Faith Nisperos will be a central figure as Ateneo tries to earn another day to defend its crown

Faith Nisperos will be a central figure as Ateneo tries to earn another day to defend its crown. —UAAP MEDIA

There’s no title on the line. And no matter who emerges from this final stepladder matchup will most likely be merely a footnote to the coronation of an unbeaten top seed.

But this is Ateneo and La Salle, sworn rivals who will clash on Thursday night at Mall of Asia Arena for the right to battle National University (NU) in the finals of the UAAP Season 84 women’s volleyball tournament.

And whenever this two schools collide, it’s almost guaranteed to be an instant classic.

The Blue Eagles are the defending champions of the tournament—but that’s more a label than it is an actual measure of strength. Ateneo lost the core of its 2019 champion team and is pinning its hopes on a young and gutsy crew that shooed away No. 3 seed University of Santo Tomas (UST) in three sets on Tuesday.

“I’m satisfied with how the players performed; [the result] will be a big factor for us going into the next game,” said Ateneo coach Oliver Almadro.

That next game is pegged at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday. And it will be against a La Salle squad that will be armed with more than just residue reputation from a past season.

“It’s super important for us to have twice-to-beat [protection],” said Jolina dela Cruz, the top Lady Spiker, of La Salle’s playoff bonus. “Because when we have it, you can play confidently. We have something coming into the game.”

That something would be a margin for error that the Blue Eagles don’t have. But Ateneo has sharpened itself for games where it has nothing to lose.

“We’ve had three knockout games … and we have to thank the Lord for the strength that he is giving us,” said Almadro.

Aside from Ateneo’s faith, there also is Ateneo’s Faith. That would be Faith Nisperos, the Blue Eagles’ top offensive weapon.

“We’re getting stronger,” said Nisperos, who had 24 points in Ateneo’s 25-23, 25-23, 25-20 victory in the do-or-die duel against UST.

“What is important is our house rule when it comes to defense, their hustle—their effort on defense both on the net and in digging,” said Almadro. “We work hard on those aspects [and] we will live for another day.”

La Salle will bank on a solid lineup that is getting stronger, and more confident, as the season progresses.

The No. 2 team had its ups and downs until players like Dela Cruz, Thea Gagate, Alleiah Malaluan, Fifi Sharma and Baby Jyne Soreño slowly found their places in the La Salle system.

“We just have to fight for it. It’s super hard to win a point. So when we rally, we have to win that point. We can’t afford to give in,” added Dela Cruz.

La Salle assistant coach Benson Bocboc marveled at the Lady Spikers’ fast growth: “They work hard for every set. When the score reaches 20, you can be sure that everyone in the team will be fighting hard.”

If La Salle wins, it automatically advances to the Finals against NU. A win by Ateneo will forge a knockout match between the two rivals.

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