Having no idea just how they stack up against Asia’s elite due to decades of apathy to international competition, Team Philippines went into the U23 blind. It turns out, the hosts were pretty good, but not good enough.
After sweeping a worn-out Iran team 25-15, 25-21, 26-24, the Philippines finished the tournament in seventh place – the perfect indication for our country’s status as a middling volleyball power.
We had other signature moments in the tournament; sweeping the internationally renowned Kazakhstan, and taking world volleyball powers, Chinese Taipei and China, to four sets. But, more than anything, the tournament exposed how far we still have to go to seriously contend for relevancy in the sport.
In the Iran rematch, Team Captain, Alyssa Valdez, and middle blocker, Jaja Santiago, keyed the team’s success just as they had all-tournament. Valdez topped all scorers with 21 points from a variety of attacks, while Santiago’s 17 points, off just 20 attack attempts, is indicative of how much her sheer length affects the flow of the game. Elite opposing defenses took notice of the PH’s dynamic duo and adjusted appropriately to minimize their effect. Moreover, the other Pinays responded well when their top scorers were being shackled. Starters, Myla Pablo and Risa Sato, and even Ella De Jesus and Ej Laure, had clutch moments when their numbers were called. But most of the time, the PH struggled to score when either Valdez or Santiago didn’t have their games going.
Unheralded in her role, Jia Morado may have been the PH’s biggest bright spot. Beyond her setting, the Ateneo junior showed poise beyond her years. Her tosses were spectacular – sometimes too spectacular for her teammates, her serves turned the tide of sets, and her signature dumped set became virtually unstoppable as she figured out how to navigate through her opponents’ long arms and patterns. She had 23 excellent sets against Iran and four points off two aces and two attacks. She also has the team record for least number of nervous looks at zero.
The Philippines simply came out today with the exuberant energy they had in their first match loss against Iran. Only this time, the Philippines knew they were better than Iran and calmly showed it throughout the match. They had better service reception, less errors, and more pop to their attacks. With Iran storming back in the third set, the Philippine team that came into the tournament might have lost total grip on the set and let Iran comeback. But the Philippine team that came out today, hardened with tough matches against Asia’s elite, held on and cooly regained control to put away the match.
Still, PHI Head Coach acknowledges that local volleyball still has a long way to go. “At least, sa tournament na ‘to, kinilala na tayo ng ibang team, nakuha natin ‘yung respeto ng ibang bansa. Pero malayo pa ‘yung kailangan natin I-improve para maabot sila. Kahit sana makapaglaro pa ‘yung team at ‘yung ibang players against international teams para lang magamay pa natin ‘yung high-level, maganda maidudulot noon sa players,” Gorayeb said. “Saka sana wag na palitan ‘yung mga players. Ito ‘yung nagpakitang comitted sila. Kahit coach na lang palitan, wag lang ‘yung players,” Gorayeb jokingly continued.
Their seventh place finish puts the hosts ahead of Maldives, Macau, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Iran in the final tournament tally. The Philippines will also compete in the upcoming AVC Seniors Tournament, as well as the SEA Games.
Nonetheless, this finish is a great first step for a country where volleyball is still on the rise. On the other hand, Thailand, another Asian country where volleyball exploded, spent millions of dollars to improve their program. They first won gold in the SEA Games in 1995, and have since dominated the regional meet. Despite their success and effort, Thailand is still yet to make an appearance in the Olympics.
Buckle up, Pinoys. This is going to be a long ride.
PHI (3) – Valdez 21, Santiago 17, Pablo 5, Soltones 5, Morado 4, Sato 3, De Jesus 0, De Leon 0, Agno (L)
IRI (0) – Chamlanian 10, Saberi 6, Roosta 6, Shirtari Foumani 4, Hassani 3, Khalili 3, Derishmahmoudi 2, Kahdkoda 1, Siavoshi 1, Motaghiyan (L)