The bright lights of the cavernous Mall of Asia Arena are on and the most important match of the year – Game 3 of the Chooks to Go-Philippine Superliga (PSL) Grand Prix best-of-three finals series between F2 Logistics and Petron – is underway.
The battle has all the traces of becoming a classic.
The Blaze Spikers drew the first blood as they tallied an emphatic straight-set victory in Game 1.
But in Game 2, the tables have turned.
The vaunted blocking and offensive execution of the Blaze Spikers suddenly bogged down in the fourth set, allowing the Cargo Movers to chew a 9-0 lead and drag the match into a fifth and deciding set.
From there, the Cargo Movers went for the kill.
The series is now tied at 1-1 and nobody – yes, nobody – had ever managed to crawl back from a 0-1 deficit since the league implemented a best-of-three finals showdown in 2015.
Both F2 Logistics and Petron were chasing a spot in league record books. The Cargo Movers want to officially become the first team to do the trick while the Blaze Spikers want to avoid becoming the first team to fell prey to a massive comeback.
The stakes are truly high.
It’s a game they can’t afford to lose.
That’s why tension was running high in the pre-game protocol. Veterans Aiza Maizo-Pontillas and Rhea Dimaculangan of Petron had their game faces on while collegiate stars Kim Dy, Dawn Macandili and Majoy Baron of F2 Logistics are ready to hammer the biggest comeback in PSL history.
But in a quiet corner away from the glamour of the traditional player callout, from the ocean of blue and yellow fans, from the electric atmosphere of the massive arena, there was a bleeding heart.
A heart that was bruised, battered, and crushed by the departure of a loved one.
That broken heart belongs to Venezuelan import Maria Jose Perez.
Perez’s oldest brother, Daniel, lost his battle to cancer on Friday – a day before the penultimate match of the year.
But the mood in practice on Friday night was pretty normal.
F2 Logistics team manager Hollie Reyes, who was in attendance in the Cargo Movers’ final practice of the season, said everybody was in high spirit and ready to chase the historic crown.
She, however, noticed one thing.
“Maria was in constant communication with her family back home.”
“She was always on the phone and looked a little worried. But since everybody was focused in practice, we hardly noticed what she’s going through. She was very good at hiding her emotions.”
Reyes, who used to play for F2 Logistics head coach Ramil de Jesus at De La Salle University in college, added that the entire team was completely clueless on her dilemma.
In fact, she – the team manager – only learned about the heart-breaking news minutes before the start of the match.
“Nobody knew it. If there are players who knew it before Game 3, it might probably Shawna-Lei (Santos) and Kennedy (Bryan) since they are very close to Maria. But as far as I know, she kept it as top secret.”
“She doesn’t want to rub the negative vibe to the team. She was a true professional and she knows that she has a mission to accomplish. She tried her best to be strong even if she’s hurting inside.”
De Jesus confirmed the veracity of Reyes’ narrative, saying that only himself and team captain Cha Cruz knew what she’s going through.
“She doesn’t want the team to know. Nobody knew it but Cha and myself.”
“You really can’t see any emotion on her. She didn’t say it; she doesn’t want others to know. I really don’t know how she carries herself because you can’t even see her cry or sad or getting affected during practice or game.”
After bagging the crown, the Cargo Movers had a simple dinner around the Mall of Asia Arena before going their separate ways. Some players, however, went to party to celebrate their new title as PSL Grand Prix champions.
“Again, she was sad but she didn’t let it affect the entire team. At the same time, nobody attempted to raise that topic, or inquire further details, so she won’t be affected as well.”
Perez admitted that she tried her best to play though the emotional pain.
She said she has a big responsibility to the Cargo Movers and she will do her best to finish her mission – with or without any pain.
“I don’t think about my loss. I know I have a big responsibility to my team so I tried to be strong and smile because we had this opportunity to win this game.”
“So I don’t have to be sad. I just tried my best to bring happiness to my teammates and give my best to the team.”
True enough, Perez was brilliant in the kill-or-be killed battle.
She engineered a furious assault in the first two sets before going for the kill in the fourth. At that point the once mighty Blaze Spikers appeared crushed and helpless as Perez and Cruz sparked a strong endgame rally.
She finished the match with 24 kills en route to a 25-20, 25-19, 20-25, 25-18 victory to overcome a 0-1 series deficit and win the title.
And what made the feat super sweet was the crown she was given after a two months of hard work.
“I’m not really expecting this MVP (Most Valuable Player) title.”
“I really didn’t think about it. I just did my best to help my team win and that’s it.”
Perez will be with Bryan as they fly out of Manila on Thursday next week.
They will be headed for the United States before she takes a connecting flight to Venezuela to be with her family.
And yes, that would be the only time for her to grieve.
The Cargo Movers’ title drive and conquest of history were not just ignited by sweat and a lot of hard work.
It was also fueled by all the tears that Perez tried to hold back.