Bursting into tears as she sank to her knees by her lonesome on zone 3, Jaja Santiago must’ve felt so relieved to have finished off the Creamline Cool Smashers with the last of her volley of quick attacks, ended the gruelling daily grind the last five weeks and helped essay a victory that in one stretch had looked like nothing but a tall order for the 6-foot-5 middle blocker/opposite and outside hitter.
But as she gradually stood up to toast their milestone, there also rose the rest of the Chery Tiggo Crossovers, tears welling in their eyes, all reaching to the Premier Volleyball League Open Conference trophy the way Euro football champs do.
It was a celebration like no other in a classic finale of a bubble setting in extraordinary times.
“This is a new journey for me and I am so happy to have finally showed the talent given to me by God,” said Santiago, whose sweep of the Conference and Finals MVP honors spoke well of the caliber of the player who broke into the national volley consciousness as a gangling six-footer dwarfing the opposition in the Shakey’s Girls’ Volley League and NCAA as a National U standout.
Clutching the country’s first pro volley trophy with her equally gritty Crossovers indeed capped a hell of a ride for the 25-year-old Tanza, Cavite native, who led the Lady Bulldogs to back-to-back championships in the Shakey’s V-League Collegiate Conference and steered the Foton Tornadoes to the Superliga crowns, also in back-to-back fashions, while bagging a number of individual honors.
A two-time SEA Games veteran, Santiago also became the first Filipino volley player to claim a title overseas, helping power the Saitama Ageo Medics past the NEC Red Rockets to the Japan V League V Cup last March.
The team tried to convince her to change her citizenship through naturalization but she declined and maintained that she still prides herself being a Filipino and turned down an invite to play for a club in Taiwan to spearhead Chery Tiggo’s campaign in the country’s first pro volley league at the PCV Socio Civic and Cultural Center in Bacarra, Ilocos Norte.
Sure, sister Dindin Manabat had a big hand in their improbable title run over a fancied Creamline side in the league that shed off its semi-pro tag in late 2019 but needed another year to launch its pro season due to the global health crisis.
But the long hiatus only made the Crossovers, one of the four teams to join the exodus of Superliga squads to the PVL, hungrier and fiercer, finishing No. 2 in the draining – physically and mentally – daily, single-round elims among 10 teams with seven victories against two setbacks.
With the Cool Smashers expectedly emerging No. 1, their lone loss inflicted by the Crossovers themselves, the two teams ducked each other for a possible early confrontation in the Final Four, thus setting up a dream finale between two teams of varying strengths and talents.
Creamline, which ruled this conference in 2019, took Game One of the best-of-three finals, blowing a 2-0 set lead but dominating Chery Tiggo in the decider, 25-15, 25-21, 18-25, 19-25, 15-7, in a victory that likewise extended their unbeaten run to five when dragged into five-set duels.
But the Crossovers completed their unfinished business the following day, coming away with a more imposing 25-18, 17-25, 25-16, 25-21 triumph that sent the match, fittingly, to a deciding third game.
In a virtual reprise of the first match, Creamline swept the first two sets but Chery Tiggo proved it never ran out of gas, power and hope as the Crossovers rewrote the ending (23-25, 20-25, 25-21, 25-23, 15-8) in a fashion they could only serve out against a team that had looked so comfortable, so confident when pushed to the limit.
“I was kind of at a loss in the first and second sets but she (Dindin) stepped up for the team,” said Santiago. “Pagdating sa dulo, kinakapitan ko na siya at yung teammates ko. I told them: ‘Guys, sa atin na ‘to.’”
While Santiago and the rest couldn’t seem to get going in the face of the Cool Smashers’ sustained attack, Manabat single-handedly brought the Crossovers back in the third frame. Inspired by her never-say-die attitude, Santiago and the rest regrouped and put their act together in the next two, particularly in the decider, which they dominated in an intriguing twist of fate.
“Sabi nya (Dindin), ‘Ja, ituloy mo lang.’ “It’s really a proud moment playing alongside your sister who would push you to play hard and won’t ever let you down,” said Santiago, who capped her performance with four blocks on top of 22 attacks, of her sibling, who also suited up for UST before moving to National U.
Manabat exploded for 32 points but more than her output, it was her big fighting heart and unflinching resolve that rubbed off on the rest of the Crossovers.
“This is our last game, do-or-die, so for me, my mindset was to give all that I’ve got,” said Manabat, seasoned by stints in the Shakey’s V-League and Superliga.
“Alam naming na hindi lahat talaga ibinibigay ng madali, lahat yun pinaghihirapan, so nung nanalo kami (sa third set), inisip naming na para sa amin ‘to…walang susuko at naging positibo lahat kami sa mga bagay-bagay,” added Manabat.
Coach Aaron Velez was magnanimous in victory, acknowledging the Cool Smashers’ great play while silencing his (social media) detractors, who had questioned his style of coaching and decision-making.
"I want to congratulate Creamline, which has the experience in this kind of level (of play). But thank God, He guided us and we showed what we are made of," said Velez. "We just trusted ourselves, we trusted one another. At this time of pandemic, these challenging times, I think it’s better to be kind, better to appreciate one another and be fortunate that we can do what we want to do.”
“Whether there are bashers or anything, what’s important is I trusted my players to perform whatever rotation it is And this victory just made us grow as a person and as a team,” added Velez, who also drew the best from the likes of Jasmine Nabor, Mylene Paat, Shaya Adorador, Joy Dacoron, Rachel Austero, Maika Ortiz, Mae Layug, Marian Buitre, Gyzelle Sy,, Bea Duremdes and fellow libero Justin Dorog.
The organizing Sports Vision is looking at an October playdate for its next conference depending on the progress of the fight against the spread of Covid-19 and the new variants with Santiago and company vowing to stay in shape and get ready to take that big leap again against an expected souped-up field for another crack at volley glory.