It was expected to be a light workout — a sleepy match – between global powerhouse South Korea and the Philippines at the start of the second round of the 19th AVC Asian Senior Women’s Championship Sunday at the Alonte Sports Arena in Binan City.
The Koreans were coming in as heavy favorites.
They rank no. 10 in the latest FIVB world ranking and had been to 14 Olympic, 18 World Grand Prix and 12 World Championship events. They have a gold medal hanging on their necks after ruling the Asian Games in Incheon in 2014 following a silver-medal finish in Guangzhou in 2010.
Simply put, they belong to the volleyball royalty of Asia.
They sit next to Brazil, Serbia, United States, Japan and reigning Olympic champion China in the ultra-exclusive club of world superpowers.
But against the Philippines, a nation that has yet to formally reclaim the regional title in won some 24 years ago, the Koreans were reduced into mere mortals.
With the Koreans taking care of the set point, 24-19, in the first set, local stars Jovelyn Gonzaga and Aby Marano racked up four straight points to slice the deficit into a solitary marker, 23-24, and move a heartbeat away from pulling off a shocking first set win that would surely shake Asian volleyball to its very foundation.
Finally, the Koreans came up with a solution: They called on their best player in London Olympics Most Valuable Player and one of the highest paid volleyball players in the world in Kim Yeon-koung to finish the job.
For some, the Koreans’ decision was just a simple tactical move.
But for thousands of Filipino volleyball fans, it signifies the rebirth and improvement of the Philippine national team.
If facing the Koreans is surreal, giving them a tough time is a huge achievement for the Filipinos, who had only 17 days of serious training in preparation for this prestigious tournament.
Jovelyn Gonzaga, one of the seven Filipino players who campaigned with the PSL Manila squad in the FIVB Women’s Club World Championship last year, admitted that there were butterflies on their stomach prior the match against South Korea.
She said they thought the visitors would take them lightly, knowing how strong, how competitive these Koreans are.
But she was proven wrong.
“We thought that she (Kim) won’t be fielded in the game.”
“But when they put her in the first set, we were all mesmerized. I, personally, was so honored that all I was asking for was to touch the ball whenever she attacks. That’s why I was so happy when I blocked her. It was such a huge honor. I was so happy.”
Kim went on to unload a booming kill that sealed the first set victory for the Koreans.
It was the only game that she performed to the fullest after sitting out against New Zealand and Sri Lanka. Sure, she was fielded against Vietnam, but her minutes were very limited, prompting her to finish with only five points.
Still, head coach Francis Vicente lauded his wards for the job well done despite the 23-25, 18-25, 12-25 setback that pushed them to a crucial battle against the Vietnamese on Monday.
He said their performance reflects their improvement and willingness to win against an elite team like South Korea.
Vicente was on the staff of head coach Sammy Acaylar when the Koreans murdered the Philippines, 25-8, 25-7, 25-8, in the previous staging of this tourney in Tianjin, China.
“You saw that the Philippines could win.”
“We just need constant training, not just for few days, but for a longer period of time so we can get into their level. We need a continuous program to become successful.”
Kim admitted that she was stunned with the way the home team performed.
She said she didn’t expect the local squad to play with heart and passion with the home crowd egging it on, cheering for every single attack, every single block and defensive stuff it made.
“I think the gym, the crowd, was really really good. Our team was pressured because of the people. After the first and second sets, we had our rhythm. It was better so we won today.”
“I think the Philippines is so much better right now.”
“I saw them like two to three years ago and they didn’t play like that. I mean, they improved a lot, especially since they are still young. They will surely keep on improving and get to where they want to be.”
Kim went on to wreak havoc in the second and third set before hitting the shower just when the Koreans were enjoying a sizeable advantage.
She finished the night with nine kills and three aces for 12 points while Yang Hyojin top scored the Koreans with 13 markers.
Meanwhile, Jaja Santiago emerged as leading scorer for the Nationals with 10 kills while Alyssa Valdez and Jovelyn Gonzaga finished with seven markers.
But at this point, statistics no longer matter.
The most important thing is that the Filipinos gave an elite team like the Koreans one hell of a fight and they will keep on improving if they will stay together and gain experience.
Yes, winning isn’t an overnight process, but at least the Filipinos are slowly gaining the respect of world superpowers.