Valdez sparks Ateneo’s back-to-back crowns

Valdez showed why she was the most sought-after high school spiker of her generation.

MANILA, Philippines – Alyssa Valdez played true to her potential once more. And for Ateneo de Manila University, it was enough to complete the back-to-back.

The super sophomore spearheaded the Lady Eagles’ attack as they held on to a scintillating 5-set victory over gritty University of Santo Tomas to score their second straight Shakey’s V-League first conference crown Sunday at the jampacked FilOil Flying V Arena in San Juan.

Valdez, the target of a bitter recruiting war a couple of years ago, showed why she was the most sought-after high school spiker of her generation, firing a game-high 22 points as Ateneo turned the Tigresses back, 25-19, 25-14, 17-25, 20-25, 15-13, before more than 5,000 screaming fans.

After a brilliant Game 2 that saw her post a season-best 31 markers, Valdez’s splendid performance in the decider earned her the Finals Most Valuable Player plum for the first time in her career.

Blazing start

Despite a 5-day break, the Lady Eagles showed no rust in coming out strong, with Valdez leading a first-set charge that had people at the venue scratching their heads for what could be a blowout.

Ateneo took a 24-12 advantage then weathered a 7-0 run by UST before Dzi Gervacio settled all things with a thunderous spike, 25-19.

The Tigresses seemed to have gained momentum with the late first set charge but the España-based squad entered the second looking flat.

Valdez and Thai reinforcement Kesinee Lithawat took advantage of this with back-to-back aces by Kesinee and a Valdez hit allowing the Lady Eagles to erect a 12-4 lead.

Another combination of a Kesinee ace and a Valdez attack gave the Katipunan-based crew a 21-11 bubble before Gervacio, once more, ended the set, 25-14.

Reserves step up

Pushed against the ropes, UST coach Odjie Mamon rolled the dice and started the 3rd set with reserves Loren Lantin, Pam Lastimosa and Carmela Tunay.

In a game when veterans Rhea Dimaculangan and Maru Banaticla were expected to shine, their subs did the job for the Tigresses.

Like when she played heroine in UST’s UAAP second round win against Ateneo, Lantin showed no nerves in dictating the Tigresses’ offense, even scoring herself as they stayed alive after taking the 3rd, 25-17.

Maika Ortiz carried the fight for UST in the 4th, peppering Denden Lazaro with consecutive aces and helping her squad build a 19-17 lead.

Lantin attacked again before their Thai import, Utaiwan Kaensing, tied the match at two sets apiece with a quick attack followed by a service ace, 25-20.

Pulsating fifth

In a match that had all the trappings of a classic, the Tigresses seemed to have the perfect script of coming back from the dead and snatching a win from the jaws of defeat.

Caballejo and Ortiz starred in a strong 5th set start for UST as they put up an early 4-2 advantage.

But momentum shifted to the Lady Eagles after 3 straight errors by the Tigresses – two by Ortiz and one by Ging Balse – shoved Ateneo ahead, 7-5. 

Kesinee sliced through UST’s defense and served up an ace before setter Jem Ferrer stole one off a hole in the Tigresses’ frontcourt to build what looked to be an insurmountable, 12-7 bubble.

However, UST clawed back behind Utaiwan, Lantin and Caballejo to tie the match at 13-all and force Ateneo coach Roger Gorayeb to call for time.

Caballejo’s hit went out in the next play and Gervacio, for the 3rd time, delivered the final nail on the coffin as the Lady Eagles took the fifth, 15-13.

League Best Blocker Kesinee finished with 15 points off 10 kills, 3 aces and two blocks even as Gervacio chipped in with 12 markers, 11 off hits.

Ferrer, the tournament’s Best Setter, completed 43 excellent sets and thoroughly outplayed Dimaculangan in the first two sets. Dimaculangan bade her collegiate career goodbye with a miserable performance compounded by an injury she sustained.

Meanwhile, Ortiz led the Tigresses with 18 points while Caballejo and Utaiwan added 17 and 16 markers, respectively. –