Posted Feb 16th 2014
'Superstar-less' UST vies for Final Four return
By Anthony Divinagracia Posted Nov 30th 2013
Loren Lantin stood in the middle of the net.
Arms up and hands cupped to a flicking motion, the newly anointed University of Santo Tomas (UST) co-skipper put the ball on the rise.
Carmela Tunay then rushed to Lantin’s rear and faked a swing. Pam Lastimosa took off from the left flank. But the live set was never meant for either of them.
With the ball just about to graze the tape of the net, Jessy de Leon came storming from nowhere and delivered the haymaker.
“Puntos!”, exclaimed assistant coach Vilet de Leon as the Tigresses completed one of their signature b-quick combination attacks to perfection.
UST’s training attendance was just as perfect in that humid evening workout.
But to some UST volleyball fan, one was missing.
“She won’t be around this season. She opted to play outside of UAAP,” said UST coach Odjie Mamon, referring to veteran attacker Maru Banaticla, who opted to leave the Tigresses’ lair despite still having one more year if eligibility.
“She was part of my original 15-man line-up. I was just about to inform her. May ipapaliwanag lang din sana ako pero inunahan niya ko. I still have a window for her (back to the line-up). But she has already decided.”
Since last August, Banaticla hardly attended the Tigresses’ regular practices to train for the beach volleyball tournament. But Mamon still kept his doors open for the fifth-year UST gem.
“Pero after ng beach volleyball, she decided to play in the V-League. That took off much of her time (kaya) on and off na rin siya mag-train so mas pinanigan ko yung prinsipyo na "don't break the team". Eto na yung solid team e,” Mamon said, pointing to his holdovers while scrimmaging on the floor.
Banaticla, who tallied 93 points on 79 kills, seven blocks, and seven aces in Season 75, eventually joined ex-captain Maica Ortiz and Judy Caballejo in the departure’s list after botching a Final Four return last year to end UST’s 14 straight semi-final appearances. Ingrid Reyes also left the team this season due to personal reasons.
No Maru, no problem?
Despite key subtractions, Mamon remains optimistic of UST’s “superstar-less” line-up which he sees as a blessing in disguise.
“(Last season), we relied on names ng mga superstars but this time around mas mababalanse pa namin yung game namin. I’ve picked Mia (Hirotsuji) and Loren (Lantin) as co-captains. They may not be as famous as our past captains but they can hold the team together,” he said.
Early last October, the Tigresses showed flashes of their retooled but still potent lineup after outdueling Far Eastern University (FEU), 25-13, 10-25, 14-25, 25-14, 15-8, in the University Games volleyball finals in Bacolod.
“We lost as a team, we won as a team,” said Mamon of UST’s character-building stint in the UniGames against other league rivals in Adamson University, National University (NU), and three-peat UAAP champion De La Salle University.
“We showed there that teamwork can beat an individual players’ spectacular game.”
That stripe of teamwork will again come in full display this season, with UST parading one of its shortest frontlines in recent memory.
“That (small line-up) I cannot contest. Its true kaya in terms of blocking we cannot always go for single coverage (blocks). Dapat mag-click yung combination blocks namin to stop our opponents from using their strongest attacks.
“We should also cover the corner hits to keep the attacks playable from our end,” he said.
Height-wise, UST only has two players standing above 5”7’ in De Leon and rookie Marivic Meneses, a niece of PBA great Vergel Meneses. But Mamon has found a way to offset this disadvantage.
“We have improved tremendously on our floor defense and hopefully we get points from counterattacks by using our tenacity to keep the ball alive. (Overall) we have already mastered our defensive patterns,” Mamon said.
However, with a superstar-less roster, Mamon concedes having no clear-cut finisher under his sleeves.
“Wala kaming sureball na attacker, yung pamatay. So again we will rely on experience and (on) our combination plays. Etong team na ito di mo masasabing seasoned, and pinaka-senior nila is fourth year like Latin, Hirotsuji and (libero) Dancel Dusaran. But they know how its’ like to compete on a high level.”
Now minus Ortiz, Caballejo, and Banaticla, UST’s three-cornered offense will greatly fall on the shoulders of Tunay, De Leon, and Lastimosa, who are all in their third year.
Tunay was the Tigresses’ third leading scorer behind Ortiz and Caballejo, chalking up 121 attacks on 104 hits, ten blocks, and seven aces. Lastimosa, the V-League’s Most Improved Player, and De Leon came after Banaticla with 83 and 63 points, respectively.
Meneses and the other UST rookies namely Julieanne Depante, Shanen Palec and former PInoy Big Brother housemate Patricia Santos are slowly getting themselves committed to the team’s system, Mamon said.
“Mabilis nilang napi-pick up yung competitive system namin. They know their roles kahit baguhan pa lang and they are very coachable.”
Yet Mamon was also candid enough to admit UST’s main problem during the off-season.
“We're losing out on recruitment. We cannot match the offers of other schools. Again we just rely on an athlete’s willingness to study and learn from us without any offer. That means mas madali silang turuan at mabilis silang matuto,” he said.
Target: Final Four
Four-peat seeking La Salle and the upsized Lady Bulldog –, who eliminated UST from Final Four contention last year – are on top of Mamon’s list of title favorites this season. But Mamon stressed the Tigresses should not recoil from their goal against towering opposition.
“Our goal this year is to reach the Final Four first. It was a big blow last year losing out against NU
dun sa last game namin. We could have been in the Final Four if not for some problems with our execution that time,” he said.
Sure, there are no superstars in the lair right now.
But the unsung Tigresses like it that way. Superstars, beware.