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Ateneo Lady Eagles’ issues root from lack of defense, playing too tight

MANILA, Philippines – The slumping Ateneo Lady Eagles suffered their second straight defeat in the UAAP Season 78 women’s volleyball tournament after dropping in 4 sets to the impressive UP Lady Maroons on Sunday, March 6, in front of 3,871 spectators at the San Juan Arena.

Ateneo is now 1-6 in its last 7 sets, a stretch which started when the DLSU Lady Spikers snapped its 24-game winning streak last Saturday at the Araneta Coliseum. 

Their current situation is new territory for Ateneo, which went nearly two years without a loss but has since struggled - mostly on containing opponents’ service and limiting errors. 

What’s the root of the issues?

“We still have unforced errors that kill our momentum,” setter Jia Morado said in Tagalog after the game on Sunday.

But Morado feels the fundamentals of volleyball isn't the only department where they need to improve.

“We’re also too serious on the court that we forget to relax or to play the way we play,” she said.

Ateneo, which has made the mantra “Hearstrong” popular, is also struggling with floor defense. The graduation of last year’s UAAP Best Libero Denden Lazaro has been magnified in the team’s last two games, both where they were out-scored in the spikes category.

Unfortunately for the Lady Eagles, solving that trouble may take some time. Morado, last year’s UAAP Best Setter, had 27 excellent sets on Sunday, but she’s also expending a lot of energy providing floor defense. 

Per TMX Sports, Ateneo is currently last in the league in digging (6.38 average by set), which highlights its libero problem. The Lady Eagles are third in receiving (19.31% efficiency), although they’re closer to number 6 FEU, 11.47%, than they are to number one DLSU, 29.39%.

“I’m really trying my best to set it up, but at the same time I’m not blaming my teammates at all because, imagine, our two liberos converted from setter,” Morado explained the team’s problems. 

“Their entire lives, they were playing setter. Whoever setter you put in that position will have a tough time.

“We can only figure it out in training.”

There was also the question if Ateneo was so eager to put the loss to La Salle behind that it may have been too careless against UP, which actually fell in the first set to the Lady Eagles. 

“We wanted to forget what happened in the past which were negative. We wanted to remember the positive,” Morado said, again talking about the Lady Eagles’ loose and “heartstrong” mentality. “We can’t expect to win all the time, but at least we know we have to train, and we know what weaknesses we have to work on.

“Every year, there’s pressure,” she said, when asked if defending the title is more difficult this year than last as they go for a 3-peat. “What’s different from last year and this year is, the roster is different.

"So what we have to do is, not just the first 6, not just the first 7, everyone on the team has to step up to help out.”

The Lady Eagles don’t have much time to start from scratch. On Wednesday, they face an NU Lady Bulldogs squad coming off a dominant 3-set win against the Adamson Lady Falcons.

Defensive errors are a big reason why Ateneo has struggled in the last two games. File photo by Josh Albelda/Rappler

Defensive errors are a big reason why Ateneo has struggled in the last two games.

File photo by Josh Albelda/Rappler

Ateneo and La Salle are tied at 6-2 atop the league standings, but unlike last season when the battle for number one was a two-team race between both clubs, this year is a different, much-more competitive scenario. 

UP, which improved to 5-3, holds solo third and is just a hair behind both teams and has already proven they can not only stay at par, but also defeat the defending champions. 

NU actually beat DLSU in their round one meeting and seems to have regained its mojo on Sunday after collapsing at the end of the first round.

FEU is coming off a game where it forced La Salle to 5 sets after falling behind 0-2. Both the Lady Bulldogs and Lady Tamaraws are 4-4, in the hunt for the Final Four - and maybe even a twice-to-beat edge.

Even UST, which has been silently gaining steam following a turbulent start to the season, is now at 4-4 and just swept La Salle this week in 3 sets.

“Whichever team, we don’t dwell on them, whether we win or lose,” Morado said as Ateneo moves forward. “ We always move on to the next opponent, because we scout them. So one game at a time.”

And the Lady Eagles?

“At least as a team, win or lose, we’re still together.” – Rappler.com