The Trailblazers

Saturday, 27 Aug 2016
Julius Manicad - Chief Correspondent - @JCManicad
Abby Marano carrying Rachel Ann Daquis during their time at the un-deafeated Petron Blaze Spikers

The landscape of local sports is dotted with super teams who have swept the entire tournament. 

The fabled UAAP men’s basketball team of University of Santo Tomas did it in 1993, leading to the implementation of the Final Four format. Another men’s basketball team in University of the East repeated the trick in 2007, but fell short in the Final Four against a hungry La Salle squad.

The last team to come up with such a sterling achievement was Ateneo de Manila, which took the UAAP women’s volleyball tournament by storm in 2015. It was such a special feat as main gunner, Alyssa Valdez, cemented her throne as the country’s most popular volleyball player of this generation while other members of the celebrated squad were also elevated to the upper crust of volleyball royalty.

But if there’s a team that also deserves much credit, it has to be Petron.

Arguably the greatest club team ever assembled, the Blaze Spikers blazed their way to a historic 13-0 finish en route to winning the 2015 Philippine Superliga All-Filipino Conference crown.

While some say the victory was a no-brainer due to the sheer strength, sheer dominance of what rival coaches and team managers branded as the “dream team,” still, the feat wasn’t easy as the star power, the drama, the expectations and the massive pressure on their shoulders made it extremely difficult to accomplish.

A team insider claimed that winning the PSL All-Filipino crown via a 13-0 sweep is probably the hardest task he achieved all throughout his volleyball career. He said it’s like rolling a great boulder to the top of the hill and they have no sliver of idea when it is going to roll down – or if it would roll down to smack their faces.

Still, the Blaze Spikers achieved it.

They are the first PSL team to come up with an immaculate card all the way to winning the crown.

They have bravely written their names on the pages of league history with their sweat and tears serving as ink.

They are special.

They are trailblazers.

Assembling the backbone

Putting together this constellation of stars is not a miracle.

It took a lot of hard work, sleepless nights and, of course, a little luck to net the country’s best talents and put them under one roof.

The buildup started in summer of 2014 when Petron tapped Dindin Manabat as top overall pick in the PSL Annual Rookie Draft.

A gem of a spiker from National University, the 6-foot-2 Manabat was billed as the cornerstone in which the Blaze Spikers will build their team around. She has a rare combination of height, length and athleticism never before seen in the local volleyball circuit.

George Pascua, one of the brightest young coaches in the country, was tapped as head coach while the core of Gretchen Ho, Fille Cayetano, Maica Morada, Jozza Cabalsa and Sandra Delos Reyes was retained to join new recruits Acy Masangkay of UE, Mayette Zapanta of Adamson, Ana del Mundo of University of the Philippines and Jen Reyes and Carmina Aganon of NU.

But the team still fell below expectation as it finished 5th in the 2014 PSL All-Filipino, which was ruled by Generika-Army.

The following conference, Petron made another recruiting coup as the management tapped Frances Molina of San Beda, who would blossom into one of the league’s best open spikers.

For good measure, Petron also secured the services of former Oregon star Alaina Bergsma and former Brazilian playmaker Erica Adachi.

Petron marched into the season overflowing with confidence.

It posted an 8-2 win-loss mark in the eliminations before knocking down Cignal in the semifinals and crushing Generika, which was bannered by the stars of La Salle, in the finals.

A team insider said that the victory paved the way for the team to remain hungry for another crown.

After that victory, we were still hungry.

We know that our heart and soul in Alaina will not be with us for the All-Filipino so we have to come up with a good recruitment program to remain on top of the game. We were searching for the firepower we would miss due to Alaina’s departure.

The answer came few weeks later.

Aby Marano, an elite defender who makes a living out of her powerful running attacks, great energy on both ends and impeccable leadership on and off the court, suddenly became available after deciding to bolt out of the La Salle squad.

Petron’s frontcourt looked legit.

Marano and Manabat seemed like the middles of the future for Petron.

But the team still needs one more spiker who can provide the scoring spunk from the wings.

Rachel Anne Daquis was the target.

Known for her charming smile and powerful spikes, Daquis was part of Generika-Army, which decided to sit out the 2014 Grand Prix to focus on the V-League. Since the Lady Troopers were not returning to the PSL any time soon, Petron management thought that Daquis would be a prized catch.

It was her former college coach in Pascua and fellow FEU alum Shaq Delos Santos who made the initial pitch before team manager Errol Collantes was formally given the go-signal to negotiate.

I visited her in their training at the Army gym to lay down our offer.

At first she declined. But after explaining everything thoroughly, she finally accepted the offer.

But there’s a catch: We have to keep it a secret. Rachel is a prized talent and once they know that she’s available, I know everybody will scramble to recruit her. So I kept it under wraps until the team manager’s meeting where we have to formally present our respective lineups.

At the team manager meeting, Collantes was asked: Who are your new players?

He said they have recruited Rachel Anne.

Somebody from the back fired: Rachel Anne who?

Collantes said with a truckload of sarcasm: Rachel Anne Go!

Everybody burst into laughter. Rachel Anne Go is a popular Filipina singer who has no hairline of athleticism in her body, so it’s really impossible for Petron to tap her.

Then, Collantes turned serious.

Yes, we already acquired Rachel Anne Daquis.

Everybody was quiet.

They knew Petron means business.

The “dream team” was finally complete.

On a rampage

Petron sliced through the All-Filipino Conference like a hot knife to a butter.

The Blaze Spikers kicked off the conference with a straight-set win over Philips Gold, which just drafted Filipino-American playmaker Iris Tolenada as top overall pick.

Then, they went on to win five more victories, sparking talks that the league might witness the first team to sweep the conference. Reporters were starting to rib Pascua, saying that a clean 6-0 card effectively puts them at the doorsteps of history.

Pascua refused to agree.

It’s still a long way to go.

Other teams were also strong. It just so happened that we peaked a little early.

But that wasn’t the case as Petron crushed their next four foes in straight sets via wide margin to finish the eliminations with a 10-0 card, which is already considered as a major achievement.

The pressure of completely sweeping the tournament was slowly building up.

But I told the team to keep their emotions in check.

We don’t want to get too high in victories and too low in defeat. We just have to play hard and treat each game as if it is our last.

In the semifinals, the Blaze Spikers dominated the Lady Smashers to book a best-of-three finals series with Shopinas, which was parading the core of La Salle squad headed by Cha Cruz, Paneng Mercado, Kim Dy and veteran Michelle Laborte.

It was such an emotional series for Marano as she would be facing her former coach in Ramil de Jesus and friends from La Salle, who were still hunting their first PSL title.

A Petron source said the 11-0 streak would be worthless if they fail to bring home the ultimate prize: The 2015 PSL All-Filipino title.

We actually didn’t notice that we were already getting closer to history. But at that point, we don’t care about the streak anymore. We just wanted to win the (PSL) title.

True enough, there’s no stopping Petron.

The Blaze Spikers obviously looked like the better team in Game 1 as they pulled off a 25-18, 25-14, 25-19 victory. Few days later, Petron notched an equally impressive 25-17, 25-22, 28-30, 25-17 win in Game 2 to formally complete what was billed as a storied, sweetest conquest ever in PSL history.

Marano and Most Valuable Player (MVP) Daquis were crying as they were receiving their gold medal.

It was tears of joy, tears of redemption.

They finally achieved their target.

They finally completed a feat that looked impossible at the start.

They were now champions.

Little did they know that the ecstasy of victory would die down shortly.

Vietnam war

But all good things must eventually come to an end.

Speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, a prominent team insider said they couldn’t exactly remember when and where it happened; but an incident in Vietnam serves as a good jump off point.

Shortly after winning the All-Filipino title via the historic 13-0 sweep, the Blaze Spikers were invited by the Asian Volleyball Confederation (AVC) to represent the Philippines in the import-flavored AVC Asian Women’s Club Championship in Phu Ly, Vietnam.

Save for Alexa Micek and Ivy Perez, who decided to join Foton for the upcoming Grand Prix, the entire team was up and ready. Manabat was in good shape while Marano, Daquis, Morada, Cayetano, Reyes and Aganon all vowed to treat the tournament as their litmus test for the Grand Prix.

Petron tapped Adachi for a second tour of duty.

She recommended her childhood pal, a 6-foot-2 open spiker by the name of Rupia Inck to be the second import.

Inck, who played with Adachi in the Brazilian national juniors squad, may look like in great playing condition, but on the court, she’s not. Her leap lacked explosion and her spikes were not packed with power.

Upon arriving in Phu Ly, Vietnam, she admitted that she’s in the middle of a no-meat diet that’s why she’s pretty slow in transition and a little bit sluggish on the defensive end. She was avoiding meat to the extent of removing even the smallest piece of pork or chicken on her plate.

Her admission didn’t sit well with the locals.

Not only they were used to having the do-it-all Bergsma as opener, but they were expecting too much from Inck, thinking that her experience in the highly-competitive Brazilian league could help them defend their Grand Prix crown.

Privately, even the coaches were worried.

A member of the coaching staff said that they were planning to devise a specialized training and high-protein nutrition program right after the Vietnam tourney just to whip Inck into fighting condition for the Grand Prix, which was starting in a month’s time.

The source said Collantes and fellow team executive, Khino Calderon, arrived in Vietnam a little bit late and they were surprised with the news that greeted them.

They were complaining about Rupia’s sluggish condition.

Well, we can’t blame them: Petron’s previous import was very good and Rupia had a big shoes to fill. But management told the team to give her a chance. She may not be as good as Alaina, but the management can sense that she’s also trying hard and giving her best. All we have to do is to be patient.

And besides, changing import at that point is a little bit impossible – and very expensive. So the management told the team to deal with it and adjust to Rupia’s game while she’s still trying to find her rhythm. Volleyball is a team game. Everybody has to do their part to become successful.

If the team management was kinder to Inck, some locals were frowning.

Another source within the team said some locals were kidding her, saying: Bye, Rupia. See you soon during a light workout. It may be an innocent joke coming from playful young ladies, but they did not realize that the chemistry of the champion team was slowly slowly eroding.

Some players were siding with Inck at one corner while those who wanted her out were at the other corner. The team was divided. And no matter how much they deny it, some team members were no longer seeing eye-to-eye.

Pascua admitted that building chemistry was his greatest struggle right from the start.

Having a star-studded team also has its own drawback.

The challenge for the coaches was how to make them work, how to develop their chemistry. Most of them were star players from their respective collegiate teams so we have to find a way how to balance everything. It was really a challenge.

The Blaze Spikers finished eighth in the Vietnam tourney.

The following day, some players asked permission if they could fly back to Manila to attend to some important matters, leaving bulk of the team behind.

The unity of the greatest PSL team ever assembled was reduced into a mere fiber of imagination.

Petron’s future as a team was in limbo.

The breakup

Despite the flickering team unity and cooperation, the Blaze Spikers still managed to advance to the finals of the 2015 Grand Prix.

Inck struggled in the first few games, but finally caught fire down the stretch to tow Petron to the finals against a rampaging Foton squad.

The Tornadoes, bannered by veteran opposite Lindsay Stalzer and open hitter Katie Messing with Manabat’s sister Jaja Santiago at the middle, was too much to handle. They won Game 1 before claiming the crown in Game 3.

Petron was dethroned in the Grand Prix.

But losing the crown was only half of the story.

The source said there was a major announcement right after the game.

After that, Dindin announced that she was pregnant.

It was a bitter-sweet feeling for the team. Bitter because we know that we will miss her for at least a year and sweet because a baby is such a beautiful blessing. But life must go on. We have to remain strong.

Manabat wasn’t the only expectant mother in the team.

Cayetano also sat out after finding out that she’s pregnant with her second baby. Then, Army decided to make a return to the PSL and Daquis, who was officially “borrowed” by Petron, had to move back to her mother ballclub.

Few weeks later, Marano decided to bolt out to serve as the anchor of fledgling F2 Logistics in the PSL Invitational Cup. The following conference, de Jesus and La Salle stars like Mika Reyes, Ara Galang, Dawn Macandili and Kim Fajardo landed to power the Cargo Movers to the 2016 PSL All-Filipino crown.

With everybody departing, Petron found itself with only one star on its fold: Manabat.

But she decided to leave as well.

After giving birth last month, she told us that she would join Jaja at Foton. I think it marks a new era for us. The glory days are over. We now have to work again to regain it.

The source said the management is working hard to give the current core of Aiza Maizo-Pontillas, Bernadeth Pons, Remy Palma, CJ Rosario, Bang Pineda, Reyes, Molina, Masangkay and Morada the reinforcement they need. No name had been mentioned, but the source hinted that the management is eyeing one of the biggest players in the market.

Aside from that, they are also looking to sign former Oregon star Serena Warner and explosive wing spiker Stephanie Niemer of Cincinnati. They have yet to formally sign a contract, but things are already looking good and hopes are high that the upcoming Grand Prix would turn out to be best.

Yes, the glory days of Petron are finally over. A new era is set to arrive.

They may lose the stars, lose some games and eventually lose the entire system they had during their memorable championship runs.

But one thing is sure; the record they made would forever be tattooed in the history of the PSL, into the minds and hearts of thousands of volleyball fans.

They were the first team to sweep an entire season.

They are the barometer of excellence, of success, of greatness.

And they blazed the trail for other teams to follow.