SAs the 2016 Philippine Superliga (PSL) Grand Prix reaches its climax, all eyes would be focused on the biggest, fiercest battle of the preliminaries – the rematch between reigning champion Foton and Petron on Thursday at the FilOil Flying V Center in San Juan.
The battle has all the ingredients to become a classic.
In fact, after star middle blocker Dindin Manabat opted to leave Petron for Foton in the heat of the Tornadoes’ preparation for the AVC Asian Women’s Club Championship, the Tri-Activ Spikers responded by signing Foton’s prolific trainer in Ian Fernandez to join the coaching staff of Shaq Delos Santos and Edjett Mabbayad.
Aside from that, Foton has a new coach in Moro Branislav of Serbia while Delos Santos was appointed as head coach replacing George Pascua, the architect of the Tri-Activ Spikers’ historic 13-0 sweep of the All-Filipino Grand Prix.
They also both have the country’s best imports in Lindsay Stalzer and Stephanie Niemer, who both powered PSL-F2 Logistics Manila to an impressive run in the FIVB Women’s Club World Championship last month.
More than anything else, Petron won the Grand Prix crown in 2014 with Alaina Bergsma and Erica Adachi as reinforcements. But Foton stormed back the following year, dominating Petron in a best-of-three title series to win the crown with Stalzer and Katie Messing as imports.
That’s why it didn’t come as a surprise why these two teams emerged on top of the team standings.
Petron is ahead with an 8-1 card while Foton is not far behind with 6-1 entering the crucial stretch of the double-round classification phase.
Although both of them are already safely in the semifinals, copping the top seed in the first round would be an entirely different story. A lot of things could still happen, especially on Thursday when these two titans clash not just for pride and glory, but also for the chance to emerge supremo in the Final Four.
Not the real Petron
Fireworks erupted the first time Foton and Petron faced each other.
With a sea of blue serving as backdrop, Stephanie Niemer turned the battle into her personal canvass to paint a masterpiece of a performance. She was simply impressive, firing from all angles while dropping countless bombs from the service box that threw the Tornadoes out of their comfort zone.
She finished the night with 38 points – the best offensive output this season that nearly matched the 40-point eruption of a blonde bomber named Kristy Jaeckel a couple of years ago.
But there’s one important achievement Niemer and the Tri-Activ Spikers failed to accomplish.
It’s a reality that still haunts them up to this very day.
They went home empty-handed.
Banking on the all-around brilliance of Stalzer and Usher, the Tornadoes were the better team that night as the support crew of Jaja Santiago, Maika Ortiz and Rhea Dimaculangan played their respective roles to the fullest.
Santiago finished with 19 points while Ortiz delivered 10 markers for the Tornadoes, who also banked on the superb playmaking of Dimaculangan. The former UST star clobbered her counterpart, April Ross Hingpit, on the assist department with 20 excellent sets compared to Hingpit’s 11.
The match ended with Foton posting a razor-thin victory after the two-hour encounter: 25-18, 23-25, 25-14, 19-25, 15-13.
Two weeks later, Niemer still insists that it wasn’t the real Petron which played that night.
Delos Santos backed his prized import, saying that their cold feet on the league’s biggest stage set them up for a massive collapse down the crucial stretch of their match against Foton.
He said they need to be tougher and more consistent if they want to avenge that painful setback.
The former FEU star is right: In their match against Foton, it was a one-woman show as only Niemer delivered twin-digit in scoring. Their other import, Serena Warner, was not in her usual elements while the attacking prowess of seasoned opposite Aiza Maizo-Pontillas and opener Frances Molina completely went ppfftt.
Even the defense of Cherry Nunag and CJ Rosario were non-existent as Stalzer attacked her way to 29 points.
He added that they have zero chances of beating an elite team like Foton if the locals would piggyback on Niemer from start to finish.
Yes, the rematch between Petron and Foton has all the right ingredients to become a classic. It’s going to be a dogfight, a mano y mano.
And the first to blink would surely fall.