UAAP Season 81 in review: UP Lady Maroons

What matters most is how you finish. By not meeting expectations, the UP Lady Maroons will have an entire year to ponder what might have been.

They flexed their muscle during last year’s PVL Collegiate Conference. They entered the Finals by defeating the top-seed Adamson Lady Falcons before winning the championship against the FEU Lady Tamaraws. Coach George Pascua’s crew were on the verge of sending the series to a third game when the Lady Maroons initiated a 7-0 from a 13-8 deficit in the fifth set. Ayel Estranero’s service ace sealed the championship for UP.

Fast forward to the PSL Collegiate Grand Slam which they won over the UST Golden Tigresses. The Lady Maroons were even given a Thailand training camp wherein they met the likes of Pleumjit Thinkaow and Ajcharaporn Kongyot to name a few. Add to that their third-place finish at the University Games in Dumaguete and you get the picture why UP was a favorite to crack the Final Four.

Harsh reality against the best

Come UAAP Season 81, it seemed like FEU and UST had been plotting their revenge. The Lady Maroons took only three sets in the four total games they played against the neighboring universities. Coach Godfrey Okumu’s squad can only muster 12 points in the set two of their second round encounter with UST.

Adding insult to injury, the so-called Battle of Katipunan turned out to be a one-sided affair. The Lady Maroons were swept by the Ateneo Lady Eagles in both instances. Isa Molde’s injury made it worse for UP during their second round clash. Worst, that’s six losses against Final Four-bound teams.

However, their wins against the De La Salle University Lady Spikers could have been the saving grace of their campaign. UP edged De La Salle in a five-set encounter that is worthy of Match of the Year consideration. Then, the Lady Maroons made sure that the win was no fluke after defeating the three-time defending champions in straight sets.

That’s 2-6 for the maroon side of Katipunan against the top four teams. Ideally, their semifinal hopes are still alive if they can run the table against the rest of the field. They did so against the UE Lady Warriors. But one team with a young nucleus slayed their dreams of a postseason run.

Suffering from the Lady Bulldogs’ bite

With Season 81 now in the books, everyone invested in UP’s success will never forget the disappointing losses against the upstart NU Lady Bulldogs. Two nail-biting contests that the Lady Maroons had a clear chance to win, only to falter at the end.

They held match point in set five of their first meeting at 14-10 before Bingle Landicho’s steady serving allowed the F. Jhocson troops to snatch the win, 17-15. A bitter dejavu struck the Lady Maroons in round two when the youngest team of the competition eliminated them from playoff contention with the exact same score in set five.

With experience on their side, UP should have won those games against NU. But those two defeats serve as a microcosm for the woes that persisted throughout their season. First, the Lady Maroons’ service game does not cause too much concern for their opponents. NU had a 15-3 advantage in service aces in their round one confrontation even though UP had more attempts, 106-97.

That small sample size explains why the Lady Maroons are sixth in service efficiency after the eliminations. Likewise, they are the only team with no players in the Top 10 Servers list. In contrast, NU had three: Princess Robles, Joni Chavez, and Roselyn Doria.

Then in their second round meeting, Tots Carlos led the Lady Maroons with 18 points but in a whopping 75 attempts. Their second leading scorer? Not one of the other hitters as Ayel Estranero made 11 (five attacks, three blocks, three aces). Those stat lines prove how UP depended too much on Carlos who is undeniably a talented hitter. As always, volleyball is a team sport and one person can get everyone over the hump.

The great unknown

The Lady Maroons did not even bother to show up in the last game of the eliminations. This gave the Adamson Lady Falcons the opening to defeat them in three sets to end UP’s season at 6-8. Estranero and Marian Buitre have exhausted their collegiate careers. But it feels like more will join them in their departure.

Molde, Carlos, and Justine Dorog could use Season 81 as motivation for a better push next year. But will that be enough to make them come back? When that happens, not only will the UP Lady Maroons be back to the drawing board. Instead, they would need a new blueprint to chart the program’s long-term success.

Those three players will have months to decide whether to return or not. Regardless of their decision, though, the UP think tank should fortify the Lady Maroons roster through recruitment and player development. Otherwise, they will be stuck in a tunnel of what ifs with no visible exit on the other end.