MANILA, Philippines - Most teams in the UAAP Season 77 women's volleyball tournament have played five games through their schedule now, which is a little over a third of their elimination round campaigns.
Through the first trimester of the tournament, one thing has been made clear: the defending champion Ateneo Lady Eagles (4-0) and De La Salle Lady Spikers (5-0) are performing on a higher level compared to their rivals, as was predicted by many analysts prior to the season.
The third team in the league standings are the Adamson Lady Falcons, who have a 2-2 record. Both losses came at the hands of DLSU and ADMU, while other contenders such as the NU Lady Bulldogs and FEU Lady Tamaraws have also suffered defeats to Ateneo and La Salle.
Are the Lady Spikers and Lady Eagles on a collision course to meet in the finals? It certainly looks that way right now. The numbers agree too, as La Salle and Ateneo interchange as no. 1 and no. 2 in most major team statistical categories.
But do the players of both teams believe that as well? A few weeks ago, Alyssa Valdez said that isn't the case, citing that any team could play spoiler and derail the championship hopes of the two favorites. On Wednesday, December 10, Mika Reyes echoed the same sentiment.
"I really can't say na threat sila [lang] (Ateneo) kasi lahat nang teams nag-improve and hindi talaga masasabi na, 'ito, sure tong pasok sa Final Four,'" Reyes told Rappler the same day her club won a four-set match against FEU to win their fifth straight.
(I really can't say that Ateneo is the main threat because all teams have improved and I can't name teams that I think will surely be in the Final Four.)
"Like yung sinabi ko before sa mga interviews, lahat nag improve, lahat lumakas. I can't really say kung sino yung magkakalaban talaga or makakaabot sa finals."
(Like I've said in prior interviews, every team has improved and gotten stronger. I can't really say who will face whom or who will make it to the finals.)
Reyes has been superb in Season 77, where she ranks ninth overall in scoring with 47 points and leads the league with 17 kill blocks. Against FEU, Reyes finished with 17 points, including 7 blocks.
She's also been more of a leader this season, voicing out instructions and words of encouragement to her teammates on the floor and on the bench. This isn't an accident that just took place out of the bloom.
Entering this UAAP season, La Salle knew they had to reclaim their championship throne without their leader Aby Marano, who played her final year of eligibility last season. Marano was always vocal and demonstrative on the court, unafraid to voice out her opinion or use expressive methods to pump up her teammates, or, as she likes to call it, "Beast Mode."
Reyes has filled some of the leadership void left void by Marano's departure, along with other veterans like Ara Galang and Kim Fajardo, the first of whom leads the league in scoring with 105 points while the latter is second in setting.
"Actually, nung summer palang (before Season 76), prepared na rin kami and syempre alam naman namin na fifth year na niya, so right after the season, alam namin may kapalit kaagad."
(During the summer before Marano's last season, we were already prepared because we were aware it was her fifth and final year, so right after the season, we knew what she brought had to be replaced right away.)
"We're all leaders on the court. Walang isang leader saamin. Kaming lahat, kaming seniors."
(There's not just one leader. All of us seniors are leaders.)
Though La Salle sits comfortably atop the league standings heading into the UAAP's Christmas Break - the volleyball tournament returns in the opening week of January - Reyes sees many more improvements that need to take place in order for the Lady Spikers to reach their full potential.
"So far, good games, good games naman, [but] for me, personally, kailangan lahat namin improvements talaga," she said, referring particularly to the team's floor defense.
(So far, we've played good games, but for me, personally, we need to make a lot of improvements.)
DLSU has two opponents remaining in the first round: UE, which has lost 33 straight games dating back to two seasons ago, and then their finals rematch with Valdez - no. 2 in scoring with 81 points - and her Lady Eagles in what's sure to be another classic encounter.