Doc Volleyball: Unfinished Business
"Morado, with her international experience, could definitely be of tremendous help in increasing the agility of our team’s offense." -- AJ Pareja
It has been 2 years since I got a call from my former college coach Oliver Almadro inviting me to suit up for the team he was tasked to organize for the 2015 South East Asian Games (SEA Games) in Singapore. Back then, I was already starting my medical practice through a moonlight stint at Boracay Island. I thought I was done with the sport. I had no more volley responsibilities and had no commitments whatsoever. My only allegiance was to my budding practice. It was not an easy invitation for my part as I knew the trade-offs that I would make. Not only will I impair my current earning to settle for a measly compensation, I would also have to put on hold the momentum of my medical profession which admittedly hasn’t taken off yet. I asked Coach O why still ask me when there’s a ton of emerging stars back there at the metro. His explanation was simple. He already had a “dream team” in mind, but despite the many he called, only a few answered. In line with that, given the tight schedule he was tasked by the NSA, it would be logical for him to enlist players he has already worked with.
At that time, everyone had high hopes for Philippine Volley. With a new governing body at the helm, it was already a victory for everyone that the country was once again fielding both a men’s and women’s team for the SEA Games after a long hiatus. While both us and our female counterparts fell short in qualifying for podium finishes, our mere re-joining and tallying a couple of wins definitely spelled a sense of hope to a continuously increasing volley community. Were our teams good? No doubt about it. Was it the best the country could have offered? I would have to admit no.
As the host country passes the torch to Malaysia and the ceremonies come to a close, we were all in high hopes that in two years perhaps, with continuous training and support, we would make the country proud not just with our mere presence in the tourney but with actual podium finishes and medals around our necks. We packed our bags, flew back to Manila, went on back to our daily lives.
Fast forward to 2017 and we are now once again in a familiar scene. Only a few months left before a major tourney and we are yet to field in an actual line-up. Whatever happened to the long term plans of 2015, one can only imagine. This 2017 Malaysia SEA Games should be the fruition of the unfinished business of 2015. A podium finish is expected now and I admit that it’s definitely a tall order given the level of preparation.
However, with an ever growing pool of talents, this new selection process can serve as a new ray of hope for the volley community. It is of no doubt that the newly appointed Head Coaches were able to put up a commendable list of national team hopefuls. Looking at the individuals enlisted for both men’s and women’s team, I can already imagine the ideal team set-up. Indeed, the players considered are outstanding individually, but the challenge still remains in synergizing them and working on a system that is internationally competent.
Men’s Training Pool: Initial Thoughts
I had the pleasure of playing with or against some of the names included in the men’s training pool. One quick glance at the list and I can easily surmise that head coach Sammy Acaylar is building up a wall.
From middles to setters, Acaylar has a pool of tall players at his disposal. I can definitely see the trio of Ran-Ran Abdilla, Mark Alfafara and Howard Mojica gunning from the left pins (Editor's Note: "Pins" can mean wings or sides) and the pipe (Editor's Note: "Pipe" is used to signify that the back row hitter is prepared to hit from the behind the attack line) while John Vic De Guzman blasts away from the right pin and back row. Reyson Fuentes and Herschel Ramos will man the wall for net defense while a tall setter in Mark Deximo further fortifies it. While Peter Torres is a shoo-in for another middle position, his bread and butter slide attack might pose some problems in synchronization with De Guzman’s right wing and back row attack. This is due to the fact that if in the first middle position, the slide can be an obstacle to a right back row attack and as a second middle, the slide attack will force the opposite to hit more combination x-plays which are proving to be easily mitigated in the international scene especially against teams with tall pin blockers.
It would be definitely be easy for the coaches to come up with a strong team with the men’s pool. Though still short in height by western standards, the size of the potential team would be competent enough at the SEA Games level. That doesn’t mean though that we can still apply the local level of play with heavy reliance on combination x-plays.
Based on experience, teams like Thailand and Myanmar are not only tall but also agile and can serve aggressively. Heavy reliance on the local offensive style of combination plays will prove problematic since it is to be expected that passing will not be accurate enough to run such offense consistently. Rather, the team would have better chances scoring in running consistent tempo plays to the pins, pipe or back right in which the timing gap between the quicker and pin hitter are minimized as much as possible.
Women’s Training Pool: Initial Thoughts
Looking at the short list for the women’s team, it is of no surprise that head coach Vicente is also building up a vertically competent roster. While Acaylar will have an easy time handpicking the men’s hopefuls, such cannot be said for Vicente.
With the continuous emergence of the sport especially in the women’s division, the talent pool of both collegiate and professional players continues to grow. My initial thoughts on a potentially formidable lineup would have Alyssa Valdez, Myla Pablo and Dindin Manabat from the left pins, Jaja Santiago and Aiza Maizo-Pontillas from the right, Aby Marano and Maika Ortiz to add impeccable block timing from the middle, Rhea Dimaculangan and Kim Fajardo orchestrating the play, while Denden Lazaro mans the floor. One crucial factor here is the ability of the outside hitters to hit a pipe and the opposites with the right back row.
Much like their male counterparts, the challenge for the women’s team would be on running an offensive system that is internationally competent and updated. While it works here in the local scene, heavy reliance on combination x-plays as the bread and butter offense would also prove problematic since teams like Thailand and Vietnam also have tall players who are much more agile and disciplined in terms of blocking. In line with that, the women’s team cannot just rely on the height in terms of blocking since the top SEA Games teams also run fast tempo plays. Blocking at the SEA games level would entail careful observation of opponent setter biomechanics especially for the Middles since tentative and instinct blocking would not be effective against the likes of Thailand’s Nootsara Tomkom. More than the height, middles will be hard pressed in improving their agility and footwork to ensure that they can easily close the gap while penetrating the arms across the net especially against fast tempo plays not commonly seen in the local setting.
Missing in Action
Given the list of considered athletes, we go back to the question – will it be a good team? Definitely! Will it be the best the country can offer though? Well, that is still up for debate. To address the elephant in the room, the most notable exclusions are Marck Espejo and Bryan Bagunas for the men’s team and Jia Morado and Melissa Gohing over at the women’s side.
Standing at 6’4” with commendable vertical reach, Bagunas has proven himself to be a force to reckon with at the net be it in offense or defense. Since top teams in the SEA Games have highly threatening opposites like Thailand’s ace, Jirayu Raksakaew, Bagunas’ size and leap would be of benefit for the team.
On the other hand, Espejo would be sorely missed for his overall versatility. While it is of no doubt that Espejo has proven himself as the best left pin hitter in UAAP history to date, what makes him stand out is his impeccable work at the back row.
Aside from his pipe attacks, Espejo’s passing and digging ability has made him stand out amongst other left pin hitters. His previous SEA Games experience especially in passing Thailand’s aggressive serving could have been a crucial factor for the team to run consistent offense.
Despite ending her collegiate career with a gold medal, Melissa Gohing has proven that she can definitely improve more. With back to back championships in the V-League, Gohing has shown tremendous growth in terms of her ball control and placement. Despite facing hard hitters especially with the reinforced conference, she was able to hold her ground and contribute significantly to her team’s defense. That consistency and experience could have been also a much needed boost for the upcoming team.
Perhaps the most surprising exclusion that sparked community intrigue would be that of Jia Morado. In the UAAP, Morado has so far been the only setter to date to actually implement an updated style of setting that blends consistency and agility. The manner by which she runs tempo plays to the pins and middles has been a major factor for her team to disrupt the blocking strategies of their opponents.
Morado, with her international experience, could definitely be of tremendous help in increasing the agility of our team’s offense. Her fast tempo plays could have been crucial in circumventing the blocks of other countries a preview of which is how her team was able to dismantle the defense of a relatively good blocking team such as UP in their recent encounter.