RC Cola-Army v F2 Logistics: A courtship of rivals

The landscape of sports is overflowing with rivalries that add color and a dash of competitive spirit into the game.

Professional boxing has the great rivalry between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier while tennis has Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer; basketball has Magic Johnson and Larry Bird; football has Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo; and athletics has sprint kings Usain Bolt and Tyson Gay.

In the Philippines, Far Eastern University and University of Santo Tomas are considered as the greatest rivals in the UAAP men’s volleyball as they won 17 of the 23 titles since the Final Four format was implemented in 1994.

On the same note, their respective counterparts in the women’s division also dominated the previous decade before La Salle and Ateneo took over around five or six years ago and ignited a massive volleyball revolution that turned Alyssa Valdez, Aby Marano, Michelle Gumabao, Kim Fajardo and Denise Lazaro from typical student-athletes into overnight media sensations.

Their rivalry in the collegiate ranks had grown into a colossal, multi-million peso industry to the extent of filling the cavernous Mall of Asia Arena and Smart Araneta Coliseum up to the rafters with blue and green-cladded supporters.

Surprisingly, no similar rivalry was established in the club ranks.

But last weekend, with thousands of volleyball fans craving for topnotch volleyball action, the young and aggressive F2 Logistics and the seasoned RC Cola-Army put their respective unblemished records on the line to determine who will own the top spot at the end of the first round of the 2016 Philippine Superliga (PSL) All-Filipino Conference women’s volleyball tournament.

The Cargo Movers have all the weapons in their vast armory while the Lady Troopers have their wealth of local and international experiences as well as their rich winning tradition to bank on.

It was a perfect maelstrom of a battle: One side is super hungry while the other side wants to regain the shiny golden crown it lost when it took a leave of absence. Both of them are ready to go for the kill, ready to gain that mental note that will fright the hell out of each other the moment they clash again in the finals.

The television coveror dubbed it as a “match made in heaven” while fans threw their all-out support as 8,000 warm bodies trooped to the venue on Saturday night while around 6,000 of them returned the following day to witness the country’s best players go at each other for nothing but pride and glory.

Its ratings reportedly dominated even that of the Filipinos’ favorite past time – the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) — on Saturday and it became the hottest trending topic in social media.

Yes, the F2 Logistics-RC Cola-Army encounter shot the lights out.

On a stormy weekend, a great rivalry was born.

Live and die with Tina

Army is arguably the greatest club team ever assembled.

In fact, when the PSL was established three years ago, the Lady Troopers immediately marked it as its own territory, winning the league’s first three titles in dominant fashion. They were supposed to win the next three titles, but they took a leave of absence, allowing other teams like Petron and Foton to gain momentum.

A league insider said Army doesn’t really do anything spectacular. Its power, the source said, came from the long time they’ve spent together working hard, sharpening their knife inside a sweltering gym in Fort Bonifacio.

Their ringleader, an evergreen playmaker named Christina Salak.

Generika was bannered by the Lady Troopers when it won the PSL All-Filipino Cup crown in 2014 (Photo courtesy of Arnold Cruz)

Salak, who is still packing strong punches at 38, is a grizzled warrior who witnessed the rise and fall of Philippine volleyball. She was part of the training team when the country won its last gold medal in the Southeast Asian Games in 1993 in Singapore and played a pivotal role when it settled for the silver medal in the 1995 SEA Games in Kuala Lumpur.

Her last international stint was 11 years ago when the Nationals took home the bronze in the 23rd biennial meet in Bacolod City together with fellow Lady Troopers Michelle Carolino and Mary Jean Balse-Pabayo.

Ramil de Jesus, ironically, handled the team and brought with him his trusted defenders from La Salle like middle blocker Maureen Penetrante and libero Shermaine Penano.

Tina Salak (#7) was part of the National Team that won the bronze medal in the 2005 Manila Southeast Asian Games

The source said with her vast experience, Salak is obviously the glue that keeps Army together.

[quote]Army will go wherever Tina goes.

Kungfu (Reyes) and Rico (de Guzman) may be the coaches, but Tina has the most powerful voice in the locker room. She has the respect of the young players and is never afraid to call them out whenever things are going wrong. They say that if you want to win Tina’s trust, you have to dedicate yourself to winning the same way she does.[/quote]

Around Salak is an array of seasoned stars like middle blocker Joanne Bunag, Nene Bautista, Genie Sabas, Carolino and Balse-Pabayo, who filed a leave of absence to give birth.

Star spikers Jovelyn Gonzaga and Rachel Anne Daquis may not be on the same generation as the veterans, but they are overflowing with international experience as well.

Gonzaga, in fact, campaigned in the beach volleyball competition of the 2011 SEA Games in Palembang before skippering the National Team in the 2015 SEA Games in Singapore while Daquis is a veteran of a couple of AVC Asian Women’s Club Championships, SEA Games and some international invitational tournaments.

This year, both of them will campaign in the Asian club tourney anew and will lead the PSL All-Star team in the FIVB Women’s Club World Championship this October.

Like Gonzaga and Daquis, open spiker Honey Royse Tubino is also considered as a young player beaming with a lot of experience after leading University of Perpetual Help to numerous title runs in the NCAA and dominating the PSL for Cignal. She also almost made it to the SEA Games, but the new national federation disbanded their team in a tumultuous turn of events last year.

With that, the youngest members of the team are Jessey de Leon of UST and Christine Agno of FEU. They, however, are just considered as supporting crew as bulk of the responsibility still remains on the shoulders of Salak, Gonzaga, Tubino and Daquis and, to some extent, Bunag and Carolino.

So yes, RC Cola-Army is truly a veteran team.

Miracle team

On the contrary, F2 Logistics is a team on the rise.

When Army took a leave of absence, de Jesus’ team temporarily took over and dominated the league.

Unfortunately, luck was not on its side.

Bannered by the core of La Salle stars Cha Cruz, Melissa Gohing, Marano and Gumabao with Russian import Natalia Korobkova and Miyo Shinohara at the helm, Generika surrendered to rampaging Petron with super imports Alaina Bergsma-Coble of United States and Erica Adachi of Brazil.

The following conference, the wards of de Jesus, known as Shopinas, fell short again as Petron – with Marano, Manabat and Daquis forming the holy trinity of strength and power – took the league by storm to complete a historic 13-0 sweep of the PSL All-Filipino Conference.

The La Salle core would slow down the following conference as de Jesus brought in a team of jittery and wide-eyed club league rookies to play for Meralco. The group of Fajardo, Mika Reyes, Majoy Baron, Cyd Demecillo, Kim Dy and Dawn Macandili fell way below expectations as they obviously failed to work on their chemistry with their two imports, Christina Alessi of United States and Liis Kullerkann of Estonia.

But during the off-season, a small miracle happened.

La Salle dominated the UAAP and crushed its bitter rival, Ateneo de Manila, in an epic three-game showdown that brought the crown back to Taft Avenue. It was a performance so powerful that the once-proud Lady Eagles were reduced into a bloody pulp, like a boxer dragging his body into his corner to ask his mentor to throw in the white towel of surrender.

Few months later, the Lady Spikers marched back to the PSL as F2 Logistics.

They re-acquired Marano and made Ara Galang as top overall pick while retaining the services of Cruz and Paneng Mercado.

F2 Logistics welcomes Ara Galang with open arms (Roman Prospero)

Suddenly, the perennial bridesmaid looks deadly, sharper than ever.

The hungry prey turned into a predator.

The Cargo Movers are ready to give other teams – including the mighty Lady Troopers – a good run for their penny.

‘So young, yet so powerful’

True enough, F2 Logistics and RC Cola-Army demolished their respective foes like a pair of hot knives to a butter as no team can easily match their power in their first six games.

The Cargo Movers, in fact, surrendered only two sets in their first six matches; one to Cignal in the opener and the other one to Petron, while the Lady Trooper surrendered only one set to Foton, a strong testament of their dominance in a league that features the best and brightest volleyball players in the country.

But still, the job is not yet done.

They have to square off in an epic match to settle the score, to determine who really is the best team in the first round.

Both of them have won their six games.

Both of them are hungry.

Both of them have the weapons.

The only question is who wants it more?

The stage is set between the best team of the present against the best team of the future.

RC Cola-Army has the biggest names of this era ranging from Daquis, Gonzaga, Tubino and Salak while F2 Logistics has the stars of the future in Galang, Reyes, Baron and Fajardo. It’s an evenly matched contest with thousands of fans braving weekend traffic just to witness history unfold right before their very eyes.

They didn’t go home disappointed.

The Cargo Movers took the first two sets, forcing Reyes to light a fire under his team. He deployed Salak in the third set, who quickly turned things around. Suddenly, the Lady Troopers are back in harness. Daquis and Gonzaga came out firing again while their blocking and floor defense sprung back to life.

Gonzaga

The Cargo Movers, however, took advantage of the Lady Troopers’ weary legs in the fifth set to wrap up the marathon match that needed more than two hours to be decided, 25-22, 25-14, 21-25, 26-28, 15-11.

Reyes shook his head, saying that they simply had no answer to the quickness of the young guns.

[quote]They were so quick and very disciplined on defense.

These players will be a force to be reckoned with in the future. They are so young, yet so powerful. I expect them to dominate in the years to come.[/quote]

A rematch was set the following day based on the official FIVB rule that pits the top two teams in the first match of the second round. Unfortunately, RC Cola-Army simply ran out of gas as the Cargo Movers went on for a quick, merciless kill, 25-16, 25-12, 25-15.

De Jesus, however, said that the twin victories are nothing but a mere piece of empty paper. It doesn’t mean a thing.

[quote]We haven’t won anything yet. The job is not yet done. Army is a veteran team; it is capable of mounting a comeback. The real battle is not in the eliminations; the real battle is in the semifinals and the finals.[/quote]

De Jesus is right: Their victory over Army doesn’t mean a thing.

But still, with the way they played, with the way their rivalry shaped up and blew out in the open on that stormy weekend, it appears that the passing of the torch is being set up from one great team to another – from RC Cola-Army to F2 Logistics.

Passing the torch

If there’s a team capable of knocking the crown off RC Cola-Army’s head, it’s going to be F2 Logistics.

In their first encounter, in fact, the Cargo Movers were in full control as their smothering blocking and impeccable floor defense left the Lady Troopers’ army of attackers groping for form. Then, in their second match, the fresher, stronger legs of the Cargo Movers took over while the Lady Troopers simply faded into oblivion.

F2 Logistics Cargo Mover

A seasoned volleyball observer said it appears that RC Cola-Army found its match.

[quote]Remember that what makes Army a great team is because of its chemistry.

But with the emergence of F2 Logistics – a team which has been playing together for the past four or five years – it appears that the mystery that is RC Cola-Army was finally solved. They are younger, more aggressive with a great chemistry that can match that of the Lady Troopers.[/quote]

Another source said F2 Logistics and RC Cola-Army are mirror image of each other.

Both teams, the source said, plays exactly like each other with Fajardo playing like Salak, Baron, Marano and Reyes defending the net like Bunag, Bautista and Sabas while Galang, Cruz and Dy attack like Tubino, Daquis and Gonzaga.

And what makes this rivalry even more interesting is the great friendship between de Leon and Reyes; Daquis and Marano; Fajardo and Salak.

Even their coaches, Reyes and de Jesus, share mutual admiration and respect for each other as their respective mentors, Kid Santos of FEU for de Jesus and Emil Lontoc of UST for Reyes, are two of the most brilliant coaches in the business.

De Jesus

[quote]The only difference is that F2 Logistics is younger while RC Cola-Army has a lot of experience.

But if you look at them very closely, if you line them up together, they share a lot of similarities. It just depends on who will wake up on the right side of the bed, to who wants it more.[/quote]

The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, added that with Salak retiring this year, maybe the torch of being the queen of volleyball will be formally passed on to Fajardo and the hungry Cargo Movers.

[quote]It’s like the 1991 NBA Finals between Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers.

The Bulls had a young and hungry Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant while the Lakers were led by Magic Johnson, Sam Perkins and James Worthy. The Bulls won that series and went on to erect one of the greatest dynasties in professional basketball.

I think the same thing will happen in this rivalry between F2 (Logistics) and (RC Cola) Army.[/quote]

But PSL president Ramon “Tats” Suzara, an old hand in international volleyball for being an executive council member of the Asian Volleyball Confederation and International Volleyball Federation, said although RC Cola-Army ran out of gas in their first two encounters, it doesn’t mean that wining the crown will be walk in the park for F2 Logistics.

He pointed out that the real RC Cola-Army has yet to show up.

[quote]Have you seen them (Lady Troopers) against Est Cola of Thailand during the Invitational Conference last April? That’s the real RC Cola-Army.

RC Cola-Army is a veteran team. It’s very dangerous whenever its back is against the wall. What we saw is not yet its full power. It’s still anybody’s ballgame.[/quote]

Suzara was right; it’s still anybody’s ballgame.

The epic duel on a stormy weekend was nothing but a mere exhibition match, a battle where two prizefighters tried to gain a preview of their titanic clash by ducking, hugging and dancing their way to the final bell. No big punches were thrown; only jabs, straights, some little hooks and a lot of ducking, hugging and dancing.

So when these two teams meet again – probably in the finals – expect the real war to be waged.

But whoever will win, be it F2 Logistics or RC Cola-Army, only one thing is sure: This great rivalry that shaped up on a stormy weekend puts Philippine volleyball back on the right track.

And Filipino volleyball fans will end up as biggest winners — the last men standing.