The Magnificent 7 of 2016

Saturday, 24 Dec 2016
Julius Manicad - Chief Correspondent - @JCManicad

The year 2016 will go down as the most memorable year in the Philippine Superliga (PSL).

After a rollercoaster ride the year before, the league reached greater heights in terms of attendance, innovations, volleyball technology and international presence.

It made its presence felt in the Thai-Denmark League as it sent the PSL All-Star team while Foton campaigned in the Sealect Tuna Women’s Volleyball Championship in Sisaket, Thailand as a warm up for the AVC Asian Women’s Club Championship.

But nothing would be bigger than the FIVB Women’s Club World Championship, which the PSL organized with the sanction of the country’s national federation for volleyball, the Larong Volleyball sa Pilipinas, Inc.

Featuring seven foreign reinforcements in Stephanie Niemer and Lindsay Stalzer of the United States, Yuri Fukuda of Japan, Yevgeniya Nyukhalova of Ukraine, Ekaterina Krivets of Russia, Tichaya Boonlert of Thailand and Lynda Morales of Puerto Rico, the league paraded its crème a la crème in terms of skills, potential, leadership, power and, of course, beauty.

Mika Reyes and Kim Fajardo of F2 Logistics, Jen Reyes and Ces Molina of Petron, Jovelyn Gonzaga and Rachel Anne Daquis of RC Cola-Army and Jaja Santiago of Foton all suited up for PSL-F2 Logistics Manila to battle the toughest club teams in the world.

Although they finished without a single win, except for a victory in the third set against reigning champion Eczacibasi VitrA Istanbul, the seven brave Filipina players – collectively known as the “Magnificent 7 – came up with a gallant stand against Tijana Boskovic, Zhu Ting, Pleumjit Thinkaow, Thaisa Menezes and other best players in the world.

But with the marvelous year of 2016 slowly fading away, we can’t help but ask: Who are the seven PSL stars who shone the brightest in the year 2016

Volleyverse asked coaches, officials, players, reporters and even fans to list down the Magnificent 7 of 2016 based on their respective positions. The answers were pretty revealing:

Setter – Kim Fajardo

Picking Kim Fajardo as the best setter of 2016 is absolutely a no-brainer.

The savvy playmaker from Calatagan, Batangas was riding the crest of her title-clinching performance with De La Salle University in the University Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP) when she steered F2 Logistics to the PSL All-Filipino title that prompted her to gain a slot in the squad that saw action in the FIVB Women’s Club World Championship.

With the Magnificent 7, Fajardo worked closely with legendary setter Tina Salak and Japanese mentor Shun Takahashi, giving her valuable tips on how to run the team, especially when the game is on the line.

Few months later, Fajardo played like a woman possessed in the PSL Grand Prix as she brilliantly connected with import Hayley Spelman despite their very limited preparation.

Fajardo steered the Cargo Movers to the semifinals before falling prey to Stephanie Niemer and the hungry Petron squad in five heart-stopping sets of the semifinals in Albay.

F2 Logistics flew to Manila with a broken heart, but it doesn’t really matter: Its young leader in Fajardo had already stamped her mark as the league’s most elite setter.

Open Hitter – Rachel Anne Daquis

Eyebrows were raised when Rachel Anne Daquis made it to the Magnificent 7.

Critics claimed that she’s already past her prime and that she gained the slot because she owns the most beautiful face in the Philippine volleyball.

Those accusations hit Daquis like a runaway train, sending her to tears the moment her selection was announced.

Despite those criticisms, Daquis refused to quit. Instead, she brushed off the pain caused by a broken foot to train hard and sharpen her knife for the grueling challenges of the FIVB Women’s Club World Championship.

The result was highly impressive as Daquis emerged as the most consistent – and fiercest – player in the PSL-F2 Logistics Manila side, celebrating each point with a scream and accepting each turnover with a smile.

Her leadership for RC Cola-Army in the PSL spilled all over in the world stage, prompting international coaches to notice her, branding her as the dynamo that kept the engine of the home team running.

Yes, she may not have the power, the skills, or the height of other world-class players, but Daquis definitely has the heart, making her one of the best players of the previous year.

Open Hitter – Ara Galang

Another feel-good story of 2016 belongs to Ara Galang.

After getting slowed down by a knee injury a couple of years ago, Galang tried her very best to make a return all for the love of the game.

She was at the crossroad at the start of the PSL All-Filipino Conference as RC Cola-Army was in a perfect position to draft her. Although she likes to play for the Lady Troopers, she pronounced that she would rather sit out and focus on her studies as joining a team other than F2 Logistics might further aggravate her injury.

She kept her faith. And it paid off a handsome dividend.

Hours before the PSL Annual Draft, the Cargo Movers reached an agreement with the Lady Troopers, leading to Galang landing on the arms of Ramil de Jesus and her former La Salle teammates on draft day. She rewarded de Jesus with an impressive performance, especially in the Grand Prix when the presence of imports Hayley Spelman and Sydney Kemper took the defensive attention away from her.

Although she failed to lead the Cargo Movers to the Grand Prix crown, her improvement – and healthy knee – shows that she’s headed for another breakout year.

Middle blocker – Aby Marano

Picking Aby Marano to be part of the fabled team that shone brightly in the year 2016 is a walk in the park.

After playing a key role in Petron’s historic 13-0 sweep of the 2015 All-Filipino Conference, Marano returned home to her former La Salle teammates to power F2 Logistics in the PSL All-Filipino Conference crown.

Then, she suited up for Foton in the AVC Asian Women’s Club Championship before reuniting with the Cargo Movers anew for the PSL Grand Prix.

Marano was in her old, deadly self from start to finish of the year 2016 as she served as the prototype model of how middle blockers should play: fearless, quick and defense-minded.

At the end of the year, she accomplished a grand slam of sort as she emerged as 1st Best Middle Blocker in three consecutive conferences, a solid testament of her brilliance and dominance all year long.

Middle blocker – Mika Reyes

The year 2016 definitely belongs to Mika Reyes.

After powering De La Salle University to a masterful conquest of bitter rival Ateneo de Manila University in the UAAP best-of-three finals duel, Reyes wasted no time in making her presence felt for F2 Logistics.

Together with Ara Galang, Kim Fajardo, Aby Marano, Cha Cruz and Most Valuable Player Dawn Macandili, the Cargo Movers dominated Foton to win the PSL All-Filipino Conference.

Her impressive performance all tournament long, not to mention her great workout in the one-day tryout, was enough for PSL coaches to tap her as one of the seven local players who will suit up in the FIVB Women’s Club World Championship last October.

There, Reyes’ brilliance shone even brighter as she shared the same court with the best volleyball players in the world, a feat that other local stars could only achieve in their wildest fantasy.

She rejoined the Cargo Movers after that magical experience and connived with Marano in forming what could be the league’s most solid defensive fortress to compliment that impressive all-around performance of imports Sydney Kemper and Hayley Spelman.

She failed to win an individual award but with her strong performance this year, multiple sources claimed that at least three teams are seriously interested in tapping her for next year. Aside from that, a lot of projects are also coming her way, making her the hottest volleyball player on and off the court for the year 2016.

Opposite spiker – Jaja Santiago

This could be the most controversial selection as Jovelyn Gonzaga also had a fantastic year after winning the crown in the PSL Invitational Conference and PSL Beach Volleyball Challenge Cup while seeing action in the AVC Asian Women’s Club Championship and FIVB Women’s Club World Championship – two blockbuster events that the country hosted this year.

But how can you ignore a talent like Jaja Santiago?

A 6-foot-5 gem of a player, Santiago made the bold move of shifting from the middle to the opposite to maximize her quickness, length, power and athleticism.

The decision turned out to be stroke of a genius as Santiago transformed from a promising player into the country’s greatest asset.

In fact, during the world tourney, Santiago caught the attention of a lot of foreign coaches, including Giovanni Guidetti of VakifBank Istanbul and Bernardo Rezende of Rexona Sesc Rio.

She capped the year with a title for Foton where she emerged as the Most Valuable Player over teammates Lindsay Stalzer and Ariel Usher as well as super import Stephanie Niemer of Petron.

That’s how impressive she was in 2016. This is her year. Now, how can you ignore that?

Libero – Dawn Macandili

The PSL is overflowing with great liberos.

Jen Reyes of Petron had a banner year when she suited up for Foton in the AVC Asian Women’s Club Championship and the FIVB Women’s Club World Championship.

Bia General was also impressive as her defensive intensity propelled Foton to the finals of the PSL All-Filipino as well as the title of the PSL Grand Prix. But there’s one defense specialist who emerged as best among the best.

Dawn Macandili.

A product of Rami de Jesus’ libero factory, Macandili was the defensive backbone of the great La Salle squad in the UAAP before bringing her brilliance to the PSL. She dominated the PSL All-Filipino Conference with her defense, mopping the floor with her chest in hot pursuit of loose balls without failing to flash a sweet smile.

Although she slowed down a bit in the first half of the PSL Grand Prix to focus on her studies, it hardly mattered as she regained her deadly form down the stretch, enough to tow the Cargo Movers to the semis.

Yes, they lost to Petron, but Macandili shut down the year with an important achievement of being the first ever libero to win a Most Valuable Player award.

And with that, she will always stand the tallest.

Also deserving of a mention: