SEVENTEEN DAYS before the start of UAAP Season 86, the UST Golden Tigresses lost to the Cherry Tiggo Crossovers in four tight sets in a tune-up game held on their own turf.
While one can say that the Tigresses bowed to a tough team – the Crossovers finished third in the Philippine National Volleyball Federation Champions League – the game also reflected the gaps left behind by veterans that they are trying to fill in.
Milena Alessandrini, Imee Hernandez and former team captain Eya Laure, España’s towering figures who once cast shadows on the court, are no longer donning the Tigresses jersey next season. The team has a number of new faces, mainly composed of rookies and sophomores who are under pressure to strengthen their blockings and floor defense.
But despite the adjustments they have to undergo, the young turks of UST are out to prove that they can overcome their disadvantages and emerge as a serious contender for the UAAP women’s volleyball crown.
“Our only disadvantage is their height, but that doesn’t mean we can’t perform,” UST head coach Emilio “Kung Fu” Reyes said in an interview with The Flame.
“We are now concentrating on (our) skills. We can keep up, but again (there are) plays we hide since we are not that big (in terms of height), so we will go through them at speed,” he added.
Reyes expressed confidence in the Tigresses’ ability to keep up with their tall opponents, citing their efforts to work on their agility, technique and strategies.
“Our opponents are bigger. Somehow, we are becoming the trailblazers now. So, we have proven that we can keep up with them. We can beat them,” the Tigresses’ chief tactician said.
“(Nothing is) impossible. We’re waiting for the right time to achieve our goal. The experience is already there; we just need more discipline and hard work in the upcoming UAAP season.”
Preparing for battle
Aware of the need to overcome their disadvantages, the Golden Tigresses underwent trainings here and abroad to keep up with the higher level of competition.
The team had a respectable performance in the Shakey’s Super League Pre-Season Championship, where they finished second behind the defending champions National University Lady Bulldogs.
The Tigresses also underwent a nine-day training camp in Japan from January 9 to 18. The Japanese professional volleyball team Kurashiki Ablaze hosted the camp with intense physical training and practice matches. Reyes said the experience allowed his squad to learn the discipline of their Japanese counterparts in and out of work.
“We foresee the height or the level of competition, especially this upcoming season, so that’s why we prepared them for the Asian level of volleyball,” he said.
The seasoned coach emphasized the importance of considering the opponents’ strengths and weaknesses: “In decision-making, adjustments are also made based on our opponents.”
“We shouldn’t rush. We’ll achieve our ultimate goal with time and dedication,” Reyes added.
New role, old goal
With a silver medal in Season 81, their highest placement since Season 72, and a fourth-place finish in Season 85, the Golden Tigresses have etched their mark as perennial contenders, clawing to the final four for three consecutive UAAP tournaments.
However, these achievements cannot conceal the fact that the women’s volleyball title has been elusive to the España-based squad. Goals to end the championship drought remain just that – an aspiration that many dedicated players and coaches had tried but failed to achieve.
While some of the more experienced Tigresses are assuming new roles, their goal has not changed: To bring home the crown to UST, a feat last achieved 14 years ago.
Reigning UAAP Season 85 Best Libero Bernadett Pepito, opposite hitter Regina Jurado, middle blocker Sophia Abbu, and setter Cassie Carballo, who were instrumental in maintaining their spot in the final four, are ready to build upon their experience from last season.
As the new team captain, Pepito will use her defensive prowess to anchor the team and bring leadership to the court. Pepito, also the five-time best libero in the league’s junior division, was the sole player in that post included in the race for Most Valuable Player last season by ranking second in reception (51.1%) and third in digging (3.57%) alongside Laure and De La Salle University’s Angel Canino.
“I was the captain in high school. I feel like it’s normal since I’m a vocal player. Being captain is just a title, and it’s more difficult if you think about it if you have a big role in the team,” Pepito told The Flame.
“I think I enjoy it because I’m a leader inside and outside the court,” the chief Tigress added.
The España-based squad also welcomed new paws to its roster. UST homegrown talent Angeline Poyos, who received the best open hitter plum in the recent Shakey’s collegiate tournament, will be adding offensive muscle to the arsenal of Tigresses. Middle blockers Bianca Plaza, Mary Joe Coronado and Margaret Banagua will also step in for their debut season in an attempt to fill the missing position of the team.
While experience and height are not on their side this season, the Tigresses are gunning for nothing less than the championship.
“We don’t stop preparing, and of course, we continue to dream of winning the championship and bringing back the crown to España,” Reyes said.
The UAAP Season 86 women’s volleyball tournament will start on February 17. F – Mc Neil Zhy Serrano with reports from Shayne Lee Andreas Macaraeg and Ayanna Dezyrein Zoleta