Though local Men’s Volleyball has taken a backseat to the hype machine that is our local women’s volleyball circuit, to volleyball purists nothing compares to the euphoric chaos of the men’s game. The faster pace and the sheer power generated by grown men intensely magnifies a player’s lack of skill and/or focus, leading to shorter exchanges that means narrower room for errors. In the Spikers’ Turf, teams have won sets by the minimum margin (two points) thrice as often as the women’s team in the V-League.
The inaugural season of the Spikers’ Turf was home to some of the most intense volleyball action ever seen on local soil. Blowouts were few and far in between while epic showdowns happened as often as a women’s volleyball national team roster controversy. From the rubble of those classic clashes, the two pre-season favorite teams rose.
On one side, the thundering Cagayan Valley Rising Suns stand with their contingent of some of the recent UAAP season’s elite. Time and again, the Rising Suns, quite literally, rose above the competition with their overwhelming athleticism at all positions. They seemed invincible for most of the season with no team able to counter their attack until the Army Troopers ambushed them in their final match of the first round. Though powerful, their free-wheeling style of play has often led to a mountain of errors, none bigger than the service errors that eventually led to their first loss of the season.
The Rising Suns would eventually fall again to a much more daunting foe, the PLDT Home Ultera Ultra Fast Hitters. Boasting a roster filled to the brim with local volleyball stars of the past and present, the Ultra Fast Hitters were primed for a dominant run right from the start of the season. Their overall depth, however, proved to be quite tricky to navigate as the coaching staff admittedly had troubles deciding which lethal attacker to field.
After a disappointing loss to the seasoned Champion Infinity Active Smashers, PLDT has won every match since including those of the Top Four Phase. Finally tapping the perfect combination of six, the Ultra Fast Hitters waylaid Cagayan last Thursday and took all the proverbial momentum heading into Game One of the best-of-three.
Does PLDT have enough to quell Cagayan? Can Cagayan clean up its act quick enough to regain its winning form? In the following we take a deeper dive into this matchup and everyone prepared for the clash of these two titans.
Usually, I’d prefer not to look at the individual matchups since success in volleyball, more than any sport, cannot be derived from the brilliance of just an individual player. Like any utopian society, every member of the team has to pull his weight and incorporate his skill set with his teammates to win titles.
But with the individual on both teams, it’s hard to overlook the indelible potential impact of a brilliant individual performance at this series. Cagayan is captained by NCAA legend Warren Pirante, whose incredible feats and clashes with rivals San Beda were unfortunately minimally documented. Pirante is flanked by Peter Torres and Berlin Paglinawan, two players directly responsible for NU’s two-year hegemony over UAAP Men’s Volleyball.
Not to mention, Cagayan also has the UAAP’s new alpha males in Ateneo’s Marck Espejo and Rex Intal, fresh from their historic title run. Peter Torres has been regarded as our country’s best middle blocker at his young age. He’s a devastatingly smart blocker, while his running attacks are as sure as a Kardashian weekly publicity stunt. Playing under Coach Nes Pamilar has opened up plenty of caveats to Torres’s game that were previously unfathomable. Pamilar has had him play in the back row for most of the season, uncommon since middle blockers are tall and lumbering. But Torres has held his own in digging and receiving; working his long arms and uncanny foot speed to his advantage in his passing game. More importantly, Torres has been effectively attacking from the back row. Though some of his back row attempts still go long, just having the threat of his spiking at all times gives Cagayan at least three viable options to go to for points at all times.
Marck Espejo has been his usual dominant self as well. The tournament’s best scorer has had no problem plowing through opposing defenses and making scoring 25 points look as easy as jaywalking in Manila. Pundits argue that his power and scoring ability is unmatched in today’s game but many also forget about Calvin Abueva, or at least Calvin’s look-alike and just as beastly long lost little brother in PLDT’s Mark Alfafara. The only player to win the UAAP’s MVP, Best Scorer, Best Attacker, Best Server and Best Blocker, Tiger Power has been every bit as dominant for PLDT as he was for UST. In UAAP Season 76, Alfafara’s UST was the only team Espejo’s Ateneo wasn’t able to beat. One can rightfully credit UST’s success against Ateneo to Alfafara’s ability to match Espejo point for point.
The difference has been PLDT’s aforementioned depth. Along with Alfafara, PLDT has stars of UST’s past glory in JP Torres, Henry Pecaña, Jayson Ramos and two of Adamson’s greatest in Armando Malleon and Ronjay Galang. PLDT coach, Odjie Mamon has gushed about his two can’t miss options at the setter position with NU’s Vince Mangulabnan and moonlighting referee Ronald Casilan. Mamon also has one of the best quickers in the Philippines in EARISTS’s Kheeno Franco but the biggest boost to PLDT’s cause has come from its resident NCAA boys, EAC’s Howard Mojica and CSB’s John Vic De Guzman.
Going mostly unused early in the season, both De Guzman and Mojica proved their worth and established their roles only recently. In matches where PLDT utilizes lineups that involve both Mojica and De Guzman for more than one set, PLDT has gone undefeated (3-0).
Cagayan’s starting six is as formidable as any as they have gotten both tight and blowout wins this season. But when one or two of their attackers have gone stale, Cagayan hasn’t been able to pull any other contributor from its bench. PLDT fumbled around with different lineups before finally settling in on a mix of attackers just this second round. But the Ultra Fast Hitters have so many contingency options afforded to them by their deep lineup for whatever may happen moving forward.
Perhaps the most exciting part of any men’s volleyball game is when a good jump server is on deck to deliver a devastating serve. The combination of elite leaping ability, timing, and form involved to pull off a proper jump serve is pure artistry in motion. Consider the fact that destructive serving is essential at stopping any elite offensive team, then having good jump servers become all the more important.
Yes, the float servers and even those that fire off top-spin serves can be effective as well. But these finalists have become too good with their service reception that in order to really mess each other up, their power servers have to be on-point the entire series.
With that said, Marck Espejo’s inconsistent forays at the service line are well documented. He arguably has the most powerful jump serve in the country behind Ram Abdilla, but his serves have resulted in errors too often for his team’s comfort. Then again, there is such a thing as “Finals Espejo”. In the recently concluded UAAP Finals, Espejo delivered back-to-back 30 point performances en route to sweeping the NU Bulldogs. A huge part of his pulsating performance was his game-changing serving that the NU back line just couldn’t figure out. He recorded only five service errors through two matches – a near miracle considering his track record – and it shouldn’t be too far fetched to expect Espejo to hulk up again in this Finals.
Peter Torres has also been experimenting for quite some time now with his own jump serve and has slowly been getting used to his improving form. But too often are the times when Torres’s serves result to errors so he resorts back to his signature float serve.
PLDT, on the other hand, has two of the most consistent jump servers in the land in Alfafara and Mojica. Mark has a more powerful delivery and more forceful approach while Howard is a more effective target server who can put a slight cut into his ball contact.
As with any volleyball match, how a team deals with the first contact of the ball can spell the outcome. A good run at the service line from any player can swing the momentum severely to his team’s favor, making jump servers pivotal to winning the title.