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Spikers’ Turf Campfire Open Conference Finals: First to Flinch

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Though local Men’s Volleyball has taken a backseat to the hype machine that is our local women’s volleyball circuit, to volleyball purists nothing compares to the euphoric chaos of the men’s game. The faster pace and the sheer power generated by grown men intensely magnifies a player’s lack of skill and/or focus, leading to shorter exchanges that means narrower room for errors. In the Spikers’ Turf, teams have won sets by the minimum margin (two points) thrice as often as the women’s team in the V-League.

The inaugural season of the Spikers’ Turf was home to some of the most intense volleyball action ever seen on local soil. Blowouts were few and far in between while epic showdowns happened as often as a women’s volleyball national team roster controversy. From the rubble of those classic clashes, the two pre-season favorite teams rose.

On one side, the thundering Cagayan Valley Rising Suns stand with their contingent of some of the recent UAAP season’s elite. Time and again, the Rising Suns, quite literally, rose above the competition with their overwhelming athleticism at all positions. They seemed invincible for most of the season with no team able to counter their attack until the Army Troopers ambushed them in their final match of the first round. Though powerful, their free-wheeling style of play has often led to a mountain of errors, none bigger than the service errors that eventually led to their first loss of the season.

The Rising Suns would eventually fall again to a much more daunting foe, the PLDT Home Ultera Ultra Fast Hitters. Boasting a roster filled to the brim with local volleyball stars of the past and present, the Ultra Fast Hitters were primed for a dominant run right from the start of the season. Their overall depth, however, proved to be quite tricky to navigate as the coaching staff admittedly had troubles deciding which lethal attacker to field.

After a disappointing loss to the seasoned Champion Infinity Active Smashers, PLDT has won every match since including those of the Top Four Phase. Finally tapping the perfect combination of six, the Ultra Fast Hitters waylaid Cagayan last Thursday and took all the proverbial momentum heading into Game One of the best-of-three.

Does PLDT have enough to quell Cagayan? Can Cagayan clean up its act quick enough to regain its winning form? In the following we take a deeper dive into this matchup and everyone prepared for the clash of these two titans.

The Head-to-Heads

Usually, I’d prefer not to look at the individual matchups since success in volleyball, more than any sport, cannot be derived from the brilliance of just an individual player. Like any utopian society, every member of the team has to pull his weight and incorporate his skill set with his teammates to win titles.

But with the individual on both teams, it’s hard to overlook the indelible potential impact of a brilliant individual performance at this series. Cagayan is captained by NCAA legend Warren Pirante, whose incredible feats and clashes with rivals San Beda were unfortunately minimally documented. Pirante is flanked by Peter Torres and Berlin Paglinawan, two players directly responsible for NU’s two-year hegemony over UAAP Men’s Volleyball.

SVL Semis CagayanvsCignal-3406

Not to mention, Cagayan also has the UAAP’s new alpha males in Ateneo’s Marck Espejo and Rex Intal, fresh from their historic title run. Peter Torres has been regarded as our country’s best middle blocker at his young age. He’s a devastatingly smart blocker, while his running attacks are as sure as a Kardashian weekly publicity stunt. Playing under Coach Nes Pamilar has opened up plenty of caveats to Torres’s game that were previously unfathomable. Pamilar has had him play in the back row for most of the season, uncommon since middle blockers are tall and lumbering. But Torres has held his own in digging and receiving; working his long arms and uncanny foot speed to his advantage in his passing game. More importantly, Torres has been effectively attacking from the back row. Though some of his back row attempts still go long, just having the threat of his spiking at all times gives Cagayan at least three viable options to go to for points at all times.

SVL PLDTvsCagayan-3947

Marck Espejo has been his usual dominant self as well. The tournament’s best scorer has had no problem plowing through opposing defenses and making scoring 25 points look as easy as jaywalking in Manila. Pundits argue that his power and scoring ability is unmatched in today’s game but many also forget about Calvin Abueva, or at least Calvin’s look-alike and just as beastly long lost little brother in PLDT’s Mark Alfafara. The only player to win the UAAP’s MVP, Best Scorer, Best Attacker, Best Server and Best Blocker, Tiger Power has been every bit as dominant for PLDT as he was for UST. In UAAP Season 76, Alfafara’s UST was the only team Espejo’s Ateneo wasn’t able to beat. One can rightfully credit UST’s success against Ateneo to Alfafara’s ability to match Espejo point for point.

SVL PLDTvsCagayan-3971

The difference has been PLDT’s aforementioned depth. Along with Alfafara, PLDT has stars of UST’s past glory in JP Torres, Henry Pecaña, Jayson Ramos and two of Adamson’s greatest in Armando Malleon and Ronjay Galang. PLDT coach, Odjie Mamon has gushed about his two can’t miss options at the setter position with NU’s Vince Mangulabnan and moonlighting referee Ronald Casilan. Mamon also has one of the best quickers in the Philippines in EARISTS’s Kheeno Franco but the biggest boost to PLDT’s cause has come from its resident NCAA boys, EAC’s Howard Mojica and CSB’s John Vic De Guzman.

Going mostly unused early in the season, both De Guzman and Mojica proved their worth and established their roles only recently. In matches where PLDT utilizes lineups that involve both Mojica and De Guzman for more than one set, PLDT has gone undefeated (3-0).

Cagayan’s starting six is as formidable as any as they have gotten both tight and blowout wins this season. But when one or two of their attackers have gone stale, Cagayan hasn’t been able to pull any other contributor from its bench. PLDT fumbled around with different lineups before finally settling in on a mix of attackers just this second round. But the Ultra Fast Hitters have so many contingency options afforded to them by their deep lineup for whatever may happen moving forward.

Just JUMP!!

Perhaps the most exciting part of any men’s volleyball game is when a good jump server is on deck to deliver a devastating serve. The combination of elite leaping ability, timing, and form involved to pull off a proper jump serve is pure artistry in motion. Consider the fact that destructive serving is essential at stopping any elite offensive team, then having good jump servers become all the more important.
Yes, the float servers and even those that fire off top-spin serves can be effective as well. But these finalists have become too good with their service reception that in order to really mess each other up, their power servers have to be on-point the entire series.

With that said, Marck Espejo’s inconsistent forays at the service line are well documented. He arguably has the most powerful jump serve in the country behind Ram Abdilla, but his serves have resulted in errors too often for his team’s comfort. Then again, there is such a thing as “Finals Espejo”. In the recently concluded UAAP Finals, Espejo delivered back-to-back 30 point performances en route to sweeping the NU Bulldogs. A huge part of his pulsating performance was his game-changing serving that the NU back line just couldn’t figure out. He recorded only five service errors through two matches – a near miracle considering his track record – and it shouldn’t be too far fetched to expect Espejo to hulk up again in this Finals.

SVL PLDTvsCagayan-3923
Peter Torres has also been experimenting for quite some time now with his own jump serve and has slowly been getting used to his improving form. But too often are the times when Torres’s serves result to errors so he resorts back to his signature float serve.

PLDT, on the other hand, has two of the most consistent jump servers in the land in Alfafara and Mojica. Mark has a more powerful delivery and more forceful approach while Howard is a more effective target server who can put a slight cut into his ball contact.

As with any volleyball match, how a team deals with the first contact of the ball can spell the outcome. A good run at the service line from any player can swing the momentum severely to his team’s favor, making jump servers pivotal to winning the title.

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Miguel Luis Flores fell face first into sports writing in high sch9l and has never gotten up. He reluctantly stumbled into the volleyball beat when he started with Tiebreaker Times three years ago. Now, he has waded through everything volleyball - from its icky politics to the post-modern art that is Jia Morado's setting.

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Raymond Almazan ejected in return

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Photo by PBA Images

It was supposed to be a redemption game for Raymond Almazan after he was benched last Wednesday for the Rain or Shine Elasto Painters against the Phoenix Fuel Masters, for disciplinary reasons. But unfortunately, it went the the other way around.

The six-foot-eight center was ejected in the Elasto Painters’ match versus Kia Picanto on Friday evening at the Cuneta Astrodome, following a near-brawl that took place between him and opposing big man Eric Camson.

The incident took place with 3:01 remaining in the second quarter, with the Picanto ahead 34-31. Almazan and Camson were both inside the paint looking for position to grab the missed three-pointer of Jeremy King.

Things then went chippy afterwards, as Camson elbowed Almazan. It did not sit well with the latter and he retaliated, leading to the near-brawl that saw both players swing their arms at each other.

Almazan and Camson had to be separated by their teammates and officials. Moments later, both of them were whistled for a flagrant foul penalty two and were ordered to leave the playing court for good.

Almazan finished with six points and three rebounds in six minutes and 10 seconds of action, while Camson exited the bout with 10 markers, five rebounds, and four assists in over 16 minutes of playing time.

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Fired-up Von Pessumal on Kiefer Ravena incident: ‘I’m not here to make any friends’

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Will bridges be burned?

Von Pessumal was heavily-scrutinized Friday evening after an incident with fellow Ateneo lifer Kiefer Ravena.

It took place with 9:50 left in the final frame of the San Miguel Beermen’s highly-charged tilt against the NLEX Road Warriors. After Marcio Lassiter launched a trey, Pessumal looked like he was aiming for the rebound. Instead, he simply charged towards Ravena and pushed him down.

Lassiter’s three-pointer counted, while Pessumal, who was blocked by Ravena in a fastbreak and then received a staredown moments prior, was whistled for an unsportsmanlike foul.

It was a surprising sight to see considering the amount of time he and Ravena have spent together — a bond that started ever since they were in high school. Even the second-generation star admitted that he did not expect that from his former running buddy.

“I did not expect that at all,” said the NLEX rookie.

But Pessumal downplayed such incident despite attempts by scribes to make him elaborate what had really transpired during that moment.

“It’s part of the game. It’s part of the game,” the league sophomore said after the match which they won 109-98. “I don’t wanna say anything, I’m sorry.

“It’s part of the game. Whatever move on. Not a big deal.”

Asked if he was motivated to face Ravena, whom he had shared three UAAP juniors titles, two UAAP seniors crowns, and a SEA Games gold medal with, the 24-year-old shared that he approached Friday’s bout the way he usually does.

“I wouldn’t say motivated [versus Kiefer], I mean, it’s just like any other game. When I play, I don’t see who’s guarding me, I just play,” said the 6-foot-2 swingman.

“I play to win all the time.”

The incident he and Ravena figured in shadowed his performance of 10 points on 50 percent shooting off the bench — the second time he had scored in double figures this season. After Friday, Pessumal is averaging 8.25 points.

“We have to sustain the level of excellence that they (starters) have. Our job is — I wouldn’t say support, but — when we get in, we should bring the level higher so when they come back, the game is easier for them,” he said.

Pessumal was then asked if he and Ravena met each other after the buzzer sounded as the two did not even shake hands after the contest. But, through a short yet strong response, the 24-year-old said that they did not.

“I wouldn’t say anything. I don’t know, after the game?,” he expressed.

“I’m a professional basketball player, I’m not here to make any friends.”

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Yeng Guiao denies using racial slur against Chris Ross

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During the post-game of the San Miguel Beermen’s victory over the NLEX Road Warriors, reigning Coach of the Year Leo Austria said that NLEX head coach Yeng Guiao had called Chris Ross the “N” word, which had caused the commotion.

According to Chris, tinawagan siya ng nigger or ganiyan,” said Austria. “I don’t know but that’s what he explained to me because I confronted Chris Ross because he’s one of the most important players in my team.

“But that’s the thing he doesn’t want to hear so nag-flare up yung bata so I cannot blame him.”

However, Guiao denied that he blurted out racial slurs against San Miguel’s Chris Ross.

“Hindi. Hindi ko tinawag na N-word. Ewan ko kung may nakarinig. Pero hindi,” clarified the fiery tactician moments after their 98-109 defeat, their third straight after starting the 2018 Philippine Cup with two straight wins.

That tussle, according to Guiao, was just filled with trash talking against each other, as he had felt the need to retaliate. In fact, Guiao was even caught by the TV camera saying “son of a bitch” towards the Filipino-American point guard.

“Daldal siya ng daldal eh. Eh sa akin naman kapag ganon, siguro respeto nalang. Lumayo ka nalang tutal mananalo naman na kayo,” he said. “I didn’t understand what he was saying, what he was talking about.

“Nakipagtrash-talking din ako sa kanya.”

Furthermore, the 58-year-old was also caught by the cameras flipping the bird — in one quick motion — also directed at Ross.

“Oo. Kasama na rin yun.

“Pero ano naman eh, it’s part of, siguro, psychological warfare. Malakas din siya mang-asar. Hindi lang naman sa amin. Everytime naman na mga ganoong skirmishes, he also knows what he’s capable of,” the seven-time champion coach furthered.

But more than this scuffle, it has been a stressful time for Guiao and the Road Warriors. They have now gone down to 2-3 in the team standings, and the mentor sees an urgent need to end this slump immediately.

“We have to arrest it very soon. Ang susunod na laro namin ay versus Rain or Shine sa Friday. So we need to go back to 50 percent win-loss level para at least may chance ka na maka-playoffs. That’s going to be a crucial game for us,” he stressed.

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Kiefer Ravena shocked with Von Pessumal’s shove: ‘I did not expect that at all’

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Kiefer Ravena and Von Pessumal have been teammates ever since they were in high school, winning three UAAP juniors crowns together. They won two championships together in the seniors level and even played together in Gilas. They were inseparable.

Friday evening however, they were playing for separate camps.

Ravena admitted that he never expected a shove to come from Pessumal during the NLEX Road Warriors’ clash with San Miguel Beermen.

In an off-ball situation, Pessumal charged at Ravena, sending the rookie down to the floor with 9:50 remaining in the final frame. He was then whistled for an unsportsmanlike foul, and Ravena sank one from the line.

“I did not expect that at all,” admitted Ravena after the match in which they lost, 98-109 — their third straight defeat after a 2-0 start. “But hopefully Von doesn’t take it personal.

“I’m just doing my job. They won the game.”

Ravena insisted that there wasn’t any physicality between him and Pessumal prior to that, but he thinks that his former Gilas teammate may have gotten irked by his staredown after blocking him on a fastbreak play early in the fourth.

“When that fastbreak happened — the same exact possession na I challenged him, I looked at him, and after that yun na yung nangyari,” said the 23-year-old guard. “But I never instigated something to provoke Von to do that.

“Probably nung tinignan ko siya.”

Moreover, the second overall pick of the 2017 PBA Rookie Draft felt that that incident “started all the commotions during the end game (laughs). Yun yung pinaka-una eh. And with that, the team got fired up and it worked for them.”

He may be right, for the game saw more skirmishes after that: from teammate Michael Miranda kicking Chris Ross to the groin, and with his head coach Yeng Guiao figuring in a heated verbal war also against Ross.

But then, Ravena made it clear that it was never a plan of his to put down somebody, especially someone like Pessumal who he sees as a brother for life.

“You know, Von and I, we go way back. Things like this hopefully don’t become too personal.

“I have no intention na ipapahiya yung tao or sasaktan mo yung tao. Wala namang ganun. Laro-laro lang,” said NLEX’s leading scorer.

It was somehow a night to remember for Ravena, but for all the wrong reasons. After Friday’s loss that sent their card to 2-3, the veteran internationalist now sees the need for him and the Road Warriors to push the panic button.

“‘Di na pwedeng sabihin palaging kailangan namin matuto eh. Pangatlong sunod na,” the second-generation cager expressed.

“Kailangan siguro naming umaksyon.”

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