PSL-F2 Logistics Manila was trailing by a wide margin, but the crowd was still on its feet as if bracing for a rally that would push this mighty Pomi Casalmaggiore into the brink of a massive collapse in the FIVB Women’s Club World Championship late Thursday at the Mall of Asia Arena.
So much was at stake in this match. A setback would destroy its chances for the next round while a victory would not only keep it alive – it would also register them into the pages of sports history as the only Manila-based women’s volleyball club that pulled the rug from under a world-class squad.
But posting a victory is such an arduous task.
Just last year, Pomi Casalmaggiore dominated VakifBank Istanbul to run away with the European title while legend Francesca Piccinini copped the Most Valuable Player crown. It also drafted Rio Olympics bronze medalist Carli Lloyd of the United States and silver medalist Jovana Stevanovic of Serbia as well as Italian sensation Lucia Bosetti.
On the other hand, the seven local players in the PSL-F2 Logistics Manila were reduced into mere observers into this tournament among the world’s best women’s volleyball clubs.
The most decorated players on the roster – Jovelyn Gonzaga, Frances Molina, Jen Reyes and Rachel Anne Daquis – had already seen action in the Asian competition, but failed to tow the Philippines to at least a semifinal finish.
Mika Reyes, Kim Fajardo and Jaja Santiago’s international resume, meanwhile, remains thin, proving that this rag-tag squad is here not to win, but to gain a first-hand experience on how it feels competing against the giants of the world.
Suddenly, one of PSL-F2 Logistics’ seven imports Stephanie Niemer found herself chasing an off-speed attack into the backline.
Niemer caught it and passed it to Thai playmaker Tichaya Boonlert, who saw Santiago at the middle ready to go for the kill.
Without wasting a fraction of a second, Santiago soared to hit a perfectly timed quick set play for a booming smash – straight into the face of Italian libero Imma Siressi, who was caught unaware by the power, by the speed, by the intensity of that furious attack.
Upon feeling the impact of the leather, Siressi fell down like an Italian sentry guard that got hit by a cannonball.
Her teammates and a couple of assistant coaches rushed to attend to her, checking if her face was damaged or if her jaw was misaligned. It took Siressi a good 30 seconds before she stood up and raised a thumbs-up sign to signify that she’s okay.
Santiago, the 6-foot-5 star widely regarded as the future of Philippine volleyball, turned her back to celebrate with her teammates. Then, she made an eye contact with her victim as if extending her apology for being at the receiving end of that forceful and humiliating execution.
The play was repeated over and over again on the big screen. Her coaches and teammates were seen celebration.A flag-waving fan was dancing in jubilation to the beat of the music.
The entire arena was rocking. It was arguably the most beautiful play in the history of Philippine volleyball.
It was a facial spike that shocked the world.
The world is watching
The impact of Santiago’s facial didn’t just give PSL-F2 Logistics Manila an added point on the scoreboard – it also allowed her to barge into the radar of international scouts and coaches.
According to a prominent team insider, a score of foreign coaches were suddenly inquiring about Santiago, asking about her background, her game, her tendencies and even her attitude off the court.
In fact, a team of international scouts is reportedly in town, checking out how Santiago would fare against tall, athletic blockers from Brazil, United States and Turkey. Although none of them has to step forward to confirm the claim, multiple sources said Santiago is indeed on top of their watch list.
Santiago failed to rally her team to victory, but she finished the night with 10 kills and an ace for 11 points, the only Filipina to come up with a double-digit scoring in a world tourney. The video of that spike, however, went viral with thousands of volleyball fans from Thailand, Turkey, Brazil and Poland marveling over this gem of a talent who remains available for top-flight international clubs to sign up.
The insider explained that with the footage of that forceful spike spreading all over the world, they wouldn’t be surprised if there would be offers for Santiago to train with international teams.
[quote]We have to understand that we’re playing in the Club World Championship – a tournament that is being seen and monitored by coaches, scouts and fans around the world.
Jaja did that emphatic kill not in a domestic league, but in a world championship in which volleyball fans from around the world are watching. So now, we’re pretty sure that they will closely monitor Jaja in her next few games.[/quote]
The source compared it to Gabe Norwood dunking on Luis Scola of Argentina during the FIBA World Championships in Spain in 2013.
[quote]Remember the scene where Norwood dunked over Scola? That’s exactly the impact of Jaja’s spike since Siressi is one of the world’s best liberos and a member of the Italian national women’s team. That spike makes her larger than life in the eyes of foreign coaches.[/quote]
True enough, the 20-year old Santiago quickly won the attention of the foreigners.
A couple of Turkish journalists were heard talking about her, even tagging her as the future of world volleyball together with 19-year old Serbian sensation Tijana Boskovic of Eczacibasi VitrA Istanbul.
Another journalist from Switzerland said Santiago is definitely a rising star.
“She’s tall, athletic and very good.”
Rexona-Sesc Rio coach, the well-respected Bernardo Rezende, however, went on record to openly admit her admiration for Santiago, saying that a good training program and international exposure will turn her into a global volleyball star.
[quote]Your tall girl? Wow, she’s interesting. She has to play more on this level. Otherwise, it’s tough if you play only once a year. You don’t get international experience if we will see you here only once a year.[/quote]
Santiago said she’s very overwhelmed with all the attention brought by that emphatic kill. Although it didn’t mean to hurt or disrespect her opponent, she said she’s glad to know that she can penetrate the defense of taller, stronger blockers.
[quote]If ever we get the first ball and started my connection with the setter, I gain the confidence that gives me the courage to make a strong attack. I am overwhelmed by the idea that I can penetrate the tall blockers. I’m happy because I’m helping my teammates.[/quote]
But developing that quick-set attack isn’t a stroke of luck.
Santiago trained under the watchful eyes of Moro Branislav of Serbia and Shun Takahashi of Japan to sharpen that weapon of defensive destruction.
During PSL-F2 Logistics Manila training, in fact, Takahashi always allot extra time to whip Santiago into deadly condition, improving her technique, timing, accuracy and even her defensive positioning.
— Julius Manicad (@tribunephl_JCM) September 27, 2016
[quote]After our first game, we trained that play to develop my connection with our setters. I’m happy because it finally worked against Pomi (Casalmaggiore).[/quote]
True enough, Santiago is slowly transforming into a household name in the international circuit, into a player who will serve as torchbearer of Philippine volleyball. And it all started with a powerful spike from the middle.