‘Mas masarap ang panalong pinaghirapan’: The road to CSB Lady Blazers’ first ever title

Ceej Tantengco on Feb 02, 2016 11:59 AM
The road to CSB Lady Blazers’ first ever title
"We will because we can!"

When the University of Perpetual Help Altas won the NCAA Season 91 men’s volleyball championship, they erupted with joy, dancing around the court and jumping up and down. When the College of Saint Benilde Lady Blazers won their own title two days later, they fell to the floor sobbing.

Players knelt motionless save for their heaving shoulders. Some had to be urged off the floor to join the team huddle. Up close, you could hear that the cry of victory wasn’t a yell but, well, just crying.

Can you blame them? Not only had they won a historic first volleyball title for their school—they had also fought the hardest battles to earn it.

 

From a promising start to a slump

The Lady Blazers were easily pegged as one of the teams to watch. They had key holdovers Jeanette Panaga, JannineNavarro, and team captain and setter Djanel Cheng. They charted three straight wins to open the season. Third-year head coach Macky Cariño began aiming for a sweep of the elimination round.

 

 

First game! 💎💎👨‍👩‍👧‍👧👨‍👩‍👧‍👧⚪️

A photo posted by Anyanyanya (@ranyamusa) on

 

But momentum shifted when they lost to the UPHSD Lady Altas. With their confidence tested, the Lady Blazers almost stumbled against the San Beda Lady Red Spikers, a team that they were supposed to dispatch with ease. Momentum was against them and a match against the formidable San Sebastian College-Recoletos Lady Stags was just around the corner.

“Nag-struggle talaga kami,” Cheng said at the time. “Hindi ako satisfied sa performance namin kasi parang hindi nag-iimprove after each match.”

 

 

Yesterday photo shoot with the team 💚 ©[email protected] 👍🏼

A photo posted by Jeanette Ellar Panaga (@panagaj) on

 

In a lucky break, it rained so hard that the match was postponed to the end of the elimination round, giving the Lady Blazers time to regroup. Though they would eventually end the elimination round with a loss to SSCR, the Lady Blazers had gotten back to form and done just enough to secure the fourth slot in the Final Four.

 

Stepladder surprise

As the lowest-ranked team in the Final Four, the title-less team had to beat Season 89 champs UPHSD Lady Altas and Season 90 champs Arellano University Lady Chiefs in knockout matches, both in the space of one week.

 

 

Ohana! 💕 #Animo Ctto

A photo posted by Djanel Welch T. Cheng (@djcheng02) on

 

The match against the Lady Altas was special for Cariño. He was facing coach Sammy Acaylar, for whom Cariño had been an assistant coach at UPHSD for over 10 years.

Both teams were disciplined. Both were motivated. Both danced in the dugout for their pre-game ritual. But Cariño was eager to step out of his mentor’s shadow and prove himself as a head coach.

“Syempre, mas masarap talunin ‘yung nagturo sa iyo,” he said, grinning before the match. “Lalong lumakas ‘yung will to win [ng team] because of our struggles. I think this is a new us.” Two hours later, they had won the landmark victory.

 

 

The Lady Blazers utilized their height, varied their plan of attack, and played with a smile—a far cry from their December slump. And if you factor in momentum, it isn’t so shocking that they upset the Lady Chiefs.

Finally, they were in the finals.

 

Fantastic finals

“Be your own success story.” This was posted on the Lady Blazers’ Facebook group the night before Game 1 of the NCAA Season 91 Women’s Volleyball Finals.

They needed all the motivation they could get, because they were up against SCCR. The winningest coach in the league Roger Gorayeb, the most dominant attacker Grethcel Soltones. A team with finals experience—and a thrice-to-beat advantage.

 

 

“The Taft Towers” Panaga and Navarro played smart. Ranya Musa stepped up, lifting her scoring average into double digits. Taking Cariño’s “magpakamatay tayo sa bola” advice to heart, Arianne Daguil rammed herself into the boards chasing after “hopeless” balls.

 

In contrast, the Lady Stags relied heavily on Soltones’ power. Gorayeb chastised setter Vira Guillema, asking her to create better plays for Soltones or distribute the ball to teammates in better positions. Season 90 Rookie of the Year Nikka Dalisay wasn’t her usual self.

 

The Lady Blazers handily took the first two matches, but the third would be a different story. Before the match, Soltones was awarded season MVP and reunited with her mother for the first time in 13 years. “It’s the best day of my life,” she tweeted. With a renewed burst of energy, the Lady Stags took the third match to force a do-or-die championship match.

 

‘Sa wakas’

“Dumaan na tayo sa napakahirap,” Cariño told his team. “Now is not the time to hold back.” They were the first to warm up that day. Cheng steeled her teammates for the battle ahead: “Kailangan lumaban nang may puso.”

 

 

Now or Never. #Philippians4:13

A photo posted by Djanel Welch T. Cheng (@djcheng02) on

 

The Lady Blazers had a smaller crowd than the Lady Stags, who had cancelled classes and brought a horde of balloons. But in the crowd were alumni from 2009, the only other time the Lady Blazers made the finals; the men’s volleyball team, the men’s basketball team, and even Acaylar; all of them eager to see Benilde take home the trophy.

Soltones brought her usual power, signature jump serve, and back row attacks. But in the same way that the UPHSD Altas defeated the EAC Generals and Howard Mojica, the Lady Blazers showed that a united team can overpower a star.

They took the first two sets. The championship was in sight. They lost the third.

Instead of talking strategy, prayer was the first order of business in Cariño’s crucial huddle before the fourth set. He stepped back and let the Lady Blazers motivate one another. Navarro, a graduating senior, looked into the eyes of each of her teammates: “Walang kaba! Walang kaba!”

Gorayeb gambled on sitting out Soltones for much of the fourth set. The Lady Stags surprised their opponents by keeping it close even without their star player, but the Lady Blazers would not be denied.

Musa had told herself before the match, “Dapat angatan hindi lang yung laro kundi puso.” When she scored the championship-winning point, the entire team fell to their knees. Cariño stayed on his feet, but with tears welling in his eyes, brought each of his players in for a hug.

 

 

“Mas masarap ang panalong pinaghirapan. Dumaan kami sa butas ng karayom…sobrang proud ako [sa team],” said Cariño. “Hindi sumuko ang mga players ko kahit gaano kahirap.”

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