After breakthrough V.Cup title, Santiago believes Saitama can do more
MANILA, Philippines—Saitama’s breakthrough title win in the Japanese V.Cup elevated the team to champion status after eight years of being contenders, and Jaja Santiago wants more.
The Ageo Medics went on a tear in the V.Cup sweeping the eliminations 5-0 before capturing the title against the NEC Red Rockets, and that triumph made the team believe that they can do more.
“Our championship in the V.Cup is a big help to the team and it was really a big experience for us,” said Santiago in Filipino in a Zoom conversation Thursday. “It was the stepping stone towards the next season.”
“We now know the feeling of being a champion. We also know what we have to do to become a champion.”
The Ageo Medics’ triumph also seemed like a vindication for the team after they missed out on the semifinals of the V.League after the organization changed its championship format for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the V.League’s matches were canceled, leading to Saitama missing out on the Final 4 with just half-a-game behind no.4 seed Denso Airybees that had a 12-7 record to the Ageo Medics’ 12-8.
The Ageo Medics also ended the V.League on a seven-match winning streak, including a victory over the Airybees, making their exclusion from the Final 4 sting a little harder.
Nevertheless, Saitama found retribution in the V.Cup and even defeated V.League bronze medalist NEC.
Santiago said that they did not take their triumph in the V.Cup—where Japanese national team players are not included in line ups— lightly, making the championship a testament to the team’s rebuilding success.
Before the 2020-21 season started, setter Misaki Inoue, middle blocker Ayaka Matsumoto, and opposite hitter Katarina Barun-Šušnjar left the team.
To replace Inoue and Matsumoto, the Ageo Medics brought in Mami Uchiseto, Hazuki Nakamoto, Hiromi Tagawa, and Canada’s Shainah Joseph.
Head coach Antônio Marcos Lerbach was also new.
“This was a roller coaster season for us because a lot of players moved on so we went back to rebuilding, even the coaching staff was new,” said Santiago, who has been with the Ageo Medics for four years.
“Our import was also new, our coach wasn’t with us in my first and second V.League. Shainah was also new and she wasn’t that well-prepared [because of the pandemic].”
Santiago herself had to join the team late at the start of the season as she spent some time in quarantine after arriving from the Philippines.
“We lost a setter, I spent so much time in quarantine, there was no league for six months, and we had a hard time connecting on the court because after that long rest, we had to train and there were a lot of problems,” said Santiago.
“Eventually we got it going in the second half of the tournament, we got the new system, and we connected with the setter. We didn’t make it to the semifinals of the V.League but we told ourselves that even though the V.Cup is smaller in scale, we can’t afford to lose motivation and we cannot not be champions there.”
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