The Chooks-To-Go Philippine Superliga (PSL) Invitational Conference is starting to draw bigger crowds at the venues (especially in the provinces) with a phalanx of fresh talent that have come aboard after the modest success of this season's initial offering, the PSL Grand Prix. With more than forty debutants or those who have been on long hiatuses, this is the conference that is featuring the most number of newbies in recent memory.
Among those returning are those that suited up for the University of Santo Tomas (UST) when the Tigresses were under the auspices of Victoria Sports during the 2017 PSL Grand Prix. However, the UST core is now divided among the competing teams with the Smart Gigahitters inheriting the most with five, thanks to its new Head Coach Emilio "Kung Fu" Reyes, Jr.-also at the helm of the Tigresses in the UAAP.
Almost the entire United Auctioneers Lady Fighting Maroons are new to the league, with only veteran Isa Molde and Marian Buitre (formerly of Foton) having prior PSL experience. For UE-Cherrylume, the Iron Lady Warriors come in with five rookies while Sta. Lucia has brought in the most number of non-collegiate newcomers with six.
Let's take a look at the ten that have had the biggest impact thus far, three weeks into the current conference.
The libero combo of Jackie Estoquia and DM Demontaño (Sta. Lucia)
They are perhaps one of the most known volleyball tandems in the archipelago, albeit on a different surface as the reigning silver medallists in the recently concluded PSL Beach Volleyball Challenge Cup are now donning sneakers and no longer brandishing their sculpted abs.
Estoquia came into the national picture in the early part of the millennium as a solid beach volleyball specialist and a few years later she teamed up with Demontaño-a professional registered nurse-to make waves on the sand, both locally and internationally. Having survived their rites of passage (an opening day lopsided loss due to poor floor defense), the duo from Iloilo are now gaining ground and have been at the forefront of the Lady Realtors' evolution. Estoquia and Demontaño are proving to be quite a find for Sta. Lucia thus far.
Carly Hernandez (Sta. Lucia)
In FEU, if Rachel Anne Daquis is known as the Queen Tamaraw, Carly Hernandez is dubbed as the Princess. This 5'5" serve specialist from Laguna has her own fans' club despite the fact she hardly saw floor time for the Lady Tamaraws in her three years in FEU. But when she is on the floor, this 19-year-old acts as a second libero and is as feisty as anyone in there. It is because of her girl-next-door looks and disarming smile that fans flock to see her in action. Perhaps the most charming on the team, Hernandez is slowly becoming part of the Lady Realtors' regular rotation and it might not be a matter of before she achieves Daquis-status: looks and skills meshed into one explosive, attractive package.
Nicole Magsarile (UP-United Auctioneers, Inc.)
As I mentioned in a previous piece, the two guest teams (the Lady Fighting Maroons and UE-Cherrylume) have some players that have done a LeBron James (or Kobe Bryant, if you will): jumped straight from high school into the pros. Perhaps the most celebrated is this eighteen-year-old out of the National University (NU) High School who is only about to enter her freshman year at the University of the Philippines (UP). Magsarile captivated audiences with her outstanding debut (albeit a loss) against Generika-Ayala where not only did she hold her own against some of the grizzled PSL veterans on the Lifesavers squad, but also became the one of youngest players to debut in double digits as her eleven point outburst (including the point that won her team the third set in that tiff) made her the first teenager since Jaja Santiago (another NU product) to accomplish that feat in the league. Magsarile, who has had a multitude of international experience representing the Philippines in the junior level, showed that her nerves were ready for the big stage and if this is a sign of things to come for the Lady Maroons' program, then she may yet be a major lift for the UAAP title aspirations of the school this coming season.
Buding Duremdes (Petron)
There is an obvious youth movement going on at the Blaze Spikers' camp and that is in full effect this conference as Petron has activated a number of college stalwarts for their "summer jobs". After the likes of Bernadeth Pons and Sisi Rondina, Duremdes (along with new graduate Pia Gaiser) form a band of diminutive, aggressive volleybelles ready to take the PSL by storm. Duremdes is a no-nonsense, gung-ho floor patroller who will remind many of a young Sher Peñano, simply because she doesn't care where she lands. However, when Pons and Rondina are on the floor with her (as was the case in Petron's last tiff against the Lady Fighting Maroons), the moments in between points turn into a roughhousing session that not only helps in the celebration after a point to the Blaze Spikers, but also serves as additional entertainment to the fans who have come to witness the games. This Iloilo native happens to be the niece of former PBA MVP Kenneth Duremdes, but the innate athleticism is blended with good humor and positivity in this 5'2" pint-sized bundle of energy.
The Viray Twins (Foton)
It's rare in any league to have a pair of identical twins in action. In fact, the PSL may be the only league in the world that has two sets of twins playing at the same time as Foton's Iumi Yongco is now joined by fraternal twin sister Iona of Cocolife while San Beda College-the same educational establishment that gave the PBA the Semerad twins-now brings the first pair of identical twins in the PSL with the emergence of Iza and Ela Viray. The eighteen-year-olds made their first PSL appearance in the Beach Volleyball Challenge Cup last May, drawing amusement from audience members who could not tell them apart. Well, Foton coach Rommel Abella has done us all a favor by making the sisters wear different uniforms. It is now common knowledge that Ela is a libero and Iza is a serve specialist. They even shared the floor together once and the crowd was amused by not only the spectacle of having identical twins on the same floor, but also because of how resilient they both were in trying to get their respective tasks done. The Viray twins may only be sharing their talents with PSL fans for the Invitational, but they will be quite a draw throughout the conference for the Tornadoes struggling to piece things together after a slow start.
Next time, in Part 2, we'll delve into those that have become virtual stars overnight and those who may just yet become complete game-changers in the league.