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philippine volleyball

With the tryouts for the Philippine women’s volleyball team underway, I believe it’s the perfect time to look at how our national squad is keeping up. Is it competitive enough for the international arena? Are we ready to upset powerhouse teams like Brazil, Russia, and China (and even closer to home, Thailand)? Here are my thoughts on the women’s volleyball team of the country, and my opinion on who should be part of the elite team of women to compete with the likes of Zhu Ting, Sheilla Castro, and Foluke Akinradewo.

World Rankings: Where Are We?

The Philippine Volleyball Federation which serves as the national governing body of the sport has long been plagued by mismanagement and corruption. And yet, surprisingly, volleyball has thrived in such disadvantageous circumstances thanks no less to the increased media coverage of the sport, virtuous former volleyball players and fans who brought change to the local volleyball scene, and the rise of popular collegiate athletes. New tournaments are cropping left and right, gaining further traction through the acquisition of imports that has helped heighten the level of play in the country. Still, we languish in the world rankings, even slipping to 101 after the most recent FIVB adjustments back in August, because we join so few, if not none whatsoever, of the regional and international tournaments that help determine our position in the global volleyball arena.

While it’s nice to see corporate support of the team, government initiatives are so far and few in between, and the constant change in the line-up, most of which rarely field in a complete team composed of our strongest athletes, continue to shoot us in our own foot. It’s very exciting to see that the current try-outs are attracting some of the best athletes in the land, but politics – and the immaturity of some groups – will hinder Coach Ramil De Jesus’ aim of lining-up the best of what we’ve got. I hope, for the sake of national pride, we raise the stakes of Philippine volleyball rather than focus on collegiate rivalry or glory.

With increasingly competitive semi-professional tournaments and collegiate games, we have a nice pool of talent. But who we pick, and how we utilize our strengths, will still boil down to a number of factors: financing, club and college team support, training, and improved technical coaching. Since I am not privy to the people working behind the scenes to help get our women’s volleyball team on track (kudos to the dedicated people working night and day despite the not-so-glamorous pay), here are my suggestions, at the very least, for the line-up.

Overview

Our genes betrayed the Gilas national basketball team. While we gave our mighty opponents a tremendous fight in the recent FIBA tournament, at the end of the day, height was still indeed, might. The same continues to apply in volleyball.

Nevertheless, we’ve seen in recent years an increase in the number of tall, talented, and athletic girls being recruited for collegiate wars. Their presence should be utilized, and grassroots training must be implemented to ensure these towers, even at the young age, are guided properly to achieve full potential. Of course, height should not be the only factor in choosing who will join our volleyball team line-up. But how can a 5’8” middle blocker go up against the towering six-footers like Thaisa or Foluke?

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For the success of the national team, the try-outs should set a minimum height requirement per volleyball position. While this might mean cutting off some really great players, the coaching staff may still opt for a player, despite of her height, on a case-to-case basis.

But Thailand and Japan has been successful despite their lack of height, and have even been a source of upset in many international games, when they fought taller opponents.

This is where a new game system should work. It is high time Philippine volleyball abandons the slow, Russian-like volleyball system considering we cannot afford to be predictable in our attacks against towering blockers. Heck, even Russia is speeding up its game. Knowing our weaknesses, we should look into developing a system of play that maximizes the physical attributes of our team. Thailand, Japan, and even recently, the USA, are banking on strong receiving and defensive patterns to implement lightning-fast offense. Japan, in particular, is even using a hybrid system. Up against formidable squads where the average height is perhaps at six feet, a quicker offense will make up for our lack of height to challenge the strong blockers of opposing teams. A slew of combination plays should also be mastered by putting premium on exceptional passing to allow our setters to orchestrate them successfully.

It’s a tall order and that’s why I believe whatever the results are for the RP tryouts, there should be a degree of consistency. Changing line-ups on a massive scale every year will hurt our national squad as it would need to develop chemistry inside the gym and on the game floor. A core team should be developed mixing in veterans and young players with fresh feet joining via succeeding tryouts.

Who’s Who

So who do I think deserves a spot in our national squad? My choices are based on the performance of athletes in recent tournaments, and of course, their overall experience and impact to the team’s level of play. Feel free to agree or disagree in the comments section below, and share your thoughts on who should represent our country as part of the Women’s National Volleyball Team. Note that not all I am mentioning below might be trying out for a spot in the first place

Setters:

Tina Salak. Photo by Mark Cristino

Tina Salak. Photo by Mark Cristino

For this key position, I don’t think we can afford any undersized (5’5” below) candidates. Tall, cerebral setters are required for this role and I think Tina Salak and Rhea Dimaculangan fill the bill perfectly. While Tina’s age will be against her, she has great leadership skills and court presence, not to mention a very offensive disposition to help guide a national squad. Rhea, on the other hand, is young and very capable. I think both can alternate setting chores quite fluidly, and I would really love seeing them set-up power hitters like Din Din Santiago and Alyssa Valdez. Rubie De Leon also comes to mind as a possible candidate, and like Salak, her years of experience will contribute wonders to the team. For youth, Kim Fajardo is a complete setter and who’s playing style actually reminds me a lot of the just-mentioned Rubie De Leon. Obviously she’s not as tall as the first three but I can see her achieving full potential setting up the likes of Balse, former teammate Valdez, and Din Din Santiago.

Open Spikers:

Alyssa Valdez is all open for a spike. Photo by Mark Cristino. Other photo belongs to respective owner.

Alyssa Valdez is all open for a spike. Photo by Mark Cristino. Other photo belongs to respective owner.

Whether or not Alyssa Valdez will attend a tryout, it would be a mistake not to consider her. She is certainly the best open spiker in the country today, and is fully equipped with a strong offensive arsenal, including in my opinion, the most consistent backrow attack in the land. At the international stage, we simply cannot afford to only have 2 options for offense when the setter is in the frontline, and plays coming from behind the 3 meter line, is necessary. Valdez can do just that.

Ara Galang is also incredibly talented, and is a more rounded player than Valdez is (great receiving, digging, attacking, blocking, and serving). My only cause of alarm is that from my observations, most DLSU players tend to be too comfortable with the DLSU system of play. Outside the La Salle system, they tend to play at a mediocre level. But this is also why I want Galang to be given the chance. She’s not as tall as Valdez but training with the best collegiate blocking team in the land gives her a unique peripheral vision as an attacker. I would really love to see her get some playing time and developing chemistry with Salak and/or Dimaculagan.

For a taller option, Rachelle Ann Daquis is the veteran that I’m most comfortable with. While her passing is not exactly world-class, she is very dependable on the offense. I would love her improve in reception and develop some backcourt offensive skills too – come on, she has the height! Another tall veteran would give a look is Nerissa Bautista. She’s not in her prime but in the recent V-League, we saw exceptional moments from her. I would love to see her back in the gym and regain her original form.

EJ Laure is certainly promising at the open and her youth will only mean she could accumulate international volleyball experience if she joins. But her inexperience could also be a problem. Joy Cases is someone I would consider too, if only for her angst and fighting spirit. Apart from the girls above, the only other players I can think of is Steph Mercado, but only if she returns to her best form; and, Carmina Aganon who is deceptively efficient.

Looking at it, my choices for the open spikers aren’t exactly tall but I think with intensive training, they will put up a good fight. My only concern is that these athletes aren’t exactly the best in passing, and as much as I want to include Judy Caballejo and Angeli Tabaquero to stabilize defense, I think the former might have trouble against really strong blockers, while the latter is still groping for form. And as much as I would love Venus Bernal to return, I think it will be difficult for her to divide attention between work and volleyball.

Middle Blockers

The tall and talented Santiago Sisters. Photo from here.

The tall and talented Santiago Sisters. Photo from here.

DinDin Santiago is essential to this squad. She’s tall and athletic, and can play multiple positions too – if we need a 6’1” open spiker she can always deliver. While her blocking has a lot of room for improvement, her offensive presence at the net will work wonders for any team. We all know what she is capable of and if she isn’t considered, there would be something wrong with the coaching staff.

Her sister Jaja Santiago is also another great option, if only for her height. While like her sister her blocking needs a lot of polishing, I can see her being developed into an even completer volleyball player. Like her sister, she’s already developed great form even at the backcourt, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she transforms into an all-around player capable of attacking from any position. If there’s one request I want, it’s for the Santiago sisters to master the swing block more considering they will be up against some fast offense of other national squads.

Other middle blockers I would love to see given a spot is Maika Ortiz, Royce Tubino and yes, even MJ Balse. While Balse is certainly past her prime, she is still a very capable middle blocker with years of experience to contribute to any squad. Ortiz, on the other hand, has mastered the running attack better than any of her contemporaries, and has long established terrific chemistry with my setter choice, Rhea Dimaculangan. How quick she adjusts to different setters will make-or-break her chances to get into the squad. Royce Tubino is a strong athlete too just by her built alone and I think she has great leadership skills as well. If she’s lined-up, I wouldn’t have any complaints.

I want to consider Aby Maraño and I am very impressed with her leadership skills but her height will be her biggest disadvantage. Nevertheless, her heart and vocal leadership is unmistakable and considering Coach Ramil is at the helm, I wouldn’t be too worried is she gets line up too. While Ria Menses and Mika Reyes could add ceiling to the team’s net defense, I’m worried that their relatively slow offense consisting of tips and placement shots would not work on an international level. However, one cannot discount that with exposure to bigger tournaments and games, they might develop power in their offense that would benefit not only the national squad but their respective national teams as well. Remy Palma and Kathy Bersola, who I think share the same built, are also worthy of being included in the training pool. Other middle blockers I might consider is Nica Guliman and Royce Estampa.

Opposite:

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For the right side, I would without a doubt, pick Aiza Maizo and Jovelyn Gonzaga. Looking at the recently concluded tournaments, Gonzaga has certainly shown more promise than Maizo. She’s a terrific floor defender and a smart attacker too. But I wouldn’t discount Maizo just yet considering she’s still getting back to her original form. Just the fact that she’s not even at her 100% and yet remains extremely reliable is a testament to her talent. Gonzaga is exceptional too and she manages to even be greater thanks to the long-formed chemistry with her club team, Army. I do think these two southpaws should be top-of-the-mind when you’re looking for someone who can fill the role of opposite.

Other players I would consider for this position would be Suzanne Roces and Iari Yongco. Roces, who originally played middle blocker, is also capable of switching to different positions. In recent tournaments her playing style at the right side reminded me of Zhou Suhong of China whose primary mode of offense was a slide attack. Roces has height to her and is one of the few players I’ve seen in the local volleyball scene implementing a really nice swing block. Yongco, on the other hand, is a young and tall athlete who has had good success part of the RC Cola-Philippine Air Force squad. If she’s trained well, I can see her further blossoming into the role of an opposite spiker.

Libero

Gata doing what she does best.

Gata doing what she does best.

Hands down Gata. Considering her long hiatus from volleyball, her return to form should be rewarded with a spot as libero number 1 for the national squad. Even the iconic Lang Ping would agree. Alternate liberos I would consider include Tin Agno and Jen Reyes who are both exceptional diggers. I think for this role we have a very nice pool of talented athletes with solid playing. Since my options for the open spikers weren’t exactly the best passers, these three would hopefully ease the passing duties through their great technical skill.

Final Thoughts

We’re still a long way from beating the likes of Russia, Thailand, Italy, and Brazil. But I do hope the promising tryouts will be the start of a more focused, dedicated, and sincere effort to raise the level of volleyball in the Philippines. If Gilas and the Azklas have impacted their respective sports, there is absolutely no excuse for a volleyball crazy nation like ours not to believe in the Filipinas too.

Below is a summary of the players I mentioned with their height (culled from various sources; rough estimates). I included everyone in the list below.

Setters:
Tina Salak – 5’11”
Rhea Dimaculangan – 5’7”
Rubie De Leon – 5’7”
Kim Fajardo – 5’6”

Open Hitters:
Alyssa Valdez – 5’8”
Ara Galang – 5’7”
Rachelle Ann Daquis – 5’10”
Nerissa Bautista – 5’10”
EJ Laure – 5’8”
Joy Cases – 5’6”
Steph Mercado – 5’8”
Carmina Aganon – 5’8
Judy Caballejo – 5’7”
Angeli Tabaquero – 5’8
Venus Bernal – 5’10″

Middle Blocker:
Din Din Santiago – 6’2”
Jaja Santiago – 6’4”
Mary Jean Balse – 5’11″
Maika Ortiz – 5’10″
Royse Tubino – 5’10″
Kathy Bersola – 5’10”
Remy Palma – 5’11”
Aby Maraño – 5’8 ½”
Mike Reyes – 5’11”
Ria Menses – 6’1”
Nica Guliman – 5’11
Royce Estampa – 5’11

Opposite
Aiza Maizo – 5’11”
Jovelyn Gonzaga – 5’8”
Suzanne Roces – 5’10”
Iari Yongco – 5’10”

Libero
Lizlee Ann Gata – 5’6”
Jen Reyes – 5’2”
Tin Agno – 5’3”

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