Beating the defending champions was a new feeling for the players at UP, but they’re not ready to let it get to their head yet

ON THE RISE. Marian Alisa Buitre and the UP Lady Maroons made their message loud and clear: they are a team on the rise. Photo by Josh Albelda/Rappler

MANILA, Philippines – They were going up against the defending champions, perennial title contenders, but the Maroon crowd at the Arena in San Juan held their breath and hoped for the best.

For the first time in recent years, the congratulatory chants from the other side of Katipunan momentarily drowned out those from the green and white.

“We were just really happy,” mused Nicole Tiamzon after a 16-point performance that landed her the Player of the Game honors.

“Nakikita mo masaya ‘yung coaching staff, tsaka makikita mo talaga ‘yung teamwork inside and outside the court.”

(You can see how happy the coaching staff was, you’ll see the teamwork inside and outside the court.)

The teamwork manifested in the 25-22, 25-21, 25-19 victory, as the Lady Maroons finally snapped a 16-game losing skid against the Lady Spikers. Their last win dates back to 2008, when former UAAP MVP Jacqueline Alarca was deemed ineligible for season 70- forfeiting all of DLSU’s second round wins.

Not a player in the current lineup had previously felt what it was like to beat the powerhouse Taft squad, making yesterday’s victory an understandably big deal for the entire UP community.

Utak at Puso

With La Salle still regarded as a team to beat this season ever after losing key players, the preparation in itself was a tough journey for the coaching staff and players. In fact, in the days leading up to Wednesday’s match, the Lady Maroons’ school homework just got doubled.

“Medyo naka-two days kaming nag-discuss, ‘yung parang lecture talaga. Actually may powerpoints nga silang pinresent eh. Every player, may sari-sariling assignment kung paano basahin,” shared assistant coach Rald Ricafort after the game.

(We had almost two days to prepare and discuss, like a lecture type of discussion. Actually there were also powerpoint presentations. Every player had an assignment of how to read [La Salle]).

Apart from sticking to the game plan, another essential key to the Diliman squad’s straight set victory was the proven puso and maturity of the players, especially the seniors. The Lady Maroons relied on a fast 12-4 lead to gain a head start in the opening set, but were down by 4-5 markers early in the succeeding games.

Graduating Tiamzon and the rest of UP stood their ground and played with grace under pressure, as they outscored the defending champs 39-23 on attacks.

“Si Nicole [may] maturity at senior,” added Ricafort. “Ang maganda kay Nicole kasi, isang rally palang ang dumaan, alam na niya ‘yung next move niya.”

(Nicole has maturity since she’s a senior. The good thing about Nicole is that she already knows her next move after a rally ends).

Contending for the championship

Ahead of Wednesday’s match, DLSU head coach Ramil de Jesus has already expressed his concerns of playing against the intact Lady Maroons. One thing he pointed out was how deep the bench of UP is this season.

“Mas intact ‘yung team nila [UP]. Mas deep ‘yung bench. Kahit off ‘yung first six nila, maraming pwedeng pumalit,” said De Jesus after La Salle’s victory against UST last Saturday, February 11.

(Their team is more intact, they have a deeper bench. Even if their first six players are off, they have substitutes that can do the work.)

With 3 games locked in, the Lady Maroons find themselves anchored by different players in every match as Kathy Bersola, Tots Carlos, and Tiamzon have all been stepping up in the scoring department, coupled with significant contributions from Isa Molde and Marian Buitre. (READ: After humbling defeat to UP, Lady Spikers must answer wake-up call)

Skipper and newly-appointed setter Ayel Estranero, who dished out 32 excellent sets in their game against UE, and starting libero Justine Dorog have likewise been adjusting well to their new positions.

“Alam namin na this year, 6 teams ‘yung pantay-pantay. So malaking bagay na makapanalo, lalo na ‘yung mga ganyang top teams,” said Ricafort.

(We know that this year, there are six teams that are almost equal. It’s a good thing we got this win, especially against top teams.)

While taking down the reigning champs is a feat to celebrate, the Lady Maroons were quick to dismiss the early talks of contending for the championship. Ricafort says it’s only a matter of timing and maturity of his players.

“Hindi naman sa kayang-kaya ‘yung ibang teams, tingin ko sumakto lang sa lineups. Pana-panahon, sila ‘yung medyo maraming bata this year. Medyo minaximize lang namin ‘yung maturity ng players.”

(It’s not that we can easily beat the other teams, I think it depends on the lineups. It’s about the timing, they [La Salle] have the younger ones this year. We just maximized the maturity of our players.)

Tiamzon as well as fellow seniors Bersola and Princess Gaiser have firsthand witnessed UP’s journey from sitting at the bottom of the ladder to becoming Final Four contenders. As they plunge into their last playing year for the Lady Maroons, the veterans aim to put UP on the map of UAAP volleyball supremacy, one game at a time this season 79.

“’Wag lang kami magpapadala sa today’s game,” said Tiamzon.

“Hindi kami mag-stop dito. Celebrate lang nang kaunti, bukas trabaho na naman ulit.”

(We should not get carried away with today’s game. We will not stop here. We’d celebrate for a while, but tomorrow we get back to work). –