Words By: Naveen Ganglani
Photos by : Karl Angelo G. delos Santos
The veterans have departed, with only a few left to carry the mantle of leadership.
The young standouts are undoubtedly talented, although it was only a matter of time before the inevitable pressure of the UAAP’s bright lights were bound to daze them.
The rest of the competition has caught up, with rivals gaining confidence that they can finally do what was once unthinkable.
These are the hurdles that DLSU Lady Spikers head coach Ramil De Jesus and his girls have faced in UAAP Season 81.
The theme for La Salle’s senior volleyball team before the tournament started was unpredictability, with so many new faces making up a roster that runs a complex system. In the elimination round, “unpredictable” is one way to describe the dynamic of DLSU.
The new players have had their moments. Jolina Dela Cruz, for instance, leaves little doubt she’s on the way to become one of the next great Lady Spikers. Des Clemente, meanwhile, is living up to preseason expectations and is making the most of her lone season wearing green and white.
But it’s one thing to pass with flying colors on the practice court, and another to deliver in a packed arena as opponents challenge you mentally and fans unapologetically scream from the bleachers.
Eventually, these strenuous circumstances are going to shape the young Lady Spikers into the strong-willed type of competitors De Jesus needs from his players in order to continue the unprecedented run of greatness he and De La Salle have enjoyed over the course of two decades.
But until then, many challenges await DLSU.
Twice during the eliminations did La Salle look like the inferior team against a UP Lady Maroons squad that over the past few years have prepared tirelessly with the goal of usurping the Lady Spikers from the throne.
UST, even without its injured new star, did not look petrified on the court against the league’s defending champions unlike the past few years.
Ateneo played like an inexperienced group as La Salle dominated the first meeting between both teams, although after that, the Lady Eagles went on a tear to gear up for the rematch between both teams which has the makings of an epic showdown.
FEU, hungry after being taken down in the finals last season, is eager for payback.
So with so much going against De Jesus and company, how do the stars align for DLSU to become the first team in Final Four history to win four straight championships?
It’s simple: they’re still La Salle.
What does that mean? Well, let me explain.
Those young kids who at times look lost on the court? They weren’t just picked off from random high schools. De Jesus, the greatest recruiter in collegiate volleyball, is knowledgeable about the type of players he needs in order for his team to run the principles he has passionately and strictly instilled.
Part of that formula is having players with the courage to perform when the stakes are at their highest, which is something fans of DLSU should lean on as the Final Four arrives.
Leadership? Don’t forget, the great Des Cheng is still in uniform, and if there’s one thing she’s proven throughout her injury-hit career, it’s that she is resilient. It would take the world crashing down in order to see the fire in Cheng’s eyes burn down, and even then, I’m not quite sure it would happen.
Remember when she struggled against UP in the second round? She followed up that performance with a career game against NU in a three-set sweep. Classic.
These Lady Spikers also have other role models, such as Tim Tiamzon, May Luna, Aduke Ogunsanya, and Michelle Cobb. These are players who are not only talented off the floor, but are also the kind of elder sisters you would want leading your team. After all, it was just a few years ago when they were the younglings of the group, going through the same challenges.
And more than anything, can you confidently name another coach who can can out-maneuver De Jesus in a series?
Service, blocking, receiving, attacking, whatever it is – year after year, La Salle ranks atop the league in almost every category. That doesn’t happen by accident.
The system is there, the track record of success is enviable, and the personalities to lean on when things get hard will always be present. Season 81 has presented its fair share of challenges, and this year more than most, it’s fair to say La Salle has a taller mountain to climb on the way to winning a title.
But doubt this team at your own risk.
Because if there’s one thing De Jesus and the Lady Spikers have done better than anyone over the past 20 years, it’s winning.
Article originally published in Vol. 17 No. 1 of AnimoMagazine