Air Force squandered a two-set lead as it lost its focus and poise but banked on its blocking in the decider to hack out a 25-14, 25-20, 19-25, 21-25, 15-10 victory over Team Laoag on Saturday to clinch the first finals berth in the Shakey’s V-League Season 13 Open Conference at The Arena in San Juan.
May Ann Pantino soared for a vicious kill that pierced through the Power Smashers’ defense, the ball bouncing off the court, ending the thrilling one-hour, 55-minute encounter and sending the Jet Spikers to the championship of the season-opening conference of the country’s longest-running women’s volley league sponsored by Shakey’s with a sweep of their best-of-three semis playoff.
For a while, Air Force appeared headed to duplicating its 25-20, 26-24, 26-24 victory in the series’ opener last Wednesday. But the Power Smashers fought back and surprised their rivals with a gutsy stand in the next two frames, only to disintegrate with service errors while failing to neutralize the Jet Spikers’ strong finishing kick.
Judy Ann Caballejo put on a clutch 23-hit performance and fellow veteran Joy Cases added 14 markers and Jocemer Tapic chipped in 10 key points. But It was Pantino who closed out the Power Smashers with back-to-back blocks off Mylene Paat that put the top-seeded squad on the hill before capping her endgame heroics with that killer of a spike.
Caballejo also came up with a key block off Jovielyn Prado after a long rally to give Air Force a 9-5 cushion in the race-to-15 decider. But Laoag kept on coming back and pulled to within two twice, the last at 9-11 on a down-the-line hit by the left-handed Paat.
However, a service error stalled their charge and Pantino took over and delivered the last three points to steer Air Force to the championship of the country’s premier women’s volley league where it all started.
Pantino wound up with 17 hits, including three aces and 10 excellent receives although she had to yield the best player of the game honors to her veteran teammate.
“I just played my game. I really wanted this win for us to get to the championship,” said Caballejo, who spiked her superb all-around performance with 19 kills, three aces and 14 excellent digs.
Jessica Galanza fired 20 hits while Paat and Prado combined for 27 points for the Power Smashers, who actually swept the Jet Spikers in the elims to fuel their semifinal drive but just couldn’t sustain their charge in down-to-the-wire finishes.
Air Force, actually making its return to the league backed by Mikasa and Accel after two years, will dispute the crown with the winner of the other semis duel between BaliPure and Pocari Sweat, which are playing at presstime.
The finals, along with that of the Spikers’ Turf, will be played on July 13 to give way to the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament staging.
“We’ll use the long break to train and practice hard,” said Air Force coach Jasper Jimenez.
Meanwhile, Cignal and Air Force scored an expected pair of sweeps over their respective semifinal rivals to seal the much-awaited showdown for the Spikers’ Turf Season 2 Open Conference crown.
Raymark Woo sustained top form and rammed in 22 hits including 19 kills, while Ysrael Marasigan backed him up with 11 points and Herschel Ramos and Bonjomar Castel added eight markers each for the HD Spikers, who smothered the Sta. Elena Construction side, 25-23, 25-16, 25-17, and also moved two wins away from a completing a conference sweep.
But standing in their way are the Jet Spikers, who subdued Instituto Estetico Manila, 25-15, 25-21, 34-32, to clinch the other finals berth.
Air Force drew double-digit outputs from five players, including 15 hits from power-hitting Howard Mojica, 12 points apiece from Jeffrey Malabanan and Reyson Fuentes, and 11 markers each from Rodolfo Labrador and Fauzi Ismail.