PLDT Home Ultera coach Roger Gorayeb knows they would need more than Alyssa Valdez to beat a well balanced, more experienced Army side in a sudden death.
He was right.
Drawing key contributions from Jaja Santiago, Gretchel Soltones, Sue Roces and a gritty bench, the Ultra Fast Hitters overcame the tough Lady Troopers, 25-22, 18-25, 24-26, 28-26, 15-13, Sunday to crown themselves the Shakey’s V-League Season 12 Open Conference champions before a jampacked crowd at The Arena in San Juan City.
Slowed down by Army’s rock-solid two-man, three-man net defense, Valdez persevered and still led all hitters with 29 hits, including 25 on kills, while Santiago and Soltones unloaded 17 points apiece, including key hits in a nerve-wracking decider.
With the match tied at 13, Roces delivered on a quick set then Santiago scored on a two-hand tap following a key block on Army’s Carmina Aganon, triggering a wild PLDT celebration on center court as the orange and white balloons and confetti fell from the rafters.
“Before the fifth set, I told the girls I’m already proud of what they’ve done,” said Gorayeb. “I also told them this conference is for us and this fifth set is really for them.”
It actually didn’t look that way as Army put its superb block in full display by foiling Valdez’s attacks twice and pouncing on PLDT’s ace’s error to race to a 3-0 start in the decider.
But Valdez kept on firing and Santiago and Soltones kept on coming up with clutch hits as the Ultra Fast Hitters turned things around, snatching leads at 5-4, 8-7, 10-9, before taking two-point cushions at 12-10 and 13-11.
But the Lady Troopers refused to fold up and took the next two points on a Dindin Manabat hit and a Valdez mishit before former two-time MVP Roces and Santiago banged in the last two hits for PLDT’s first-ever championship in the league where it all started.
For Valdez, it was her third title after she also led Ateneo to two championships in the Shakey’s V-League.
“It was as special as the first two but in terms of difficulty, this has got to be the toughest title we’ve won,” said Valdez, the conference MVP.
For Gorayeb, he will go home with his fourth championship including one with Sandugo three years ago.
“I stopped counting already,” said Gorayeb.
In the din of the celebration, the league, sponsored by Shakey’s, honored the 13-player, all V-League team that will represent the country in the 28th Southeast Asian Games unwrapping this weekend in Singapore.
It includes the triumphant foursome of Valdez, Soltones, Santiago and libero Denden Lazaro and Army’s talented troika of Rachel Ann Daquis, Dindin Santiago-Manabat and Iloilo pride and national team captain Jovelyn Gonzaga with Gorayeb as coach.
“We’re thankful to win this title. It also meant we can now focus on our SEAG preparations,” said Gorayeb, whose team leaves for Singapore Thursday.
Army succeeded in slowing down PLDT’s hitters headed by Valdez, also the country’s flag-bearer in the SEAG, with a season-high 19 blocks, including six from Mary Jean Balse and five from Gonzaga.
In the end, the Lady Troopers just didn’t have enough to stop the unrelenting Valdez.
Santiago’s endgame heroics also earned her the Finals MVP plum, her first in the league backed by Mikasa and Accel and organized by Sports Vision.
After PLDT took the opening set, Army fought its way back and swept the next two but failed to finish off the Ultra Fast Hitters as Valdez unleashed back-to-back attacks to end an extended, pressure-packed fourth set duel.