MANILA, Philippines – In their first four seasons in the UAAP, Ateneo de Manila Unversity's talented tandem of Marck Espejo and Ish Polvorosa have led the Blue Eagles to the men's volleyball finals every single time.
They were not about to have that streak of excellence broken in their final season with the Blue and White.
It was no surprise that the two players came up with huge games in the Final 4 of the UAAP Season 80 men's volleyball tournament, where the Blue Eagles bucked a twice-to-beat disadvantage against the Far Eastern University (FEU) Tamaraws to progress to the finals.
Much of the attention was on Espejo, and deservedly. The reigning four-time UAAP Most Valuable Player unleashed a record-setting 55 points last Saturday to power Ateneo to a five-set win and force a deciding game.
On Wednesday, he torched FEU anew, this time going for 37 points as the Blue Eagles claimed a 25-19, 18-25, 25-22, 25-18 victory.
"He's really God's gift for us eh. Talagang 'yun ang purpose ni Lord for him -- to make points for us," Ateneo coach Oliver Almadro proclaimed of Espejo.
But if not for Polvorosa, Espejo would be in no position to score so many points. The setter was in control for Ateneo throughout the past two games, fooling even FEU's top-notch net defense with his playmaking. Polvorosa was credited with 45 excellent sets in their game on Saturday, and added 40 more on Wednesday.
"As long as kontrolado ni Ish ang team ko, we will never go wrong. I really trust Ish," said Almadro.
No less than FEU coach Rey Diaz acknowledged that the golden tandem of Polvorosa and Espejo were simply too much for them to overcome.
"Magaling talaga si Espejo," said Diaz. "Pero huwag natin kakalimutan – magaling kasi si Ish eh."
"Binantayan namin si Marck, dini-distribute naman ni Ish sa ibang attacker. Kaya medyo mahirap talaga tapatan ang Ateneo, dalawa 'yung nagdadala," he explained.
"Mayroon sila experienced na attacker at saka setter."
Espejo and Polvorosa's partnership has been a truly remarkable one. They arrived in Ateneo at the same time, and immediately made a splash by leading the Blue Eagles to a finals appearance in Season 76. They could not capture the title then – Ateneo was beaten by National University (NU) – but Espejo still won Rookie of the Year and MVP honors, and Polvorosa earned the first Best Setter nod of his career.
Five years on, they have only become better. Espejo is without a doubt the best player in the league, and Polvorosa has established himself as the top setter in the collegiate ranks. Inside the court, they are seamless; Polvorosa knows exactly the kind of sets that Espejo prefers, and Espejo, more often than not, repays his setter's confidence with a booming attack.
And with them leading the way, the Blue Eagles overcame a very strong FEU squad that had beaten them twice in the elimination rounds.
"Ang mantra namin the past two games (is), 'I live and die with my partner,' and that's Marck Espejo," said Polvorosa, who is in line to win his fifth straight Best Setter trophy this season.
"Tested naman na talaga si Marck. Alam namin na magpo-produce at magpo-produce siya every time," he added. "So 'yung tiwala rin talaga with my teammate, nandoon din talaga."
"Sobrang laki ng tiwala ko kay Marck, and every time naman, he delivers."
For Espejo, it's a matter of knowing his role on the team. Now more than any other year, the Blue Eagles have relied on him to bail them out, as the lone player on the squad who can score on a consistent basis.
"Kailangan ko lang talaga mag-step up," said Espejo, who is favored to win a fifth straight MVP award as well. "Kailangan ko maging mas vocal sa loob ng court."
"Kailangan na 'yung mga instructions, nanggagaling sa aming dalawa ni Ish, at kay (team captain) Karl (Baysa). Kung ano man ang gagawin namin, gagawin din ng mga bata," he added.
The two veterans will once again lead the way for the Blue Eagles in the finals, where they will play against another powerful team – the NU Bulldogs, whom they have faced off in the past four years.
NU won in Season 76, but Ateneo has beaten them in three straight finals appearances. The Blue Eagles actually defeated the Bulldogs 13 consecutive times, from Season 77 until the first round of Season 80, before NU finally broke through in the second round of this year's tournament.
But the finals will be a different story once again.
"Alam namin na 'yung NU, malakas sila," said Espejo. "Pero wala pang champion. 'Di pa tapos. Magsisimula pa lang 'yung finals. Ibang usapan ang finals sa eliminations."
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