Creamline needed to take the harder route at times.
But the Cool Smashers still made it look quite easy in a sudden death billed to go down-to-the-wire as they out-smarted the Petro Gazz Angels in the last two sets to carve out a 20-25, 25-20, 25-18, 25-15 victory and keep the Premier Volleyball League All Filipino crown before a boisterous crowd of 12,175 at the SM Mall of Asia Arena on Thursday.
Patience, determination and unrelenting hard work and passion brought the Cool Smashers back to the PVL throne after reeling from a disheartening stint in the Reinforced Conference – ruled by the Angels – last December that saw them miss the finals for the first time after seven cracks at the championship, five of which they won.
“We missed the finals last year, pero nakabawi tayo this year,” said playmaker Jia de Guzman while addressing their horde of fans, whose faith in the Cool Smashers never waned even without injured skipper and top hitter Alyssa Valdez in the epic series.
But for coach Sherwin Meneses, it’s the chemistry and dedication that anchored their successful title comeback in the centerpiece event of each PVL season.
“Kahit wala si Alyssa, yung ibang outside hitters namin, nag-respond kaya nakuha naming ang championship. So, chemistry at yung mga players, sobrang dedicated,” said Meneses who also cited the management’s all-out support throughout their campaign.
But it was their vaunted firepower and superb blocking that broke the match open in the pivotal third with Meneses likewise coming through with a big ploy, inserting Risa Sato, who has embraced her new role with the same passion as when she was a starting middle, into the rotation.
The former National U stalwart provided not only clutch block points but also inspiration while playing to the crowd.
After shattering an 11-all count with a three-point blast, the Cool Smashers were never threatened, hiking their lead to 23-16 as the Angels got rattled and became tentative with their plays, leading to tight passes and enabling the Cool Smashers to stay in firm control.
The Angels overcame a four-point opening set blitz by the Cool Smashers in the fourth but the latter regained momentum and piled up points faster than the stats personnel could log them. Creamline raced to a 12-6 lead, took five of the next seven points and held sway to close out the championship on an 8-6 run.
White confetti rained down the court after Jema Galanza unloaded her last kill into the heart of the Angels’ defense, heralding the Cool Smashers’ return as the league’s undisputed queens, who swept the Angels in the 2019 and 2022 finals of the Open conference, now the All-Filipino.
Despite the anti-climactic ending, it was a five-night treat and feast of the best in women’s volleyball.
Petro Gazz took the best-of-three series’ opener in epic fashion, 25-22, 24-26, 25-23, 26-24, Sunday but Creamline forced the sudden death with an 18-25, 25-16, 25-18, 23-25, 15-6 escape in Game Two last Tuesday.
Galanza came away with 19 points, Michele Gumabao barely sustained her 19.5-point norm in the final with an 18-hit production while Tots Carlos backed them up with 16 points on the night she nailed her third Conference MVP trophy.
Ced Domingo added 12 points while Sato finished with six points.
Solid blocking carried Petro Gazz in its big first-set win but the Angels failed to match the Cool Smashers’ assaults in the next three.
Soltones, inspired by her father’s surprise presence, scored 17 points while Jonah Sabete finished with 11 points as Remy Palma, Aiza Pontillas and MJ Phillips could only combine for 20 markers.
No team led by as many two points in a tense-filled start until the Angels struck back from 10-12 down with four straight hits behind Sabete to wrest control. Soltones joined in the fray and fired a couple of down-the-line hits while Palma stepped up her net defense and foiled a couple of Creamline assaults.
In a blink, Petro Gazz took a 20-14 bulge and never looked back, capping their solid defense upfront with two more blocks against Gumabao.
With Palma manning the fort, the Angels finished with five kill blocks, three more than the Cool Smashers, and came away with a couple of aces to help key their big opening set run.
Then it got wilder in a rip-roaring second-set duel.
Just when the Cool Smashers thought they had the Angels all figured out after storming to an 18-12 lead, the latter, behind Soltones’ six-point binge and Palma’s sustained blocking, forced a tie at 18 to the delight of the delirious fans, who had then braced for a nerve-wracking ending.
They were left a bit disappointed as Galanza, who keyed Creamline’s fiery charge midway through, re-loaded then unloaded a couple of kills, while Sato added two clutch points, the last an ace that leveled the match.
And in the crucial third set, Creamline got back at Petro Gazz on the net, producing six blocks against the Angels’ measly one-block effort, keying the Cool Smashers’ breakaway from a tight 11-11 count to a 17-14 bulge.
Soltones tried to steer Petro Gazz back into the game with a couple of gutsy hits but Galanza, Sato and Gumabao combined in a decisive 8-4 closeout as the Angels got rattled and became tentative with their plays, leading to tight passes and enabling the Cool Smashers to stay in firm control.
Sato scored back-to-back points on a dropball and a block, Gumabao banged in a couple of hits and Galanza wrapped up the set and put the Cool Sa a set a win from keeping the championship with an off-speed hit.