For the month of April, The GAME is celebrating the dominant darlings of Philippine volleyball.
12,175 trooped to the Arena Thursday to watch the third and final game of the Premier Volleyball League (PVL) 2023 All-Filipino Conference finals between defending champions Petro Gazz Angels and perennial crowd favorite Creamline Cool Smashers.
Tickets sold out within 12 minutes. Hundreds of hopefuls lined up for standing-room-only spots as the game started inside the arena.
It’s easy to see why people were so hyped up to watch Game Three. Game One had the Cool Smashers outplayed by the Angels by three sets to one, followed by a five-set nailbiter. The next went to the Cool Smashers to even things out, forcing a do-or-die game for the conference trophy. Cheers from the crowd were so loud that players on the court couldn’t hear the referee’s whistle, and would continue playing even after a call.
Two hours, 18 minutes, and four sets later, CCS bags their sixth overall championship along with five other individual awards: Conference MVP Tots Carlos, Best Outside Hitter Jema Galanza, Best Opposite Hitter Michelle Gumabao, Best Setter and Finals MVP Jia de Guzman.
One phrase could be heard from the players during the awarding ceremony and in post-game interviews. “Para kay Ate Ly,” they would say.
It was a bittersweet win for top skipper Alyssa Valdez, who had to sit out the entire season to recover from a knee injury. She had been unfailing in support of her team, always attending the matches and cheering them on from the sidelines, even wearing her playing jersey to the finals.
Going into the All-Filipino Conference, the question was whether they could make it to the finals without their best hitter. They had bowed out in the semifinals of the Reinforced Conference just December of last year.
Would Creamline rise to the challenge?
The answer was a clear and resounding yes.
An all-around team
Jia de Guzman took up the reins as Team Captain, and every single person on the team stepped up. Her expert playmaking and the never-say-die attitude of her teammates brought them to their second consecutive All-Filipino Conference finals stint.
And what a championship series it was. The Petro Gazz Angels are formidable opponents. Their resounding 3-1 win in the first game showed how much they also wanted this title. After a loss like that, any other team would go into the second game with a huge drop in morale. Not the Cool Smashers. They held on by the skin of their teeth, stretching the second game and finally claiming the fifth set. Game three it was, then. Who doesn’t love a good sudden-death final?
The Cool Smashers — and their fans — brought their second win high into the third and final match. The first set was claimed by the Angels and they were on their way to a come-from-behind second-set win when the magic of Risa Sato and her infectious energy changed the tide of the game from there on out. It was The Cool Smashers Show in the second, third, and fourth sets.
It’s not difficult to understand why the Cool Smashers are the darlings of the crowd. They are immensely talented, seem to be genuinely good friends, have amazing chemistry, and visibly enjoy themselves greatly on and off the court with their “Happy? Happy!” war cry after every in-game huddle.
They have hundreds of thousands of fans — both as individual players from when they played college volleyball and collectively as the Creamline Cool Smashers. Unlike a few other teams that are known for recruiting whole college varsity lineups, the Cool Smashers come from a variety of sports programs.
Some members, already title holders before graduating from university, have continued to lead and guide the Cool Smashers: Team Captain “Jia-mazing” de Guzman, the “Phenom” Valdez, and Michelle Gumabao, one of the few known by just her initials, MG.
Others, meanwhile, have grown tremendously as athletes in the pro league, rising to the challenge of this higher level of play and picking up awards like candy. Jema Galanza, Tots Carlos, and Ced Domingo were all good in the UAAP. But now they are among the greats.
Sato, the ever-cheerful, ever-ready middle hitter from NU never fails to ham it up to the cameras and the supporters. The entire arena erupts in cheers even at a glimpse of her on the screen.
Even their Head Coach Sherwin Meneses is well-loved for his steadying presence and levelheaded instructions. Those who have watched volleyball for any amount of time would know that this is not always the case for most coaches.
This is why this entire team, together with the rest of their coaching and support staff, show us the best of Philippine professional volleyball.
What’s next for the team? Seven of the core members of CCS will be joining the National Team in the upcoming Southeast Asian Games. In addition to De Guzman, Valdez, Gumabao, Galanza, Domingo, and Carlos, libero Kyla Atienza and Coach Sherwin will be flying to Cambodia this May to compete with the rest of the Philippine delegation.
Text RIKKA SOTTO
Cover Art KARLOTA TUAZON
Images CREAMLINE COOL SMASHERS