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SMART Sports’ Best of 2017: Despite all the politics, volleyball will find a way

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With two club leagues, two prominent collegiate leagues, a national team campaign, and a beach volleyball circuit to keep track of, Philippine volleyball fans never truly get a break.

It seemed that for every month of 2017, there was some talking point that lit up social media. Whether it was a championship, off-court drama, or dueling officials, volleyball never truly stopped. It simply was propelled from one thing to the next.

In the following, we take a look back at the best storylines that volleyball blessed us with in 2017.

La Salle then, La Salle now, La Salle forever (or until RDJ retires)

Years from now, Season 79 will most likely be remembered for the epic Finals clash between the Ateneo de Manila University and the De La Salle University.

Despite this being their sixth straight clash on the biggest stage in local volleyball, both the Lady Spikers and Lady Eagles were ushering in new eras. The Ramil De Jesus-led squad had to find new pieces to replace their old reliables Mika Reyes, Ara Galang, and Cyd Demecillo; while Tai Bundit’s program had just entered the first year of the post-Alyssa Valdez era.

Like a post-apocalyptic cyborg, La Salle found new pieces in Tin Tiamzon, Aduke Ogunsanya, and fresh-from-an-ACL-tear Des Cheng, and convinced setting maestro Kim Fajardo to play out her final year of eligibility. As always, the Lady Spikers were a picture of balance, working out their weaknesses as the season went along and finding their peak at the perfect time.

Ateneo, on the other hand, proved that there was still something phenomenal in them even without the Phenom. Leaning on their supreme length and athleticism, the Lady Eagles overpowered opponents left and right. While fresh-from-academic-exile Michelle Morente, Jho Maraguinot, and Bea De Leon all stepped up their scoring to account for the Valdez-sized hole in their lineup, it was captain Jia Morado who truly came out of her shell. After all, there is something to be said about anchoring the league’s best offense while working with a bottom-two reception line.

While the Finals didn’t last until the final game of the season, like their past meetings, Ateneo and La Salle still managed iconic moments. La Salle, in the end, proved more prudent with their errors and steadier in the endgame to come away with a back-to-back.

Still, Season 80 was built up to possibly the first season without an Ateneo-La Salle finale. The University of the Philippines certainly seemed like a contender, starting the season with a 4-0 record and  a win against La Salle. The National University made their case after winning both their elimination round meetings with Ateneo.

In the end, both those squads sputtered out, and veteran-laiden teams University of Santo Tomas and Far Eastern University ended up taking the last two Final Four spots right in the final week of the elimination round.

Perhaps it is in the aftermath of Season 79 where La Salle shone brightest. The fact that they have not made any headlines after Season 79 might be worrisome to the uninitiated. But the longtime La Salle fan knows that this is just par-for-the-course for a Ramil De Jesus off-season.

La Salle have been stable and quietly building up a roster of recruits that will shock the league once Season 81 rolls around. For now, De Jesus has a stable core of Dawn Macandili, Kianna Dy, Majoy Baron, Des Cheng and Tin Tiamzon to work with for their three-peat bid come Season 80.

Considering the whirlwind off-season every other UAAP team had, the Lady Spikers are settled as early favorites.

Ateneo lost both Morado and Morente seemingly out of the blue, and went through a controversial break-up with Tai Bundit before University President Fr. Jett Villarin stepped in and seemingly forced them to make amends. UP, FEU, and National U all have new head coaches. UST, who were already going to play without Ria Meneses, have to find someone to fill in for top scorer Ej Laure, who suffered a season-ending shoulder injury.

Season 80 will be De Jesus’ 20th season as mentor of the Lady Spikers. He’s gone up against the best players and coaches. Still, he remains on top of the UAAP.

Practice?

The perfect illustration of local volleyball’s volatility was last year’s National Team endeavors.

From the selection of the coaches down to the final match they played in the Southeast Asian Games, there was some measure of drama.

In the end, what the National Team lacked was consistency. Francis Vicente, the embattled coach who had his UAAP record slung at his face with every controversial statement he made, did his best but ultimately had his decisions nip him and the squad.

When the team was distilled from a pool of 25 down to the Final 14, there was considerable lack of Premier Volleyball League players and an abundance of Philippine Superliga talent. Perhaps the PSL does have a better overall pool of players, but there were certainly PVL players who could have helped the National Team, especially with their lack of open hitters.

The squad was also inconsistent with what they deemed acceptable. Even the routine practices became major talking points as, one day, only one player was notably missing preparations. The following month, 90 percent of the squad was absent due to club commitments.

Still, the Nationals provided us with a reason to be optimistic.

Although they finished just barely in the Top 8 of the Asian Senior Women’s Championship in Biñan, Laguna, they did cop a momentous win over Southeast Asian powerhouse Vietnam in the second group phase.

In the SEA Games, the women’s squad squeezed into the semifinals, but eventually fell to a determined Vietnam squad in the bronze medal match.

Dawn Macandili, the smallest player on the team, proved to be the biggest star after being named Asia’s Second Best Libero. Alyssa Valdez, Jaja Santiago, and Jovelyn Gonzaga all had standout performances as well on the international stage.

Considering all the off-court hoopla, 2017 was a much better National Team year than 2015. Not even looking at the squad’s finishes, the caliber of preparation was the best our National Team has had in decades.

The LVPI laid the groundwork in 2017. They need to keep grinding in 2018. There has been no news and assurance that Francis Vicente will be brought back as the head coach. If they are to name a new coach, they will most likely have another string tryouts to suit the system of the new head coach.

What volleyball needs is a Gilas-like program. It needs dedicated managers and coaches that have the National Team’s priorities first above anything else. It needs a pools of players for different age groups that will make the transition to the senior team much easier.

Gilas is not a perfect example, with its complicated relationship with the PBA and its stakeholders. But the Men’s National Basketball team has thrived over the past decade amidst all the controversy because of the bedrock that is Gilas.

In a volleyball utopia, the National Team would be in Ramil De Jesus’ hands with players always available due to cooperation of the club leagues with their scheduling.

We may never achieve utopia, but volleyball fans and supporters deserve to at least have very minimal politics in the sport we love.

Twice Thrice-Beaten

The most overlooked local league brought about another tension-filled season.

For the second straight year, the most compelling storyline was Grethcel Soltones’ chase for an indoor NCAA title. And for the second straight year, she led her San Sebastian College-Recoletos Lady Stags straight to the Finals with an unblemished elimination round record.

For the second straight year, the Lady Stags languished a thrice-to-beat advantage.

While San Sebastian had Grethcel Soltones, the NCAA’s best player for three straight years, the Arellano University Lady Chiefs had a more balanced lineup and divine motivation.

Led by Jovielyn Prado, Rialen Sante, and Regine Arocha — Season 92’s breakout star — the Lady Chiefs took three straight matches from the Lady Stags. More than winning their second title in three years, Arellano University wanted to bring home the championship for grieving head coach Obet Javier, who had just lost his wife.

With three NCAA MVP awards, Grethcel Soltones left Roger Gorayeb’s program as the first to never have won an indoor title.

Without Soltones, the NCAA also is left without an incredible singular talent. The Lady Chiefs look like runaway titlists. Teams like San Beda College and College of Saint Benilde have young talent and could contiue conteding for a championship. The Lady Stags, meanwhile, will reportedly have just eight girls on their roster.

What the NCAA lacks in superstars, they make up for with sheer intrigue.

PSL vs PVL

While competition can certainly breed talent, the battle between PSL and PVL brought about animosity rivaled only by the mishap in the PBA with Chito Narvasa and some PBA teams.

Both leagues certainly put up competitive conferences, but the way they dueled in public overshadowed the matches they showcased.

It began with the formation of the National Team, as one league seemingly had full control while the other barely had any representation in the tryouts and training.

Then it escalated when the PVL had trouble securing required documents for their imports to play in the Reinforced Conference and pinpointed PSL officials as conspirators against them.

Up to the Reinforced Conference semis, eventual champions Pocari Sweat had replacement import Krystal Rivers waiting until the very last minute, only to have her suit up in the Finals.

The rift between both leagues becomes intolerable when it affected the quality of volleyball, especially with the National Team. Both leagues and their officials bring something to the table when it comes to organizing volleyball leagues.

PSL, under the supervision of Tats Suzara, has constantly pushed the limits of innovation since they started four years ago. The league has brought in world-class players and officials.

Just this year, the league had three successful conferences in the Invitational Cup (where they brought in Japanese collegiate team Kobe Shinwa), the All-Filipino Cup, and the Chooks-to-Go Grand Prix.

The year eventually unfolded into a rivalry between juggenauts Petron and F2 Logistics. The deep Blaze Spikers got first blood in the AFC, but F2 Logistics ended the year with the league’s prized Grand Prix title.

The Final game of their season boasted unparalleled drama with F2 Logistics’ Venezuelan import Maria Jose Perez playing Game Three a day after her brother died of cancer. It also had the resurgence of Cha Cruz, who won the league’s first-ever Finals MVP plum.

The PVL, on the other hand, remained the steady institution it has always been since they started nearly 15 years ago. From its humble roots as the Shakey’s V-League, Ricky Palou’s tournaments have persisted even in the lowest, most dire of situations in Philippine volleyball.

With the country’s most prominent TV station showing their games, the PVL continues to flourish. 2017 saw the debut of Rebisco’s Creamline Cool Smashers, who showed they were serious contenders by signing top-caliber stars in Alyssa Valdez and Jia Morado.

At first, it seemed that Pocari Sweat had another double-crown in hand after a smashing triumph over the Bali Pure Water Defenders in the Reinforced Conference Finals.

The Lady Warriors were nearly booted in the Open Conference, if not for Heather Guino-O’s heroics in Game Two against Air Force, Pocari Sweat might as well have never made the Finals again.

Cherry Rondina is the queen of the sands

From a fringe sport, beach volleyball has grown to be the marquee place for where Filipinos can truly excel.

No one exemplifies this more than Sisi Rondina, who dominated the local sands in 2017. The UST Tigress started off with an unbeaten run in the PSL Challenge Cup with partner Bernadeth Pons of FEU. The Cebuana then lifted sophomore partner Caitlyn Viray to another unblemished conquest of the UAAP Season 80 Beach Volleyball tournament for her second straight collegiate title and third overall.

She and Pons also got a taste of international competition when they represented the country in the Southeast Asian Beach Volleyball Championship.

Standing at just five-feet-six-inches, Rondina overwhelms opponents with her ruthless quickness and uncanny leaping ability. No doubt she was this year’s Queen of the Sands, if there was one.

Perhaps, the most important development in 2017 for beach volleyball was continued persistence of Beach Volleyball Republic. BVR, which was established by passionate athletes Dzi Gervacio, Charo Soriano, and Bea Tan, continued with their nation-wide circuit and had another international level competition. They even established a Men’s circuit, which they had lacked in years prior.

Volleyball needs more determined people like those behind BVR, who continue to push boundries and move mountains just to keep alive the sport they love.

Coach O is Mr. 2017

Men’s volleyball continued to fly under people’s radar, which was a shame since 2017 was historic, especially for one coach Oliver Almadro.

While Ramil De Jesus continued to dominate the women’s, his former protege established his own dynasty throughout the year.

All the Men’s teams that Almadro coached won the championship.

In the UAAP, his Ateneo Blue Eagles completed a season-long sweep, fending off the determined National University Bulldogs in two classic matches in the Finals.

In the PVL Men’s Division, Almadro led the Cignal HD Spikers to the Open and Reinforced Conference championships, then anchored the Blue Eagles for a third consecutive Collegiate Conference crown.

Counting other leagues, the frenetic mentor barely lost a match. While it can be easily argued that it was his players that won the matches, it was Almadro’s unrelenting voice of guidance that helped establish his teams’ winning culture.

Almadro and men’s volleyball barely got any fanfare in 2017. A look at how little coverage the Men’s National Team got and one will find just how underapprecieated the men are.

It’s a miracle that the Men’s National Team even got to participate in the Southeast Asian Games, as head coach Sammy Acaylar and LVPI acting president Peter Cayco had to lobby heavily for the team to be considered competitive.

The men worked for everything they got, toiling away in the Arellano Law School Gym almost every day for the better part of five months.

While the men failed to even enter the SEA Games semifinals, they showed potential. That most of the roster were 25-years-old or younger should be considered, especially with the 2019 SEA Games right around the corner.

Like the women’s side, the men could also do with a lot less politics for 2018. Hopefully, they too get some sort of international exposure and continue to develop as a team.

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