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PSL Grand Prix Finals Survival Kit: Grand Slam or Grand Upset?

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It’s safe to say that this has to be the PSL’s most successful conference yet with sold-out out-of-town events, fantastic competition, and, to top it off, a Finals series filled to the brim with story lines.

The Petron Blaze Spikers needed their first few matches to warm up but eventually blazed their route to the Finals. Still with a star-studded roster, Petron looked unstoppable in their semifinals match against their Day One tormentors, Cignal HD Spikers, and are just two wins away from their third-straight conference title dating back to last year’s Grand Prix.

Foton, on the other hand, added high-upside young talent to compliment their hard-hitting imports. Also starting the conference sluggishly, the Tornadoes picked up strength and ravaged through the second round of eliminations then barely edging out the fan-favorites Philips Gold Lady Slammers in the semifinals for their first Finals appearance in franchise history.

In the following we breakdown and analyze some of the most prominent talking points of this matchup. Can Petron nail a Grand Slam? Will Foton drag the Queens out of their throne? Most importantly…

Who is the better Santiago?

Inevitably, the Santiago sisters’ clash was going to take over the headlines with the younger Jaja starring for Foton and the now hyphenated Dindin leading Petron.

Ask any coach their preference between the sisters and they’re probably going to tell you that individual brilliance is hard to measure in volleyball – the epitome of team sports – especially when comparing two incredible players such as the Santiagos. Yes, they play the same position but have totally different skill sets.

Philippine Sports News - Tiebreaker Times PSL Grand Prix Finals Survival Kit: Grand Slam or Grand Upset?

Aleone Denise is as quick as a brown fox jumping over a lazy dog. The former PSL MVP packs unrivaled power with her running attacks – streaking down the right side of the net, taking off like an ice skater going for an axel jump, then powering the ball off or past her blockers. The top pick of the first ever PSL Draft, the 6’1” Dindin has proven she can’t be simply defined as a volleyball player, with Petron hinging its dynamic offense on her versatile hitting. She has effectively played both wing attacking positions and has translated her speed and length to defending the back row decently.

Philippine Sports News - Tiebreaker Times PSL Grand Prix Finals Survival Kit: Grand Slam or Grand Upset?

Alyja Daphne, meanwhile, staggers foes with her length. Having just grown to 6’5”, Jaja has evolved into the most devastating offensive player in the country off her quick attacking alone. Give Jaja a high enough set and watch her gangly frame slowly unfurl over the opposing blockers stretched arms. Like toddlers reaching for cookie a jar on top the counter, Jaja’s blockers just can’t reach her attack. At that point, the current NU Lady Bulldog can easily send the quick hurdling down the back row. She even worked on her much criticized blocking, putting up gaudy block kill figures in the Grand Prix.

Petron relied on Dindin to carry their offense past their trying start to the season, later adjusting and getting more of their attackers at the cost of Manabat’s numbers. Foton seemed to improve along with Jaja – as their chemistry got better, Jaja got used to their patterns and her heavy scoring load in the team’s rotation.

Both sisters’ performance, like any other player, depend mostly on the overall performance on the team. Being middle blockers primarily, they each need their teammates to give them their attacking opportunities off steady ball control. Right now, neither is better than the other and we as Filipino volleyball fans should be happy that we will have both towing our National Team for years to come.

For now, they clash in the PSL Finals. Ask either sister, and they’ll tell you they’ve gotten used to playing against each other – it’s not a big deal anymore. Ditto for which one of them is better. Both just care about helping their team win a title.

Explaining each team’s slow start

As mentioned earlier, both teams went through their respective adjustment periods to kick-off the season.

In their main, seven-lady rotation, Foton has used just one player from the previous conference (Angeli Araneta), filling the rest of the spots with their two imports, Lindsay Stalzer and Katie Messing, and four newly-signed young players in Jaja Santiago, Kayla Williams, Ivy Perez, and Bia General.

Foton struggled mightily to finish sets against fellow contenders, suffering from one too many setting and receiving blunders. Starting the second round with a 2-3 record, Foton’s starters came together after a prolonged holiday break. They peaked at just the right time to put away the heavily-favored and top-seeded Philips Gold Lady Slammers.

The Tornadoes carry a devastating offensive rotation with almost all their attackers capable of hitting over opposing blocks, adding dizzying combination plays to maximize their athleticism. Head coach, Vilet Ponce De Leon has arranged her starting six to always have a surefire attacking option no matter what the rotation, opting to have Jaja at the back with both imports in the front row at the same time.

Philippine Sports News - Tiebreaker Times PSL Grand Prix Finals Survival Kit: Grand Slam or Grand Upset?

Setter Ivy Perez has rewarded her coaching staff’s patience with a rejuvenated tossing effort. With such an offensively geared team, Foton needed Ivy to orchestrate their attack and the southpaw has performed valiantly. Standing at 5’8”, Perez isn’t a liability in the front row which is rare for a setter. Her serve lefty float serves have also sparked crucial Foton rallies in multiple matches this season.

Lindsay Stalzer might be the highest leaper in the league while the Katie Messing is a towering figure in the wing spiker position. Fil-Jamaican Kayla Williams has been invaluable in holding down the second open hitter position while former isko Angeli Araneta is Utak and Puso personified.

Petron, on the other hand, was pushed like they had never been before. Bopped with a disappointing loss right from the first game, the Blaze Spikers dropped out of the spotlight while others took their title-favorite tag.

The taste of adversity musf have put off the Blaze Spikers. After all, they retained a star-studded lineup of locals that swept the All-Filipino Cup just a few months ago. Luckily, Petron had a surplus of leaders on the team to buck their Diesel-like start.

With fiery figures like Aby Maraño, Rachel Daquis, and Brazilian setter Erica Adachi leading the charge, it didn’t take long for Petron to reclaim their intimidation form.

Philippine Sports News - Tiebreaker Times PSL Grand Prix Finals Survival Kit: Grand Slam or Grand Upset?

Brazilian import, Rupia Inck may have been the key to Petron’s surge. Fresh out of college, Rupia admitted that the professional game and lifestyle surprised her and the pressure of replacing last Grand Prix’s MVP went into her head. Once Rupia settled in at the tail end of the first round, she poured out 20-point performances with ease through her sheer power.

San Beda standout, Ces Molina has been lost in the constellation of stars on the team but her consistent scoring has kept the team afloat in dire times.

Petron head coach, George Pascua uses his expansive arsenal to the fullest, often toggling his attackers to different positions and making key substitutions mid-set to keep momentum on their side. Adachi, however, has been Pascua’s constant ace. The San Paulo native has no trouble keeping her attackers and receivers in line. There are setters and leaders that know which of their teammates they can push – Adachi is a true button masher.

Skills-wise, both teams are even on paper. Foton has just as much attacking threats as Petron while the blocking numbers depend mostly on which team can get a feel for the opponent’s patterns quicker. They both have strong servers from top to bottom and Lady Bulldogs anchor each team’s floor defense with Petron touting NU legend Jen Reyes and Foton rolling out the much-improved Bia General. So…

Is Petron’s experience the deciding factor?

Experience is such a vague concept yet, oddly enough, it’s easily quantifiable in sports.

Petron has won the PSL’s past two conferences. Aby Maraño is a decorated college athlete with three UAAP championships under her hairclips. Rachel Anne Daquis also has a UAAP title and has been in countless championship campaigns with the Army Lady Troopers in several leagues. Dindin Manabat has more Best Attacker and MVP awards than fingers. Ditto for Jen Reyes, the Best Libero of seemingly every league she joins. Almost all of their locals have played for the National Team at one point and the entire team participated in the Asian Volleyball Club Championships last August.

With all those accolades, we assume that the Blaze Spikers will just figure out a way to win, no matter how poorly they start or how deep Foton drags them into the edge of defeat. Petron’s coaching staff proudly wield their experience and Foton acknowledges their deficit in big game experience. Add that Foton lost both their season matches to Petron and it becomes clear why Foton is regarded as an underdog despite thei apparent strengths.

But it’s careless to say that the Tornadoes won’t make quality in-game decisions just because they’re relatively younger and haven’t been together for as long as Petron. Lindsey Stalzer isn’t new to organizational pressure in the PSL and her expansive international experience can rub-off on her teammates.

With all the talk of their experience, Petron has tons of pressure stacked on them. As this season has proven, no team is unbeatable.

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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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