Ladies in the middle

Friday, 16 Sep 2016
Julius Manicad - Chief Correspondent - @JCManicad

We value fans’ opinions and respect their admiration of particular players. That’s why we came up with section where they would get to cast their vote and see if they are on the same boat with other fans. The aim here is not to compare, but to appreciate their greatness and wish those on top to keep up the good work and those who trail to work even harder and do better.

Ladies in the middle

Perhaps one of the most important roles in volleyball is the middle blocker position. More than delivering quick hits and running attacks, middle blockers serve as the first line of defense, using their height and length to thwart the attempts of opposing attackers.

Philippine volleyball is teeming with excellent middles.

Roxanne Pimentel of University of Santo Tomas used to rule this position in the ‘90s before Maureen Penetrante of La Salle dominated the following decade. Few years later, another Tigress by the name of Mary Jean Balse emerged and powered Philippine Army to a score of glorious finishes, not only in the Philippine Superliga, but in other leagues as well.

This year, we saw a handful of impressive middle blockers ranging from fan-favorites like Mika Reyes and Aby Marano of F2 Logistics to underrated like Joanne Bunag of RC Cola-Army and Lourdes Clemente of Amy’s Kitchen.

Volleyball fans across the country debated long & hard about the PSL’s top stars and we have collated the results – here are the country’s top 5 middle blockers:

Honorable mentions: Ria Meneses (Generika Lifesavers), Joanne Bunag (RC Cola-Army Troopers) & Maika Ortiz (Foton Tornadoes).

5. Jeanette Panaga (Cignal HD Spikers)

If there would be a Ben Wallace Award in the PSL, our vote would surely go to Panaga.

Similar to the former leader of the Detroit Pistons, Panaga can dominate the game even without scoring a single point, prompting her to become one of the most feared and respected blockers in the NCAA. In fact, nobody raised a howl when she emerged with the Best Blocker award shortly after leading College of Saint Benilde to an NCAA women’s volleyball crown.

She may not be as tall as, say a Lourdes Clemente or Jaja Santiago, but she gets the job done through her high volleyball IQ and ability to read the tendencies and motivation of the opposing setter.

Sources say Panaga started to improve when she got mentored by one of the best blockers in history of Philippine volleyball – Michelle Laborte – when they became teammates at Cignal.

Insiders say Laborte taught her the ropes and turned her from an average player few conferences ago into a defensive monster that almost made it to the Magnificent 7.

4. Dindin Manabat (Foton Tornadoes)

Whenever discussion shifts to middle blocker position, there’s no way for us to avoid or omit the name of Dindin Manabat, who played for Petron in the 2015 PSL Grand Prix before getting pregnant with her first baby.

At 6-foot-3, Manabat is obviously the future of Philippine volleyball.

She burst into the scene as the top overall pick in the PSL’s first-ever rookie draft and immediately buckled down to work as she exploded for 37 points in her debut — the highest offensive production ever recorded by a local player in the league.

But her brilliance didn’t end there.

She teamed up with American beauty Alaina Bergsma and led the Tri-Activ Spikers to the title of the 2014 PSL Grand Prix. Few months later, Aby Marano and Rachel Anne Daquis arrived, joining Santiago in formig a three-headed monster that spearheaded Petron to a clean sweep of the 2015 PSL All Filipino Conference.

Although Manabat and the Tri Activ Spikers fell short in the 2015 Grand Prix, it doesn’t matter as she remained the heart and soul of Petron’s defense even after she announced a temporary absence to give birth.

In the next conference that opens on Oct. 8, Manabat would be making her return for Foton, joining her sister Jaja and another superb middle blocker in Maika Ortiz in helping the Tornadoes defend their Grand Prix crown.

3. Mika Reyes (F2 Logistics Cargo Movers)

If you want to see the future, just look at Mika Reyes’ eyes.

Yes, Reyes is the country’s middle blocker of the future.

Her attacks may not yet be as powerful as that of Aby Marano or Dindin Manabat, but she has that passion, that hunger to perfect her craft.

In fact, during the one-day tryout for the members of Magnificent 7, Reyes silenced her critics with such a powerful, memorable performance, enough for PSL coaches to award her a precious slot in the team that will see action in the FIVB Women’s Club World Championship from Oct. 18 to 23 at the Mall of Asia Arena.

A veteran coach said giving Reyes the slot over the likes of Lourdes Clemente, Jeanette Panaga or Maika Ortiz was a no-brainer because they know that Reyes has that ambition to be the best. And once she starts training with Japanese trainer Shun Takahashi, the door of opportunities would surely swing wide open for her to enter.

Just recently, Reyes bravely stood her ground against Jaja Santiago, Maika Ortiz and other Foton attackers, helping F2 Logistics in clinching the title of the PSL All-Filipino Conference.

It’s true that Reyes has yet to win a Most Valuable Player award.

It’s also true that she has yet to be the Best Blocker in the UAAP.

But it’s very understandable because she’s playing under head coach Ramil de Jesus in a system where team effort always prevails over personal glory.

And with La Salle emerging with a shiny golden crown on its head, maybe – just maybe – Reyes did something right at the middle blocker position to be able to be part of the country’s most dominant collegiate team.

2. Aby Marano (F2 Logistics Cargo Movers)

There’s a special reason why Aby Marano always makes it to international tournaments.

A combination of brute strength, athleticism and winning attitude, Marano is the epitome of a true Filipina warrior. She may not be as tall as a Dindin Manabat or a Jaja Santiago, but she compensates with her fierce fighting spirit and winning attitude.

Her beast mode don’t care mantra had made it into the lexicon of Philippine volleyball, creating an image that she’s not just a volleyball player, but a cold-blooded warrior with a predator mentality. And that’s one of the traits coaches love about her, prompting them to draft her into the team that saw action in the Southeast Asian Games, Thai-Denmark Super League and AVC Asian Women’s Club Championship both in Vietnam and the Philippines.

She never backs down from any battle.

Her running attacks are the best in the business and her blocking is always spot on.

But more than anything else, she’s an ultimate team player who never fails to communicate on and off the floor, resulting to strong defense and fluid executions.

1. Jaja Santiago (Foton Tornadoes)

While sideliners believe that 2016 is Mika Reyes’ year after winning a UAAP and PSL title, punching a ticket to the FIVB Women’s Club World Championship and emerging as PSL’s new ambassador, we think it’s also pretty safe to declare that this year was also very kind to Jaja Santiago.

At 6-foot-5, Santiago is billed as the future of Philippine volleyball.

She’s simply the queen.

And why not, shortly after displaying her talent in a high-level competition in the AVC Asian Women’s Club Championship recently, foreign coaches were lining up to express their admiration on her. One Japanese coach even went a step further, saying that he would definitely recruit Santiago if she continues her skyrocketing development.

Remember that Santiago shone not just in the UAAP; not just in the V-League; not just in the PSL, but in the AVC AWCC – obviously the most prestigious inter-club tournament in the continent where elite players from China, Japan, Kazakhstan and Thailand are plying their trades.

Next month, she’ll get another chance to display her talent when she campaigns for PSL Manila in the FIVB Women’s Club World Championship against the best players from Brazil, Italy, Japan, Thailand, United States, Switzerland and Turkey. At least three to four foreign scouts, in fact, would be coming over to observe her performance and how she handles pressure against the best players in the world.

She has that deadly combination of ceiling, length, skills and athleticism never before seen in any local player.

Foton coach Fabio Menta, a veteran international instructor, said Santiago would continue to blossom into a star, probably the best player the Philippine would ever produce if she gets good international exposure under the guidance of the world’s best foreign coaches.

It’s just a matter of time. Indeed, the future looks bright!