MANILA, Philippines – The two Visayan teams that played their hearts out in the Shakey’s V-League Season 9 may have already booked their tickets back home, but they did so with their heads held high.
CESAFI champs Southwestern U became the first casualty as they dropped all of the four elimination games that they had. The Cebu-based Lady Cobras managed to win only one set in their four encounters against UAAP runner-up Ateneo, NU, FEU and NCAA champs Perpetual.
Despite the bleak statistic, SWU coach Jordan Paca said his team fought hard in every game.
“What I told my players to do is to have a good performance in this tourney,” Paca said in Filipino. “I told them to just play heard and not mind the body pain. What is important is that when we go back to Cebu, we can say that we all played with what we have.”
The Lady Cobras’ coach said they got invaluable exposure that only the V-League can give them. That was what they wanted in the first place. Despite lording it over the local competition for a number of years now, SWU was overmatched in the country’s most prestigious semi-professional volleyball league, where some teams even reinforced their squad with Thai imports.
This was the problem faced by fellow Visayan team University of St. La Salle, which made it to the quarterfinals. The Lady Stingers succumbed to the Lady Altas in a five-set heartbreaker, which was backed by Thai reinforcement Pornpimol Kunbang, crushing their hopes for another crack at the Final Four.
“They had more confidence because they have a Thai in their team,” said USLS coach Roger Banzuela. “Compared to us, they were more composed in the fifth set because of her presence.”
But the defeat wasn’t an all-bitter experience for Banzuela.
“I am satisfied with how my team played here in the V-League. I’m happy to hear that our opponents are had a hard time facing us, despite us not having any foreign talents in our team.”
The mentor of the Bacolod-based Lady Stingers said he “was offered a Thai player, but I declined because if I field a Thai, a local’s playing time would suffer.”
Banzuela added that tapping a Thai to reinforce their team is at the bottom of his priorities.
“I wanted the girls to have as much exposure as they can have,” Banzuela said. “If I were to choose, I won’t really tap Thai players. They are our rivals in the Southeast Asia. If we keep on doing this, they would be able to see how we play even before we face them in the regional competitions.”
Interestingly, in the V-League, a team reinforced by a Thai import only won the title twice: in 2006 where Jindarat Kanchana helped the La Salle Lady Spikers cop the Season 3 championship and last year when Phee Nok Kesinee helped the Ateneo Lady Eagles win their first V-League title in the first conference of Season 8.
UST, winner of six V-League tourneys, never used a Thai import in its past outings. This year, the Tigresses hired the 6-foot-2 Utaiwan Kaensing.
The Lady Stingers’ third place-finish in the first conference of Season 8 came with the entry of reinforcement Jayde Hair, an American hitter, in their line-up.
Despite lacking a foreigner in their core, Banzuela said that the move to not tap a Thai player doesn’t really mean that they are sacrificing the team’s competitiveness.
“It’s not that. We just had bad luck this season,” he said. “[Jovelyn] Gonzaga suffered a sprain but is playing through the pain, and majority of the players aren’t really a 100 percent.”
Banzuela said that the team dominated the squads in Bacolod, where they had little competition. That is why V-League stints are important for the school.
“Sometimes, we practice against the men’s team just to get to that competitive atmosphere, but the strength and power of the males often overwhelm the girls, so we mix them up just to have that caliber of contest.”
He said that the games against regional rivals like SWU Lady Cobras give them that challenge. And he likes to meet those challenges with his core of locals.
“As long as there are the potential players coming from the provinces, we’ll try to give them the exposure that they can get in our team,” he said. “We’ll continue on improving our players.”
“The level of competitiveness here in the V-League is superb, and that is what we want for our players. To mature and try to fight against the superior teams here in Manila,” Banzuela said. “The fans appreciate how we play despite the disadvantages. We already have fans here. It’s a proof on the work the girls have exerted in this league.”
For the Lady Cobras and the Lady Stingers, another V-League campaign ends. But they are enthusiastically looking forward to another invitation from the Shakey’s tournament.
When that time comes, Thai or no Thai, these southern teams are looking for a better finish, because as USLS assistant coach Carl Barredo said, “for us, there is no way to go but up.”