SEA Games preview: Gonzaga, PH women's volleyball team eye podium repeat

Jovelyn Gonzaga said the national women's volleyball team is "going to do our best to get that podium finish." KC Cruz/ESPN5

When the Philippines last hosted the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games in 2005, the women's volleyball team captured the bronze medal by defeating Singapore and Indonesia and finished with the third best record in the tournament that was eventually won by Thailand.

Several of the members of that team are still relevant in today's national volleyball scene with setter Rubie de Leon still playing in the Philippine Superliga (PSL) for Sta. Lucia, while middle-hitter Mary Jean Balse-Pabayo and outside spiker Michelle Carolino don the Pacific Town-Army jerseys in the Premier Volleyball League (PVL). The recently retired former PSL MVP Tina Salak was still in the United Volleyball Club coaching staff prior to its disbandment this season, while many like Cherry Rose Rivera-Macatangay, Maureen Penetrante-Ouano and Roxanne Pimentel-So are still visible in the coaching realm.

After 2005, the Philippine volleyball program has been thrown into a flux with federation issues and warring factions threatening to put a permanent demise to what was once a medal-rich event in previous editions of the biennial meet. In fact, since volleyball was included in the games in 1977, the Philippines has finished on the podium in every staging -- winning the gold medal six times, the last being in the 1993 Singapore undertaking.

The 2015 version of the Singapore games saw the return of the Pinay volleybelles after a decade, but have not experienced the same level of success, finishing in fifth and then fourth in 2017 in Malaysia.

Returning national team stalwart Jovelyn Gonzaga has reason to believe that this SEA Games, the present national contingent might not only break the dry spell, but also replicate the 2005 showing.

"Our cohesion is superb now and may have just the right combination of players to get (the podium finish) done," Gonzaga told ESPN5.com in Filipino. "The entry of Aiza (Maizo-Pontillas, who replaced PSL MVP Kalei Mau on the lineup after eligibility issues) might even be a blessing in disguise because her international experience would be huge in this tournament."

The final lineup consists of Gonzaga, Maizo-Pontillas, Mylene Paat, liberos Dawn Macandili and Kath Arado, wingers Alyssa Valdez, Ces Molina and Eya Laure, setters Rhea Dimaculangan and Jia Morado along with middle blockers Mika Reyes, Majoy Baron, Maddie Madayag and skipper Aby MaraƱo. Shaq de los Santos (who was one of Ramil de Jesus' deputies in 2005) is the head coach.

Conspicuously absent are the towering Santiago sisters, Din-Din (Manabat) and Jaja, who could not wriggle out of their commitments as imports in Japan.

"We're not even thinking anymore of Din-Din and Jaja not being here," Gonzaga continued. "This is the team we have now and with all the training we've undergone, we've become very tight as a unit."

Gonzaga was not even supposed to be part of this squad at the onset.

"When I got injured, being part of the national team again was farthest from my mind. I wasn't even sure if I'd be playing even close to the level of where I was at before I got hurt," she said.

Having battled her way back from a career-threatening ACL injury in late 2017, she began brandishing the form that made her among the top players in the country as early as this season's PSL All-Filipino Conference (after more than a full a year in recovery).

But since the coaching staff was still unsure of her condition, she was left out of the original pool of players for the national team.

"When I began getting stronger, the beach volleyball team asked if I wanted to be a national player again," said Gonzaga. "Coach (Paul Jan) Dolorias was already offering to me a slot on the team and I was already training with them when Coach Shaq asked me to consider suiting up again for the indoor team."

Gonzaga made her first SEA Games appearance in Indonesia in 2011 and quickly became a star on the sand. Her inclusion in this edition's beach volleyball squad would have made her come full circle, but fate had other plans.

"Coach Dolorias was gracious enough to allow me to join the indoor team and I did so without any expectations on whether or not I'd be included in the final line-up. If I got cut, then I'd still be supporting both teams during the games anyway. I just left it all up to the Lord," Gonzaga explained.

With her surgically-repaired knee getting stronger and with her slowly re-attaining her playing weight after the injury allowed her to go above that, Gonzaga started becoming an integral part of the team's primary focus: it's defense. With her libero-like skill-set, nose for the ball and ridiculously high volleyball IQ, it wasn't long before the coaching staff placed her back where she belongs: representing flag and country on home turf at the PhilSports Arena in December.

"They say I'm getting sexier," she joked. "But seriously, I feel so honored to be selected. The trust of the coaching staff in me despite my long layoff, the struggles to get back to my playing weight and (for me) to regain my timing with the young ones is overwhelming. But we do have a mission and I will do everything I can to fulfill that."

Now considered among the senior members of the squad, the former PSL MVP and former captain now embraces her role as one of the team leaders.

"I see a lot of potential in people like Eya, Kath and Maddie," she said. "They will be around for a long time and if I can help them in anyway get better, not only for this tournament but for the future, then I'd have already made a contribution."

The program that was almost forgotten for nearly a decade has made great strides in recent years: qualifying for the 2018 Asian Games (for the first time since 1982), seeing action in a number of international meets, training abroad and even getting to defeat Vietnam (at full strength during the 2017 Asian Women's Seniors Championship), as well as stretching world #23 Kazakhstan to five sets, winning a set over the Thai national team (ranked 14th in the world) and staying committed to the program, the Philippines could be at the doorstep of re-emerging as an ASEAN powerhouse.

And with only four teams taking part in the women's tournament after the pullout of Singapore and Malaysia, the nationals now have a three in four shot of garnering at least the same result from 2005.

"We're going to do our best to get that podium finish," Gonzaga declared. "We've beaten Vietnam before and we've come close against Indonesia. We're currently at about a seven out of ten on where we need to be, but by December we'll surely be ready. It's for our country and I'll be in 'Bionic Mode'."

The volleyball competition will kick off on December 2 at the Philsports Arena.