Philippine Super Liga: The stars of Philippine women’s volleyball “Rise As One”

The Philippine Super Liga opens on July 7 at the PhilSports Arena in Pasig City (Photo: PSL Facebook page)

The Shakey’s V-League uncorked something revolutionary in 2004 with the birth of the first ever women’s volleyball league in the Philippines. Rising young stars from the college ranks were reinforced by some of the best local veterans and guest players from neighbouring countries began playing in front of sparse crowds before the league began registering minor successes in the following sorties. In the collegiate scene, the UAAP and the NCAA also began gathering steam on the precedence the Sports Vision Management Group started. But women’s volleyball was still barely a second tier sport and was miles away from even rivalling the nation’s number one passion: basketball.

That all changed in the twilight of 2012 when crowds that began flocking to witness the volleyball matches in the UAAP began swelling and by the first quarter of 2013, the volleybelles began attracting record crowds; spiked by the 19,638 fans that came to witness that first round match-up between the Ateneo Lady Eagles and eventual champion La Salle Lady Spikers. The Shakey’s V-League also surpassed all previous attendance records during the first conference of its ongoing tenth season, highlighted by three consecutive near sell-outs to witness the entire Finals series triumphed by the National University (NU) Lady Bulldogs.

NU's Shakey's V-League win was witnessed by thousands of fans worldwide (Photo: George Calvelo/NPPA Images)

The recent representation of the Philippines in the Asian Volleyball Confederation (AVC) zonal qualifiers in Vietnam also sent the rabid supporters of the sport into a frenzy as for the first time in eight years our country finally saw action in an FIVB sanctioned international meet overseas. Amid the turmoil now plaguing the disbanding of that particular national team, the announcement that the governing bodies of sports in the archipelago may not even send a volleyball contingent to Myanmar for the upcoming 2013 Southeast Asian (SEA) Games later this year and the brewing tension within the local volleyball scene targeting unwanted politics and alleged power struggles, the Philippine Super Liga (PSL) is now set to launch—and for one shining moment, the stars may be aligning for this rapidly growing spectator sport—and the fans that helped it grow.

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“We want friends, not enemies.” This was the immediate statement of league commissioner Dr. Ian Laurel, a former University of Santo Tomas (UST) volleyball star and a fellow broadcaster for the Shakey’s V-League.

PSL Commissioner Dr. Ian Laurel: "We want friends, not enemies." (Photo: www.pinoyexchange.com)

“You won’t believe the amount of support the PSL has received from not only the community, but also the private sector,” Laurel disclosed in a recent meeting at the PhilSports Arena in Pasig City; the new home of the pioneer club league in the country.

“This is not intended to rival the Shakey’s V-League,” Laurel, a member of the Philippine Volleyball Federation (PVF), said. “This is a club league. We intend to foster the growth of women’s volleyball after these players graduate from college and probably give them an opportunity to be part of the formation of the national team. We’re trying to build a national pool. Everyone who plays in our inaugural Invitational tournament will be considered for national team duty, should the time come.”

Since the Philippine Sports Commission (PSC) and the Philippine Olympic Committee (POC) have directed the PVF to handle all responsibilities in forming the duly recognized national team, the PVF has killed two birds with one stone by supporting the PSL and giving everyone a shot at being in that pool.

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But more than the agenda of collating the best players in the country to form this, volleyball fans are salivating over the fact that the best players in the country will be playing, period.

“It will be awesome watching four of the best liberos in the country's volleyball history in one league,” one fan exclaimed, referring to former University of Perpetual Help System Dalta (UPHSD)’s Jheck Dionela and NU graduate Jen Reyes—considered as two of the best in the nation joined by Adamson University alumna Lizlee Ann Gata-Pantone and former Lady Spiker and national campaigner Sher Peñano—considered as two of the best all-time.

Lizlee Ann Gata-Pantone will strut her libero stuff again (Photo: Lizlee Ann Gata-Pantone's Facebook page)

Six teams will see action in the PSL Invitational, which commences on July 7 beginning with a planned “party” atmosphere-type opening ceremonies at 1:00PM.

“There will be a special twist during the tail end of the ceremonies,” Laurel confided. “You guys watch out for it. You’ll love it.”

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Many are already installing former Shakey’s V-League titlists the Philippine Army as the team to beat, owing to a line-up composed of former national team standouts and the fact they’ve been playing together for quite a while already.

“That’s a big edge,” one coach noted, in the vernacular. “They (the Philippine Army) have been together for several years already and it will take almost a perfect game to beat them.”

Army’s roster reads like a veritable encyclopedia of Philippine volleyball lore with three former Shakey’s V-League MVPs in Michelle Carolino, Mary Jean Balse and Nerissa Bautista joined by legendary setter Tina Salak, former UAAP MVP Jac Alarca, former WNCAA queen Dahlia Cruz and Sha Sha Siatan-Torres—the original national team libero among its powerhouse composition.

Army sans Daquis and Reyes: The team to beat (Photo: www.v-league.ph)

Cagayan Valley’s initial line-up makes them the youngest team in the competition with former Bomberinas Joy Benito, Jheck Dionela and Royce Tubino headlining the squad joined by former FEU heroine Wendy Ann Semana, veteran Liza de Ramos, Letran’s wunderkind Sarah Espelita and Lady Falcons’ “franchise” player Sheila “Bangnita” Pineda.

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Team Cignal has a healthy mix of youth and experience with fresh graduates Jen Reyes, UPHSD’s star setter Arianne Argarin with pintsized phenom April Sartin, and Southwestern’s speed and power duo of Rapril Aguilar and Danika Gendrauli teamed up with celebrated warriors Venus Bernal of UST, Rosan Fajardo of Lyceum and Michelle Datuin of DLSU as well as the length up front of Michelle Tagudin and Hezzy Mae Acuña from the Rizal Technological University (RTU).

Michelle Datuin leads Team Cignal's veteran core (Photo: Michelle Datuin's Facebook page)

PLDT has perhaps the most diverse collection of talent but they are already being touted as the dark horse of the tournament with mythical characters such as the aforementioned Lizlee Ann Gata-Pantone, former Shakey’s V-League MVP Lou Ann Latigay, Adamson aces Angela Benting, Pau Soriano and May Macatuno along with the University of the East’s skipper Leuseht Dawis, the hard-hitting combo formerly from the Far Eastern University (FEU) in Wenneth Eulalio and Rosemarie Vargas and the twin tower combination of former San Sebastian Lady Stag Dafna Robiños and RTU’s Janeth Doria.

Lou Ann Latigay and PLDT: dark horse of the tournament (Photo: Lou Ann Latigay's Facebook fanpage)

However, fans would probably from a line under a scorching sun or wrath of God rain to watch the potential match-up of Petron and PCSO Bingo Milyonario in this tilt. Petron has put together a lethal combination of UST and Ateneo alumna while PCSO Bingo Milyonaryo is comprised of mainly the old reliables of DLSU.

Petron boasts of former Lady Eagles’ captains Gretchen Ho, Fille Cainglet, Kara Acevedo, Karla Bello and (as of this writing) former champion Head Coach Charo Soriano. The UST phalanx has the legendary Roxanne Pimentel, UAAP and Shakey's V-League champions Aiza Maizo-Pontillas, Angeli Tabaquero, Rhea “DMac” Dimaculangan and the recently graduated Judy Anne Caballejo—a former UAAP MVP as well as former national team member Maika Ortiz.

All these 2010 UAAP champion Tigresses will suit up for Petron (Photo: www.pinoyexchange.com)

It’s a DLSU alumna party going on at PCSO Bingo Milyonaryo with the iconic Sher Peñano joined by former Shakey’s V-League MVP Maureen Penetrante, the extraordinary setting of Chi Saet, catquick Stephanie Mercado, resilient Carla Llaguno, heady Iris Patrona and present broadcasters Ivy Remulla and GMA's Michele Gumabao—the reigning UAAP Finals MVP. Elite defense specialist Mic-Mic Laborte and former St. Benilde heart-and-soul Giza Yumang are also listed in the “Boleras” squad along with FEU game-changers Maica Morada and setter April Jose.

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For me, the Petron-PCSO match will be the most anticipated one.

PCSO Bingo Milyonaryo aims to revive DLSU's glory days (Photo courtesy of Anne Remulla)

Many big names such as Rachel Anne Daquis, Rubie de Leon, Suzanne Roces, Iari Yongco and Jem Ferrer are conspicuously absent from the participating teams’ line-ups, but Laurel stressed that this is just the part of the PSL where the waters are being tested.

“The Invitational is just the start,” Laurel bared. “We will have an Open conference this coming October and as early as now we already have at least two franchises that have already signified their intentions of joining that tournament. Players from other countries, particularly Thailand, South Korea and even the United States have also indicated that they want to be part of the league. It’s quite an exciting time (for Philippine volleyball) now.”

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The curtains rising on this new club tournament is so eagerly awaited that it is most likely going to raise the pulse of volleyball fans across generations.

Solar Sports will be airing all the matches during the elimination round on a slightly delayed basis beginning at 4:00PM during gamedays. The semifinals and finals will be aired live.

Solar Sports airs the semifinals and finals live (Photo: PSL Facebook page)

The broadcast team will still have seasoned divas such as Mozzy Ravena, Noreen Go and Anne Remulla doing the analysis while former UST playmaker Denise Tan is now joined by BTV’s Riki Flores and former DLSU volleybelle Miakka Lim on the floor as the courtside gals. Anthony Suntay and I will split the anchoring duties.

The slogan “Rise As One” is an apt description of what the PSL hopes to attain: unity in volleyball. There may still be bickering in some camps and probably still some issues that need to be resolved, but the PSL is taking a huge leap forward in bringing all factions and beliefs together. The PVF is taking a big leap of faith as well, however, if all the pieces fall into place beginning July 7, then a new dawn in the new passion of the nation may just be realised sooner rather than later.

One thing’s for sure: these are exciting times in Philippine volleyball. I’m glad we’re all part of this journey. Rebirth pains in this renaissance is bliss.

Follow Noel Zarate on Twitter (@NoelZarate) and email sportztackle@yahoo.com

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