MANILA, Philippines – The BaliPure Water Defenders' euphoria was palpable after setter Jasmine Nabor sent a dump ball to an unguarded area of the opposite court, where Pocari star Myla Pablo was too late to get to it.
The unexpected attack wrapped up the Water Defenders' hard-fought 25-20, 19-25, 25-23, 26-24 victory over the Lady Warriors, which gave them the championship in the Premier Volleyball League (PVL) Open Conference.
It was BaliPure's first title since joining the league last year, and marked the end of Pocari's dominant run in the league. The Lady Warriors had won the past three conferences, including the Reinforced Conference crown at BaliPure's expense.
"Siyempre, sobrang saya," said Nabor, who had 40 excellent sets and eight points in the game despite being subbed out for most of the fourth frame. "'Yung mga sacrifice and paghihirap namin every training, every game, parang lumabas lahat kanina."
"Pinaghirapan namin ito as a team," added Grethcel Soltones, the eventual Finals MVP who had 21 points in Game 2 to help seal the deal for BaliPure. "As a team, marami kaming pinagdaanan."
BaliPure's journey to the PVL Open Conference crown started when the Reinforced Conference ended, with the Water Defenders reeling from a three-game loss in the finals to Pocari Sweat. Back then, they managed to force a do-or-die Game 3, but succumbed to a powerful Pocari team that leaned on import Krystal Rivers in the final game.
According to coach Roger Gorayeb, there were several attempts to poach players off BaliPure before the start of the conference, but they managed to stay together.
"Pagpasok nitong conference, before the tournament started, ang daming kumakausap sa mga bata para lumipat," he revealed.
During the tournament itself, the Water Defenders struggled. Losses to Creamline and BanKo-Perlas put their semifinals stint at risk, and they only managed to clinch the Final 4 berth thanks to a straight sets win over Pocari Sweat in their very last game of the elimination round.
"We almost didn't make it to the semifinals," Gorayeb reminisced. "Noong nanalo kami sa Pocari, doon lang kami pumasok."
"Pagpasok sa semis, we lost the first game," he added, referring to their best-of-3 series against top-seeded Creamline. "Again, we almost didn't make it to the finals, but the girls persevered."
After losing Game 1 of the semis in five excruciating sets, BaliPure forced a decider by outlasting the Cool Smashers in Game 2. Brimming with confidence in the do-or-die Game 3, they proceeded to win via sweep.
Waiting for them in the Finals were the Lady Warriors, the defending champions who broke their hearts in the previous conference.
But Gorayeb knew that this time around, his players were ready.
"Ngayon, it's a different story," he said. "Iba na 'yung character nila."
With Soltones teaming up with Aiko Urdas and Jerrili Malabanan, the Water Defenders shockingly swept Pocari in Game 1. They gave up one set for the first time all conference in Game 2, but displayed nerves of steel in Game 3 to seal the deal.
For Gorayeb, who has won multiple titles as a high school and college volleyball coach, it gave him great happiness to see his players – most of whom are still college students – celebrate a championship. For most of them, it was their first title.
"After this, they are going back to their mother teams," Gorayeb said with a hint of wistfulness. "Sana, 'yung saya, 'yung ligaya na nakuha nila, sana madala nila pagdating nila ng UAAP or ng NCAA."
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