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Game of the Year: Champion Infinity fortifies “Never Say Die” culture, squeezes past PLDT

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Epic comebacks, stare downs, late game heroics, testosterone-fueled celebrations, and over-the-top man hugs – this match had everything.

In the end, the Champion Infinity Active Smashers made the big plays late in the match and downed the depleted PLDT Home Ultera Ultra Fast Hitters in five seemingly endless sets, 28-26, 20-25, 17-25, 25-20, 22-20, at the inaugural season of the Spiker’s Turf in the San Juan Arena.

Continuing his splendid play for the entire season, Champion’s Joven Camaganakan dished out a season-high 31 points off of 30 attacks, the most any player has scored this season. Champion was also able to pull clutch performances from whoever came off their bench, most notably, Alnasip Laja and Ace Mandani, who were crucial in Champion’s success in the last two sets of the match.

Playing without starting middle blocker, Kheeno Franco, and off-the-bench spark-plug, John Vic De Guzman, UST’s Mark Alfafara led PLDT with 22 points, but suddenly couldn’t find the mark in the fifth set, and had to be taken out. Furthermore, fellow Tomasino, James Pecaña, paced PLDT with 19 markers.

PLDT had control of most of the opening set as they built a lead as large as six, 18-12. Champion leaned on their outside hitters to slowly get them back into the set. With his team trailing 21-24, Joven Camagnakan drilled home three straight points to lock the set into a deuce. PLDT got themselves into set point twice, but couldn’t get a point off their side-outs. Champion, then, took advantage, ending the set with a three-point burst capped by a Roland Tonquin block on Armando Malleon.

Champion got themselves on the wrong end of big deficits in the following two sets as PLDT’s offense continued to pour down powerful attacks on Champion’s defense. In the two sets they lost, Champion coughed up 15 out of their match total of 33 errors, while PLDT’s outside hitters combined for 38 points in the two-set stretch.

The Active Smashers showed signs of life in the fourth set as they took a 16-13 lead. It was Alfafara who powered PLDT back into the lead, scoring three consecutive points in a 4-0 PLDT run. However, Champion’s improved blocking was key in putting away the relentless attackers of PLDT when Ace Mandani came in and successfully stopped some of PLDT’s attacks. In the end, Champion won nine of the last 12 points of the fourth set to force a fifth set.

Champion looked poised to take the match as they held a massive 14-8 lead, six match points late in the fifth set. PLDT Coach, Odjie Mamon, decided to field NCAA MVP, Howard Mojica, in a last ditch attempt to get back into the match. The change paid off, as Mojica delivered four points in 6-0 PLDT scoring blitz to force the match’s second deuce. Moreover, it took Champion 12 match points to eventually quell PLDT’s assault. Evidently, the Ultra Fast Hitters never held a single match point in the final set.

The match tied both teams at third in the standings with a 3-2 record. Champion is now 2-1 in five set matches, while PLDT has yet to win an extended match.

Before the game, I just told the team that we needed to play as a team. We needed to pick each other up kapag may na-down hindi ‘yung hahayaan na lang namin ‘yung isa’t isa pag may down kaming kalaban. Buti na lang lumabas sa game ‘yung ganoong attitude namin,” said Champion Infinity coach, Arnold Laniog.

The Scores:

Champion (3) – Camaganakan 31, Tonquin 12, Molate 10, Antonio 9, Laja 5, Mandani 5, Honrade 4, Gomez 4, Espiritu 2, Relata 1, Abdulwahab 1, Hu (L), Bañaga (L)

PLDT (2) – Alfafara 22, Pecaña 19, Galang 12, Malleon 9, De Guzman 8, Ramos 6, Torres 5, Ilano 2, Mangulabnan 0, Mangaring 0, Longavela (L)

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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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