Philippines’ U-23 Wows The Home Crowd!!!

See what a little international exposure can do? The Philippines’ Under-23 Team, belatedly assembled amid volleyball political intramurals, saw action in the recently-concluded 2015 Asian Women’s U-23 Championships and made eye-popping strides forward, despite registering a mere 7th place finish.

Led by Ateneo’s superstar Alyssa Valdez and setter non-pareil Jia Morado, plus NU’s vaunted frontline of Jaja Santiago and Myla Pablo, the Philippines started out tentatively with a 4-set loss to an Iranian side everyone thought would be our best chance for a win.

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The team had very little time to practice together, but jelled fast enough during the tourney. (courtesy of cnnphilippines and leo lopez)

Their backs against the wall, Coach Roger Gorayeb’s charges surprised most everyone by hammering out a decisive straight-set shellacking of the stratospheric, yet totally perplexed Kazakhstan side. OMG! Our lasses are going to the next round!

No one had expected the win against the Kazakhs, but Alyssa just wouldn’t be denied. Despite being hobbled by a thumb injury – shades of Pacquiao’s rotator cuff, ehh? – Alyssa led our scorers by banging home a variety of winners to the delight of the fans. Along with Myla and that Cebuana wunderkid, Gretch Soltones, Alyssa and Jia produced one highlight moment after another, getting the crowd all worked up.

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A great learning experience. (Courtesy of asianvolleyball.net)

But the next round was a quick workshop of sorts for our youngsters, as they absorbed invaluable lessons from the likes of Japan, Chinese Taipei and finally, the eventual champion, China. Clearly, the lack of experience coupled with the big disparity in height were key factors leading to the debacles absorbed.

Still, the big stunner during that losing run was the country’s first-ever set win against the powerhouse Chinese side. Savor this, if you will, for this was a huge shock that no one had expected. That the ‘great wall of China’ could be breached after all. And it took a diminutive, yet spunky Philippine side to show the world it could be done. The Philippines had taken the measure of China, proudly claiming the first of only four sets lost by that juggernaut, China, on its way to the crown!

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Small, but terrible. (courtesy of Power Pinays FB page)

For those who have been following women’s volleyball, this was as big an awe-inspiring sight as any. In basketball, it would be like the Gilas team leading the US Dream Team in the 1st quarter. It would be like the Azkals going toe-to-toe with Germany in the World Cup. It would be like Manny banging up Floyd in the 4th round of the Fight of the Century. Despite the losses, our ladies have clearly shown what they are capable of doing.

For their final match, our lady boomers were pitted ironically against their first round tormentors, Iran. But this time around, Alyssa and company punish the Iranians with a dominating 3-set shutout.

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Making the country proud. (Courtesy of rivals.ph)

And as Jaja walloped home the game winner off a perfect set from Jia, a message to our Asian neighbors resonated. That the Philippines is ready to reclaim its place as a contender in Asian women’s volleyball. That our players have what it takes to pit physical and mental abilities. That given a little more exposure, we will start to collect some scalps out there.

Kudos to Alyssa and company for a job well done. To Jia, the lone setter; to Myla, Gretchel, Tin Agno, Risa Sato, Ella De Jesus, Bea De leon, Jhoana Maraguinot, EJ Laure, Ria Meneses, your solid support for each other contributed much to the success of the team.  You all are an inspiration to our people. You have provided us a poignant lesson not just in playing a superior game, but in epitomizing unity and national pride.

Kudos too to Jaja who was reportedly offered a spot in a commercial volleyball team in Chinese Taipei. If I were Jaja, I’d take the offer and try to get as much volleyball smarts and experience from this foreign league. International exposure, as mentioned, will be the key to accelerate the learning process. And this is an opportunity that Jaja – and the country ultimately – can benefit from. The local scene could lose her for a few months, but she comes back just like June Mar Fajardo who dominated the PBA after his stint in the FIBA World Cup.

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Jaja towers! (Courtesy of cnnphilippines.com)

With the Southeast Asian Games just around the corner, our ladies will need all the help and the morale support to push them further forward. That short tourney taught our charges some vital lessons. In teamwork, in mental toughness, in winning. With a little more jelling, and some more tune-ups (preferably with the men’s teams), we should be dancing with the (volleyball) stars soon.

(Pictures courtesy of fivb.com, asianvolleyball.net, rivals.ph, cnnphilippines.com, interaksyon.com, Power Pinays FB Page)

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