Someone asked me how my blog and newspaper column came to be titled "Bleachers Brew". It's like this, it's an amalgam of sorts of two things: The bleachers area in the stadium/arena where I used to sit when I would watch baseball, football, and basketball games and Miles Davis' great jazz album Bitches Brew. That's how it got culled together. I originally planned on calling it "The View from the Big Chair" that is a nod to Tears For Fear's second album, Songs from the Big Chair. So there.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Those massive underdogs, BaliPure, finally win a championship.

Those massive underdogs, BaliPure, finally win a championship.
by rick olivares

During the evening of June 15, 2017, following BaliPure’s Game Three loss to Pocari Sweat in the Open Conference of the inaugural Premier Volleyball League, the team’s leading scorer Grethcel Soltones sat on the steps of Chef Laudico’s restaurant for the team dinner. She looked sad and a pout formed on her lips.

“Why does this happen a lot to me?” she asked me. Soltones wasn’t only referring to BaliPure’s loss but also the three straight NCAA Finals defeats including the last two editions wherein her college team, the San Sebastian Lady Stags owned a thrice-to-beat advantage.

Soltones has previously won with the PLDT team in the PSL. However, that was pretty much an all-star team. With BaliPure, she is the Purest Water Defenders’ primary weapon. She played for BaliPure in the team’s first every conference, jumped ship to the Power Smashers for the next, and returned to BaliPure for the first season of the Premier Volleyball League.

I patted Soltones’ head and gave her a hug. “Just keep on fighting. We’ll eventually get there. Sometimes, it’s just a harder and longer road to where want to get.”

My car arrived and I left ahead of the team that was to break off for a few days before diving back into preparations for the next conference – the Open.

A little over two months after that warm June evening – August 16 to be exact – Soltones and I had another of the post-conference conversations – this time at Gerry’s Grill, Greenhills. “Do you remember when you asked me why do these things happen to you?”

Soltones nodded.

“Well, you won it now,” I said. Soltones smiled. “So why do you think this (the championship) happened now for you?”

“Because we as a team worked hard for it. We really wanted it,” she answered without batting an eyelash.

We hugged and left it at that.

BaliPure’s triumph, a two-game sweep of defending champions Pocari Sweat, is no doubt one of the great sports stories in Philippine volleyball. It is a fallacy when some quarters say that for example the team Pocari faced in the Open Conference Finals (the PVL season opener) was an all-star and veteran team. Pocari was laced with veterans all who were done with school. The Purest Water Defenders on the other hand, save for libero Lizlee Ann Pantone, are all in school.  

Second, the bulk of Pocari Sweat are have been together at least for a year or so. Some having played together in one team in the PSL. BaliPure?

You have to qualify that. BaliPure Version One featured primarily ex-Ateneo Lady Eagles. They all de-camped over to the Perlas Spikers as they sought to change the way volleyball clubs are formed where it is a club team and not a corporate-owned club team. Noble intentions for sure.

But it left BaliPure without players. During some of the damage control sessions with team consultant Gil Cortez, I recommended that the team look beyond Ateneo. And well, to secure Roger Gorayeb as head coach. At the time, Gorayeb was already out as National University coach. If you get him, I postulated, you can get Jasmine Nabor. A darn good setter is a good start to build your team.

Since not coming back to the PVL, I latched on to BaliPure to do writing for the team. I was there since the first iteration of the team and had struck up a friendship with Cortez, the first ever PBA Rookie of the Year. That he played for Toyota, my first favorite PBA team, was a massive plus. We oft spoke about sports and volleyball matters.

Now Gorayeb was waiting to see if PLDT would be serious enough to field a team. When the telecom company didn’t push through, he joined BaliPure. That brought in his players from NU and San Sebastian. Angelica Cayuna of Far Eastern University and Jerrili Malabanan were some of the other names we discussed.

And they soon came on board.

In many ways, the team has so much to prove. The San Sebastian and NU girls came off trying and tough seasons where they lost rather badly. It was the same for the FEU girls. There was a collective chip on everyone’s shoulder; a desire to prove people wrong. That they weren’t losers and chokers.

That was a huge concern. BaliPure Version 2 – the NU, San Sebastian and FEU girls – almost always raced to a lead, then gave it up within minutes that seemed like seconds, and ultimately fell.

In this Reinforced Conference, it seemed that the Purest Water Defenders’ season would end once more in futility.

At one point during the preliminaries, they were 2-3 with two matches left to play. They dug in and defeated in succession Adamson and Pocari to nab the last semi-finals seat. Creamline’s win over Perlas prevented a playoff between the latter and BaliPure.

However, that placed the Purest Water Defenders against Creamline that had their former coach in Tai Bundit and the land’s best volleyball player in Alyssa Valdez (although she was unavailable for the semis series due to national team duty). While that might have been a disadvantage for many teams, the Cool Smashers had a lot of weapons. In fact, they won their last two assignments without Valdez before going into the semis.

They even won Game One against BaliPure.

With their backs against the wall, the Purest Water Defenders won the last two games wasting Creamline’s undefeated conference.

“During the first conference, I knew that come the All-Filipino competition, we would be very good as we were undefeated until the imports were finally allowed to play,” reasoned out Gorayeb.

Once more in the finals, the team faced all sorts of questions. Can they beat Pocari now when it counted? The three-set sweep to close out the preliminaries was a memory. The finals was Pocari’s playground. Or make it stomping ground. In the finals, they vanquished all comers – former power Philippine Air Force in the Open Conference of the 13th and last season of the old Shakey’s V-League. Bureau of Customs in the Reinforced Conference. And BaliPure in the PVL Open Conference. The Lady Warriors were 6-2 in finals play and 7-4 versus the Purest Water Defenders in head-to-head matches.

Both teams nearly did not make it to the finals. BaliPure lost to Creamline in the first game of their semis series before taking the next two. Ditto for Pocari against PAF who were mere points away from a Game Three win.

“Maybe, it is best that we go through them again,” said Malabanan before the finals encounter. “Have to go through the champs.”

BaliPure took Game One in three close sets. Had they finally gotten over the hump? There was word that Pocari’s top player Myla Pablo might be unavailable for Game Two.

“Better to play them with a full line-up,” underscored Cortez. “So no excuses.”

“Payback time,” noted the team’s indefatigable team manager Paolo Turno.

“Ayoko na paabutin to ng Game Three,” urged Gorayeb to his charges prior to Game Two.

The Purest Water Defenders played a great first set. They had taken Jeanette Panaga out of the game. Desiree Dadang on the other hand was also silent. Pablo though, sick or not, was her old deadly self.

Come the second set, BaliPure took a five-point lead then promptly surrendered it after three consecutive Macy Mendiola miscues. The old problem of committing errors in bunches returned.

Pocari Sweat leveled the match.

However, come the third set, BaliPure found its second wind and took it.

The fourth set saw BaliPure look good, 18-13. “At what point do we bring out the championship t-shirts,” one of the BaliPure utility men asked me.

“Uh, I wouldn’t do it if I were you. This one isn’t over. I think Pocari has one more run in them.”

True enough, Pocari went on a 7-1 run that saw them come within a point, 20-19, after Aiko Urdas was blocked. Urdas looked to Gorayeb and gestured “sorry”.

In the Lady Warriors’ next offensive, Urdas atoned for her earlier botched attack by hammering home a kill.

Urdas is one of those interesting stories for BaliPure. Prior to Gorayeb coming over to NU, Aiko had a lot of playing time. Unimpressed with her work ethic, the veteran coach benched her. He gave her chances but her lack of consistency, focus, and even determination oft sent her back to the bench. Yet, in Urdas, Gorayeb saw that he could turn her into a fine volleyball player just yet. The veteran coach was known for polishing rough diamonds. He refined Alyssa Valdez’ hitting. Turned Jem Ferrer into a very good blocker despite being a smallish setter. He converted Jasmine Nabor into one of college volleyball’s top setters (after she played middle blocker in her freshman college year in NU). He was also able to bring out the best in Jerrili Malabanan who was benched in the last UAAP season by her coach.

And now, Urdas was shining through. In her team’s Game Two win over Creamline, she scored 12. In the clincher where they eliminated the Cool Smashers, she led her squad with 19 points.

During the entire conference, Urdas had finally stepped up. Her ascent provided more scoring sock in addition to Soltones, Malabanan, and middle blocker Risa Sato. With BaliPure now raining shots from all sides of the court, they had given their foes and Pocari in particular fits.  

Urdas led BaliPure in scoring with 15 points in the Game One Finals win. And now, she was delivering.

Yet Pocari refused to give up. After Myla Pablo scored to give her beleaguered side a 22-21 lead, Urdas scored on a drop shot to even matters.

The team battled to a 24-all tie after which Soltones scored over Elain Kasilag and Panaga to give BaliPure their second match point.

Urdas trooped to the back to serve. The ball went straight to Pablo and Pocari setter Gyzelle Sy served to Dadang. But BaliPure’s ace libero Pantone dug it well and sent it to Nabor.

“Nakita ko na open yung likod nila,” said the reed-thin but power packing Nabor. “Tinapon ko na lang.”

Bedlam! And BaliPure… the orphaned, the unwanted, the team of loveable losers and so-called chokers… are champions.

The team celebrated, danced, and cheered. A few like Soltones could not contain the tears. “Tears of joy naman,” she beamed.

Up in the stands, BaliPure president Tito Panlilio exchanged high fives with classmates of his from Ateneo and supporters. “This is sweet. A great sports story,” said the man who knows a thing or two about great sport stories having won a NCAA basketball championship with Ateneo.

Gorayeb looked for his manager at National University, Rudy Chua, who had watched the match from the VIP section. “Nasaan si Mr. Chua?” he asked his assistant Niel Are. Chua wasn’t a part of BaliPure but many of his wards in NU including Urdas, Nabor, Sato, and Jorelle Singh had played huge parts in this team’s rise to glory.

Chua later joined the team dinner at Gerry Grill.

As the party wound down late in the evening, the veteran coach took time to relax. “Where does this championship rank,” I asked of the man who has won so many championships but of late, has experienced a long drought.

“Considering where we are coming from and who we were up against – this is one of the sweetest. This is for those who believed in us and who supported us.”

We shook hands and went our separate ways on our respective ways home.

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