” the rookie libero said.
“Ang pinaka-importante siguro is yung kung ano yung naging experience namin sa high school, yung championship malaking bagay yun na madadala namin sa mga ate namin," she added.
Robles, the Season 79 girls’ division Finals MVP, and rookie playmaker Cagande expect their first season to be a great learning experience.
“Kailangan namin magstep up para sa mga gusto naming kunin yung mga iimprove namin,” Robles said.
“Medyo challenging siya for us kasi new players, new ates parang yung adjustment namin medyo nahihirapan kami,” the three-time UAAP girls’ Best Setter added. “May pressure talaga kasi ang laki ng gap ng seniors sa rookies tapos yun nga as a rookie kailangan magampanan mo yung role mo talaga.”
It will be a daunting task for the rookie-laden Bulldogs to reach their goal this season but for Miguel, it‘s achievable as long as he could bring the best out of his young wards.
“Since yung composition ng team ngayon has six rookies in the roster para sa akin, tatrabahuin mo talaga siya doble, triple,” he said. “Pero para sa akin, kailangan namin ma-maximize ‘yung full potential ng bawat isa. Siguro with that meron kaming result na makukuha, trabaho lang everyday.”
“Everyday is a learning process para sa amin especially transition siya para sa akin, para sa amin,” he concluded. “But we’re really doing our best, we’re really trying our best para makapag-perform ng maayos itong Season 81, makapasok ng Final Four."