Who can stop RC Cola-Army?

Saturday, 11 Jun 2016
Julius Manicad - Chief Correspondent - @JCManicad
Jovelyn Gonzaga and the RC Cola-Army are extra motivated to win the PSL All-Filipino crown (Photo courtesy of Joaqui Flores)

From coffee shops to over-hot gyms and online forums, there’s a burning question that often sparks heated debate: Who has the power to overthrow RC Cola-Army in the Philippine Superliga (PSL)?

RC Cola-Army is arguably the most successful franchise in local volleyball.

Parading a rock-solid core of seasoned uniformed personnel, the Lady Troopers took the league by storm when they won three straight titles. Then, they took a leave of absence for three conferences only to return stronger, better than before.

This year, they survived great odds by clinching the PSL Invitational Conference crown over the visiting Est Cola side – a rag-tag squad composed of Thailand’s junior national women’s team – in a thrilling four-set duel.

Few weeks later, RC Cola-Army’s star opposite hitter Jovelyn Gonzaga and Nerissa Bautista brought home the PSL Challenge Cup beach volleyball crown over the tandem of Cherry Rondina and Patty Orendain of Foton.

VICTORIOUS Jovelyn Gonzaga and Nerissa Bautista carried RC Cola-Army to a triumphant finish in the PSL Challenge Cup beach volleyball tournament (Photo courtesy of Pranz Kaeno)

RC Cola-Army could simply do no wrong.

It’s a team chiseled out of gold.

It’s a team carved out of pride and prestige.

It’s a team gleaming with excellence.

And just like in the old western movie, these Lady Troopers will march into the PSL All Filipino Conference with a large bounty on their heads, prompting other teams to scramble just to take them down and raise the trophy like a badge of honor.

The open season is on.

The hunter in RC Cola-Army will now be hunted.

The contenders

At least four teams have the capacity to pull the rug from under RC Cola-Army.

A quick survey among coaches bared that F2 Logistics, Cignal, Petron and Foton are all capable of knocking the crown off the heads of the Lady Troopers while Standard Insurance-Navy, Generika and Amy’s Kitchen-Perpetual still need some more time to blossom into elite contenders.

F2 Logistics got a major boost when it recruited the entire core of De La Salle University while keeping the services of skipper Cha Cruz, Aby Marano, Stephanie Mercado and former beach volley queen Danika Gendrauli.

The Cargo Movers also pulled off a brilliant move when they acquired the top overall pick in the PSL Annual Rookie Draft from the Lady Troopers.

And that pick turned out to be Ara Galang – a gem of a wing spiker who helped Mika Reyes, Kim Fajardo Majoy Baron, Kim Dy and the rest of the Lady Spikers in dominating mighty Ateneo de Manila in the recent UAAP wars.

SUPER TROIKA Will the trio of Ara Galang, Kim Fajardo and Mika Reyes steer F2 Logistics to the PSL All-Filipino title? (photo courtesy of Manila Bulletin)
“F2 Logistics is equipped with all the tools needed to make a championship run. It may be young, but it already has a lot of experience following that UAAP (finals) series against Ateneo.”

Cignal and Petron, on the other hand, are also billed as legitimate contenders.

The HD Spikers will parade the Big Three of newly-crowned NCAA champion College of Saint Benilde in Djanel Cheng, Janine Navarro and Jeanette Panaga together with grizzled veterans Michelle Laborte, Cherry Mae Vivas and Jheck Dionela.

Of course, Carmela Tunay and April Ross Hingpit will be returning while young blockers Mary Grace Berte and Ranya Musa are out to make a good impression.

Same goes with Petron.

After winning a pair of titles, the Tri-Activ Spikers saw the departure of Rachel Anne Daquis to RC Cola-Army and Marano to F2 Logistics while Dindin Manabat and Fille Cayetano sat out due to pregnancy, forcing them to rebuild with whatever materials they have.

Still, Petron did not go down without putting up a fight.

The Tri-Activ Spikers made a recruiting coup when they signed a proven veteran in Aiza Maizo-Pontillas for firepower and tapped Bang Pineda to compliment the superb floor defense being provided by Jen Reyes.

NEW LEADER Petron made a recruiting coup when it acquired veteran Aiza Maizo-Pontillas (Photo courtesy of Joaqui Flores)

They also drafted former NCAA Best Attacker CJ Rosario as second overall pick and secured the services of Far Eastern University stars Remy Palma and Bernadeth Pons to complete a solid roster that still has Mina Aganon, Maica Morada, Ces Molina and the Cherry Mae Nunag.

“Of course, Petron and we, Cignal, will still be there.”

“We have tall blockers in Berte, Panaga, Vivas and Musa and solid floor defense after acquiring Len Cortel to join Jheck Dionela. I think our team is already complete. As for Petron, they are still strong and talented with the acquisition of Aiza, Bang, CJ and, of course, Palma and Pons from FEU.”

“This is going to be a very balanced field. Anybody is capable of beating anybody.”

Foton, however, is the heaviest among all heavyweights.

After plucking its first title, Foton further beefed up its roster by acquiring veterans Maika Otiz and Rhea Dimaculangan for the PSL Invitational Conference.

READY FOR A REPEAT Foton has all the tools to pull off another title run (Photo courtesy of Roman Prospero)

But they were not yet done.

The Toplander added UST stars EJ Laure and Rondina as well as La Salle spiker Carol Cerveza before drafting Arellano wing hitters Danna Henson and Shirley Salamagos to assemble the league’s most balanced roster that already has Jaja Santiago and Angeli Araneta in the middle and Bia General and Orendain in the backline.

And what made this Foton team even more dangerous is its training regimen.

“They’re training non-stop because they’re preparing for the (AVC) Asian Women’s Club Championship.”

“Aside from their balanced lineup, all of them are in peak condition. So if there’s a team capable of winning over RC Cola-Army, I think it’s going to be Foton. That team is built to win a championship.”

Motivated

But RC Cola-Army coach Kungfu Reyes played down their chances.

In fact, when told that everybody is itching to take them down, Reyes unleashed a hearty laugh, saying: We are the underdogs.

“To tell you honestly, we’re way behind in terms of preparation.”

“We were so busy with the election season and we just started training only last May 15. Compared to F2 Logistics, Petron and Foton, who have been training rigidly, we are still far from our perfect form.”

Reyes cited the names of his key players: Daquis, Gonzaga, Bautista, Royse Tubino, Michelle Carolino.

Then, he mentioned a very familiar name that struck him like a lightning.

His tone suddenly got serious; his voice starting to crack.

Tina Salak.

“Tina will be retiring after this year.”

“She is our leader. She is our motivator. Giving her a graceful exit is on top of our list of priorities this conference.”

HEART AND SOUL Tina Salak’s leadership on the floor will be greatly missed (Photo courtesy of Arnold Cruz)

Yes, for all the discussions in coffee shops, oven-hot gyms and online forums, the Lady Troopers still remain as the team to beat.

Not because they are strong.

Not because they are battle-scarred.

It’s because they are motivated.

And they wanted to win it not just for themselves — but also for their leader.