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Year in Review 2018: Volleyball's many storylines

(Clockwise from top): The Philippine women's volleyball team at the Asian Games, Petron and F2 slug it out in the PSL All-Filipino Conference finals, Gy Silva of Smart smashes one, and Ateneo's Marck Espejco celebrates his historic feat. ESPN5

Editor's note: the ESPN5.com team looks back at 2018's top stories in local sports with our Year in Review series.

Philippine volleyball in 2018 will be looked back upon as a banner year for several individuals who created historical achievements and teams that rose greater heights.

The University of the Philippines (UP) Lady Maroons emerged victorious in tournaments it had never won before. Three top locals took their talents overseas. The Philippine women's team broke a 36-year silence while a Cuban playing for an expansion team that had not won a single match pulled off a feat that only four others in the history of the sport had ever accomplished.

Here's how 2018 went down.

In the collegiate ranks, the Arellano University Lady Chiefs-led by Finals MVP Regine Arocha-defended their crown against up and coming San Beda University (SBU) and claimed its third championship in four years while the University of Perpetual Help System DALTA (UPHSD) reclaimed the title it lost last season to the College of St. Benilde on the men's side. Freshman Joebert Almodiel led the Altas' attacks all season long and was adjudged MVP.

Unfortunate news rocked the NCAA as well as SBU men's varsity member Bryan James Gonzales met his untimely demise in a car accident in Zambales on June 30th. He was only 21.

The UAAP women's competition saw the Far Eastern University (FEU) crash into the finals against eventual titlists De La Salle University (DLSU) to mark the first time in seven years that the Lady Spikers did not face archrivals Ateneo de Manila University (AdMU) in the championship series. Dawn Macandili became the first libero in competition history to be feted as Finals MVP in the process.

History was also made when the National University (NU) men's squad ended the three-year reign of Ateneo as the Bulldogs used a practically intact line-up from last season's runner-up finish to spoil the Blue Spikers' ambitions of tying the longest consecutive title run-still held by the University of Santo Tomas (UST)-and also ruin the farewell season of Marck Espejo-arguably the best player in the land today. Wunderkind Bryan Bagunas was named Finals MVP.

Espejo, however, was named season UAAP MVP for an unprecedented fifth straight time while the distaff division had Jaja Santiago finally winning it on her final year of eligibility for NU.

Both MVPs went on to make history anew as the first Filipinos to see action in the prestigious V-League in Japan with Espejo signing with the Oita Miyoshi Weisse Adler squad and Santiago joining Saitama Ageo Medix.

Espejo still dons his #15 jersey his club and is presently ranked sixth in the league in blocks, 12th in scoring, 13th in attack rating and 23rd in service aces. His club, however, is presently at 2-10.

Santiago has been a vital cog for her squad and is currently second in the league in attack rating, third in aces, sixth in Saab Effect Rating, 16th in blocks and 25th in scoring.

Later on, Santiago's older sister-and former Philippine Superliga (PSL) MVP-Din-Din Manabat also got inked to a V-League deal with the Toray Arrows but has yet to see action after three games in uniform.

Prior to their international individual sorties, the Santiago sisters were also part of another historical feat as the Philippines made its first appearance in the women's volleyball competition of the Asian Games for the first time since 1982 in India.

Last August in Indonesia, the nation was represented by the best players from the PSL and the Premier Volleyball League (PVL) and finished eighth, registering a straight sets win versus Hong Kong and were able to steal one set twice against the host country. Its breakthrough performance was coming close to defeating Kazakhstan (the 23rd ranked nation in the world), but the girls succumbed in five grueling sets. The Philippines is tied for 117th in the world.

The following month, the core of the Creamline Cool Smashers of the PVL along with some PSL and PVL reinforcements represented the country in the Asian Cup in Thailand and suffered heartbreaking five-set losses to Iran and Australia before prevailing over the Kazakhstan junior team twice to salvage ninth place.

Unbeknownst to many, the F2 Logistics Cargo Movers of the PSL also saw action in this year's staging of the Women's Volleyball Kor Royal Cup where teams from Australia, Fiji, Vietnam and host nation Thailand took part in this invitational tournament patronized by Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, the Princess Royal of Thailand. F2 garnered a fourth place finish.

2018 was also the year that the UP Lady Maroons established its program as championship caliber by triumphing in both the PVL Collegiate Conference and the PSL Collegiate Grand Slam. Using different line-ups in both tournaments, UP Head Coach Godfrey Okumu showcased his unique approach to the game that has many aficionados predicting that the Lady Maroons could follow in the footsteps of its basketball brothers and perhaps even surpass its modest showing.

In the PVL, Creamline grabbed all the headlines by dominating the competition en route to titles in the two regular conferences-upending Pay Maya (now Smart in the PSL) in the Reinforced edition and turning back Motolite-Ateneo in the Open Conference. The Cool Smashers, led by national team mainstays Alyssa Valdez, Jia Morado, former U23 ace Risa Sato and legendary coach Anusorn "Tai" Bundit, lost only four matches all season long.

The final championship of Creamline came with a bitter pill as Bundit-who had steered the Ateneo Lady Eagles to back-to-back UAAP crowns-had declared that he would return to his native Thailand for good. An outpouring of farewell messages and tributes to Bundit flooded social media as his indelible mark on Philippine volleyball is now part of history.

The PSL saw its "Dynasty Rivalry" continue into 2018 as the Petron Blaze Spikers and the F2 Logistics Cargo Movers alternated trips atop the podium.

With the PSL realigning with the new FIVB competition calendar for the year, 2018 began with the same Grand Prix conference that concluded 2017 with F2 going the full route against the Blaze Spikers to nab its second league title behind the exploits of the "Blonde Mamba" Kennedy Bryan and eventual MVP Maria Perez of Venezuela.

However, the Cargo Movers did not have its core consisting of Macandili, Majoy Baron and Kim Kianna Dy for the most part of the conference due to their participation in the UAAP season and although F2 still walloped the competition and lost only once during the preliminary round, Petron finished with a similar record behind the offense of veteran American reinforcement Lindsay Stalzer and scoring machine Hillary Hurley.

Petron used its full artillery and even if Hurley sat out the latter portion of the tournament due to knee issues, her replacement happened to be a former United States junior squad luminary in Kat Bell who was just too much for F2's best efforts. Stalzer was named MVP.

The Invitational Conference somehow had both squads grouped together in the preliminaries and the Cargo Movers got bumped to second place and had to go through a tough quarterfinal match-up against the revitalized Sta. Lucia Lady Realtors. Having won that contest once again put the bitter rivals on a collision course for the crown and this time F2 used its full roster to sweep the Blaze Spikers in its fifth titular clash.

The season-ending All-Filipino tournament would mark its sixth championship battle, but Petron came into the finals with an unblemished 12-0 mark while the Cargo Movers had lost twice (once to the Blaze Spikers) during the prelims and had to survive a nail-biting five-set semifinals tiff against Generika-Ayala (the other team that had given beaten them) before the anticipated finale.

Petron got Game 1 in straight sets, but F2 ended the Blaze Spikers' streak at 13 by using its best defense of the season in snaring the second game and pushing the series to a decider. Petron eventually regrouped and outgunned the Cargo Movers in the finale to attain its fifth championship in six years.

The 2018 PSL season, however, will always be remembered for one amazing performance by a soft-spoken, hard-hitting behemoth that entered the annals of volleyball forever.

Gyselle Silva became the first Cuban import to play in the PSL and was tapped by newcomers Smart Communications (the Gigahitters). Silva immediately showed a knack of scoring with heavy bombs that could diffuse even the best defenders.

On April 7th in Batangas City, a second-round encounter between the winless Gigahitters and eventual semifinalists Cocolife went the distance and the Asset Managers edged the newbies in the hotly contested match.

But Silva had gone on to bombard the opposition with a staggering 56 points that not only shattered the league scoring record of 41 established by Serbian national team sensation Sara Klisura (who was ironically on the other side of the net for Cocolife during that match) but also notched the third highest output of all-time in volleyball with only Azerbaijan's Polina Rahimova's 58 markers (achieved in Japan in 2015) and two 57-point outputs from American Madison Klingdon and Elitsa Vasileva of Bulgaria-both attained in the Korean Volleyball League (KVL)-as the only efforts to eclipse the 27-year-old Havana native's feat.

Prior to the individual awards ceremonies for the Grand Prix, the PSL (through the auspices of ESPN5) played a video showing every point Silva had scored (53 attacks and 3 aces). Silva had difficulty holding back tears and vowed to return to the Philippines if called upon again for the 2019 Grand Prix (which commences on February).

The coming year will have the Philippines hosting the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games for the first time since 2005-the last time the Philippines medaled in volleyball, courtesy of a bronze in Bacolod.

With several international tournaments also in the pipeline for the national teams (including the youth squads) to see action, 2019 could be the year the Philippines moves into relevance in the FIVB rankings.

On the local front, will Creamline stay intact and still slay the opposition in the PVL? Will Petron and F2 continue its power struggle in the PSL? Will the UP Lady Maroons be a team of destiny or will DLSU claim its fourth straight UAAP championship? Will more homegrown talents follow in the footsteps of Valdez (who played in Taiwan and Thailand a couple of years ago), Espejo and the Santiago sisters? Will home court help the country win that elusive SEA Games medal?

Volleyball is now firmly entrenched as the nation's second most watched spectator sport. 2018 proved that and 2019 could see an uptick in that trend.