I was not too surprised when College of Saint Benilde took Game 1 of the NCAA Season 91 women’s volleyball finals in four sets against San Sebastian. I felt that the week-long layoff may have dulled their game shape and that they would bounce back in Game 2.
But that didn’t happen as CSB took it in four sets.
Much has been said about the Lady Blazers’ height advantage while the Lady Stags were too dependent on Grethcel Soltones. I beg to disagree.
I believe for CSB, as tall as they are and with all due respect to Janine Navarro, Jeanette Panaga, Chelsea Santillan and Ranya Musa, they live and die with setter Djanel Welch Cheng, who has been the league’s top playmaker two years running. Yet, the Lady Blazers do not run a lot of combination plays. They are a team that gets its points raining down spikes from the wings, quick plays as well as through blocks. In short, they like to play a power game. Another thing I like about them is their confidence. Even during the elimination round, you could see it in their body language from the moment they ran out to the court. They were oozing with confidence.
A team like SSC-R, on the other hand, doesn’t sweep the eliminations on the strength of one player. It takes a team to win a game, much less sweep. While Soltones, the league’s top scorer is their main gun, she gets help from libero Alyssa Eroa, who like the former, will come away with an other set of individual awards. Other contributors include Dangie Encarnacion, Nikka Dalisay and Joyce Sta. Rita — they just need to step up their game. I think they have a little more dynamic attack as they scatter points from the wings, the middle, and the back row. In short, they win as a team and in a variety of ways. The problem isn’t an over-reliance on Soltones but the inconsistency of the others.
The problem in a prolonged series is that San Sebastian gets exposed. And that is just what is happening.
Let me explain. San Sebastian’s starting six has only two veterans in Soltones and libero Alyssa Eroa. The rest -- setter Vira Guillema, Sta. Rita, Encarnacion and Dalisay — are relative newcomers in their second year with the team. It must say something about the quality of the team when the other long-time veterans in Jolina Labiano, Jonah Corpuz, and Trisha Crisostomo are sitting. While hunger knows no bounds, veteran experience and leadership is a plus. Apparently, they haven’t been performing well.
Talent and skill are one thing; teamwork is another. On the other hand, veteran smarts, leadership and experience are just as vital.
Now I thought that losing in last year’s volleyball finals would be a lot of motivation for San Sebastian. Apparently, it isn’t. Walking inside their locker room prior to Game 2, I was surprised to see them on their gadgets texting, surfing, or playing games. While I thought they were loose, I also felt there was a lack of focus.
Maybe I am too old school but I have seen many a sports team internalize the game to come; focusing on the task at hand. You know -- review game plans and strategies. While much of that is done in practice, I have seen a lot of locker rooms before games and well, I have always felt that using one’s gadgets does show some lack of focus.
Come game time, the Lady Stags, save for the fourth set, started slowly. In the three sets that they lost, they quickly fell behind in a huge hole and came back only once and that was the third set when CSB spotted them an eight-point lead, 15-7. SSC-R rallied to even take a 20-19 lead but lapsed again in a series of errors that hurt them.
The Lady Stags' blocking was abysmal — five block points from the 37 attempts to the 10 of 62 for CSB that shows a commitment for defense for the latter. Blocking isn’t all about height. It also has to do with desire, making good reads, and timing. At times, I thought their feet were nailed to the floor watching as the Lady Blazers rose up in the air for unchallenged attacks.
The playmaking was spotty with playmaker Guillema blowing hot and cold; playing well in a stretch then her decision making falling apart in another stretch. She was also 1-4 in drop shots.
On the other hand, I really have to give it to the Lady Blazers. They are on the verge of a fairy tale finish. After the nine-match elimination round, they finished fourth behind SSC-R (9-0), Arellano (8-1), and Perpetual Help (7-2) with a 6-3 record. CSB skidded towards the end of the elims but in their step-ladder Final Four, they have since taken down the top seeds winning six sets and losing only one. In the finals, they have lost only two sets and are now poised to turn the tables on San Sebastian.
Mid-way through the elimination round, chatting with SSC-R coach Roger Gorayeb who has been title-less in three years as he has not gone more than two years without winning a championship, he said that he thought that CSB would present their biggest challenge.
I wonder if he wishes he was wrong.