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Perfect no more: Army ends PLDT’s undefeated reign to take Game One

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Finally piecing together the previously unsolvable puzzle of the PLDT offense, the Army Lady Troopers shot down the Ultra Fast Hitters and its perfect record to take Game One of the Best-of-Three Shakey’s V-League Open Conference Finals in four sets, 13-25, 25-23, 27-25, 25-22 at the FilOil Flying-V Arena, Thursday afternoon.

With previous opponents struggling to quell the explosive PLDT offense, the Army Lady Troopers used their own balanced attack to outspike PLDT 52-44 – the first team to tally more attacks against PLDT this season. Army opposite hitter, Jovelyn Gonzaga and middle blocker, Dindin Santiago-Manabat snuffed out PLDT’s best attackers and tallied a combined six block kills on 25 attempts. The pair also topped their team in scoring, each finishing with 16 points. Army veteran Nene Bautista contributed heavily to the Army cause after sitting out the past few games. Bautista subbed in for Rachel Anne Daquis and pitched nine points while her fellow open hitter, Royse Tubino paced her team with eight markers.

Suffering her first loss in local competition since last year’s V-League second conference, PLDT’s Alyssa Valdez still managed a game-high 25 markers off 22 attacks and three aces. Her U23 running mate, Jaja Santiago pitched in 11 points, and tied a season-high six aces.

PLDT got off to a fast start in the first set. Army struggled to manage their errors on serves and attacks which led to a steep 16-7 PLDT lead. Army then struggled to receive Jaja Santiago’s serves – a constant trend in the match – as one of her aces vaulted PLDT ahead comfortably, 23-12. PLDT finished the set off by winning two consecutive forays at the net highlighted by a Sue Roces block.

The following frame had both teams exchange the lead early with Army breaking through midway. Splendid serving from Tina Salak made way for a short Army 3-0 run that extended their lead, 18-14. The Lady Troopers matched PLDT point-for-point from there and arrived at set point early, 24-21. PLDT had one last gasp for breath as they rattled consecutive clutch points off a Sue Roces attack followed by a Valdez service ace. But Jovelyn Gonzaga pulled Army out of the set, granting them the win with a beautiful running drop ball off a scrambled play that ended a long rally.

The third set saw one of the best sets of volleyball this year, with both teams refusing to give way. Amid a tied set at 17, PLDT claimed four of the next five points to notch a 21-18 lead. Army then slowly whittled away at the lead as their starters conspired to eventually force a deuce after being down 22-24. PLDT got first crack at set point after a Nene Bautista attack hit the tape of the net. However, PLDT failed to dig what was supposed to be free ball from Army Libero Patricia Torres, tying the set again at 25. Army then rattled off back-to-back emphatic plays – first with a Ging Balse ace then with a Dindin Manabat block on a Jaja Santiago quick hit – to seal the third set and a 2-1 set advantage.

Army led the fourth set wire-to-wire as PLDT struggled to find consistent scoring options, forcing them to shuffle setters. After leading by three for much of the set, Army received a late scare when Gretchel Soltones fired up and scored off three straight attacks for PLDT to tie the set at 19. Nene Bautista countered Soltones’ sudden combustion with a solo two-point scoring spurt off an ace, and an attack that put Army ahead for good, 21-19. Alyssa Valdez tried valiantly to resuscitate her team’s cause but failed to put her team over the edge with her attack error putting Army at match point, 24-22. The Lady Troopers ended the match with a picture-perfect combination play for Jovelyn Gonzaga.

“Lumabas ‘yung experience ng team [Army] sa mga ganitong championship na laban. Sobrang hirap pigilan ng opensa ng PLDT. Mabuti na lang nahanapan ng mga players ng paraan na manalo,” said Army head coach, Rico De Guzman.

Game Two takes place on Sunday at 12:45 p.m preceded by the Awarding Ceremonies. Also at the FilOIl Flying-V Arena. After Game Two, Spikers’ Turf action resumes in the afternoon.

The Scores:

Army (3) – Manabat 16, Gonzaga 16, Bautista 9, Tubino 8, Balse 7, Salak 6, Daquis 1, Sabas 0, Gonzales 0, Torres (L), Agno (L)

PLDT (1) – Valdez 25, Santiago 11, Roces 9, Soltones 8, Devanadera 4, De Leon 2, Mendiola 1, Ferrer 0, Latigay 0, Villanueva 0, Pantone (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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