Fourth year Middle Blocker, Jeanette Panaga perfectly exemplified her team’s performance over the past years – full of potential yet always just a few games short of true greatness.
Her College of Saint Benilde Lady Blazers were perennial Final Four contenders and were just a few quotient points away from making the Finals the last two seasons.With multiple veterans graduating after the end of the season, Benilde faced now-or-never situation but seemed to crumble under the pressure. Making the Final Four again, the Lady Blazers were set for an early exit having lost two consecutive matches heading into the postseason and never winning a match against the other three Final Four contenders.
But the Lady Blazers managed to pull themselves out of their nosedive and into a smooth cruise. From the bottom rung of a steep stepladder, CSB moved into the Finals through back-to-back convincing wins; first against the Perpetual Lady Altas and then the defending champs, Arellano University Lady Chiefs.
Piloting the Lady Blazers is Jeanette Panaga who topped the scoresheet of her past two matches. Against AU last Friday, Panaga erupted for 23 points off nine attacks, seven blocks and six aces.
According to Panaga, she was just motivated to push her past foes she knew they should have beaten before.
“Sabi lang po sa amin ng mga coach, ito na talaga ‘yung chance namin makabawi kasi nga wala kaming natalo sa mga nag-Final Four. Kailangan na talaga namin patunayan ‘yung sarili namin para makapasok ng Finals.”
“Ayan talaga ang ineexpect namin kay Jeanette,” said CSB Head Coach Michael Cariño. “Sa team siya na talaga ang pinaka-experienced – nakapag-National Team na siya and nakalaro na rin sa PSL, kaya di ka na magtataka sa ganda nang nilalaro niya. Kaya niya naman yan ituloy-tuloy.”
Last season’s Best Blocker, Panaga has had another terrific season – leading the league in blocks and is second in attack percentage and serving. Along with team captain Djanel Cheng and graduating Open Hitter Janine Navarro, Panaga has helped Benilde become the NCAA’s most efficient scoring team.
Benilde, however, struggles when Navarro and Panaga rotate to the back row. In their last match against the Lady Chiefs, the CSB nearly let go of a 20-13 lead in the third set as they could not string together points consistently without their two best options. Luckily, they caught a few breaks and managed to get Panaga back in the attacking area in time to close out the match.
“Lagi lang po naman sa kanila sinasabi na kailangan confident din sila kahit sino pa nasa harap nila kapag nasa likod kami. Basta kami tutulungan namin sila,” said Panaga when asked about her teammates adding that she would not get any good attacking opportunities if they don’t get good passes.
Like Benilde, their Finals opponent, the San Sebastian Lady Stags, also relies heavily on its superstar, reigning MVP, Grethcel Soltones. But the Lady Stags are undefeated and hold a thrice-to-beat advantage as no one in the league could stop Soltones’ high-scoring antics.
“Pag-aaralan po namin sila kung paano namin pinag-aralan ‘yung iba naming kalaban. Hindi rin po namin pwede isipin na thrice-to-beat sila kasi mabigat naman po talaga ‘yun. Ang sa akin lang po, tatlong panalo na lang, champion na kami.”
Panaga will be key if Benilde is to win it’s first title in school history as she not only is their best scorer but she also is integral in containing Soltones.
Game One of their series is tomorrow, 4p.m. at the FilOil Flying V Centre.