The first half of the 2016 Philippine Superliga (PSL) Grand Prix preliminaries is in the books and all six competing teams already have a good idea on their strengths and what they need to work on.
Foton, for instance, remains undefeated in five games, but would have to deal with the absence of its prized middle blocker in Jaja Santiago while trying to be patient with the progress of her sister, Dindin Manabat, who continues to work her way back in condition after giving birth couple of months ago.
Petron, on the other hand, continues to ride high on Stephanie Niemer, but needs its local players to step up just in case opposing teams discover the right formula on how to shut down the hard-hitting American import.
Both the Cargo Movers and Lady Troopers are struggling with inconsistencies on both ends, making them very unpredictable to their respective coaches.
Cignal, for its part, has yet to translate its strength on paper into victories. Its lone victory came at the expense of a young Generika squad and it nearly blew it if not for some lucky breaks in the fifth set.
Generika is the lone team without a victory. But it displayed traces of brilliance in its past two games, prompting sideliners to believe that the victory would come sooner than expected.
But the preliminaries are just half of the story.
It is just a mere appetizer.
The real battle begins in the playoffs.
And coaches Moro Branislav of Foton and Ramil de Jesus of F2 Logistics know that.
Under the official tournament format, the top two teams will automatically advance to the semifinals while the bottom four would go through the knockout playoffs with the third seed clashing with the sixth seed and the fourth seed facing the fifth seed.
The survivors of the playoffs will then take the top two teams with the winners advancing to the finals. The losers, however, would be relegated to the battle for 3rd to 6th places, a format similar to that of the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) Grand Prix.
Branislav said at this point, Foton and Petron are playing splendid volleyball.
The Tornadoes remain undefeated in five games while the Tri-Activ Spikers won five of its first six games. Their lone loss came at the expense of the Tornadoes via a five-set thriller where Niemer erupted for conference-high 38 points laced with 13 digs and 11 excellent receptions.
The Serbian guru said although Petron and Foton have handsome chances of making it straight to the semifinals, they still couldn’t be complacent.
Everything starts at zero in the playoffs. You may be on top now, but if you will not be careful in the playoffs, you still have a chance to blow it off. In my opinion, Foton and Petron would make it to the semis. But what happens next is really up to them.
This early, Foton is bracing for the all-out war in the playoffs by giving enough exposure to Manabat. Although Santiago would miss the next couple of games, Branislav said he expects her to be back in harness for the playoffs.
Sources said it would be an entirely different Foton team in the next round.
Santiago would play opposite while imports Lindsay Stalzer and Ariel Usher would serve as open spikers and Maika Ortiz and a fully-recovered Manabat will man the middle, forming what could be the league’s strongest and scariest starting unit.
Last year, Philips Gold bannered by Bojana Todorovic and Alexis Olgard with Michelle Gumabao, Melissa Gohing, Myla Pablo and Lindsay Dowd took the Grand Prix by storm.
The Lady Slammers finished the eliminations on top with an 8-2 win-loss card and speculations were pregnant that their high level of play would lead to their first PSL crown.
But it didn’t happen.
Powered by Stalzer and Katie Messing, Foton took the first two sets before capturing a thrilling five-set conquest to reduce Philips Gold into a huge mass of tears.
That semifinal setback was so painful that Todorovic openly admitted that they were no longer at their best in their consolation battle with Cignal. Although they prevailed in four sets, the pain and the agony of losing were simply too much to bear.
Foton went on to win the crown and represented the country in the AVC Asian Women’s Club Championship two months ago in Binan, Laguna.
That scenario is what de Jesus doesn’t want to happen.
The Cargo Movers are outside the top two with a 3-3 win-loss card. De Jesus said even if they fall down to no. 6, it doesn’t matter because the real battle is the playoffs and the semifinals.
Everybody has a chance – even those in the bottom. The goal here is to win in the playoffs and make it to the semis. It’s something we can’t afford to lose.
Branislav and de Jesus are right: The playoffs are the real battle.
It’s the stage where the women would be separated from the girls.
There, anything can happen.