PSL Grand Prix: Taking a closer look at Marinerang Pilipina and Sta. Lucia

With days away from the opening of the Philippine Superliga (PSL) Grand Prix, ESPN5.com delves into the various personnel movement each of the eight member squads have undergone during the offseason. With many teams scurrying to upgrade from last season's finishes, several have made veritable wholesale changes while some have actually stood pat.

Marinerang Pilipina Lady Skippers

During the press conference, head coach Vilet Ponce de Leon expressed delight over the reunion of what she called her ideal coaching triumvirate as former Petron Blaze Spikers deputy Christian "Yani" Fernandez has finally joined her along with assistant coach Ronald Dulay. Marinerang Pilipina, however, will start the season with a practically clean slate as only five of its original roster remains.

The firepower from both wings is still there, though, with Judith Abil and Dimdim Pacres still capable of putting up heavy offensive numbers while diminutive playmaker Rhea Ramirez and skipper Ivy Remulla will still be looked upon for leadership. The Lady Skippers fortify their frontline with the acquisition of 6'0" Coleen Bravo (middle hitter from Creamline in the PVL) who makes her PSL return after a brief stint with the New San Jose Builders-Victorias in the 2016 PSL Invitational.

Helping out in the center is Gen Casugod who was released by PLDT at the end of last season. The 6'2" Bacolod lass now brings Croatian reinforcement Hana Cutura to the wing to now officially make the Lady Skippers one of the tallest teams in the league-a distinction that they never had.

Cutura, 31, is the tallest import at 6'4" and perhaps the most experienced as well with stints in Germany, Japan, Poland, Azerbaijan and France after seeing action for UC Berkeley in the US NCAA. She also represented her country in the 2003 European Junior championship and is said to play all three frontline positions which now gives Marinerang Pilipina a huge boost to get its first win in franchise history.

"(We're going for win) number 1 and number 2 and number 3," Ponce de Leon said. "We are so much stronger this season."

Sta. Lucia Realtors

Other than defending titlists Petron, the Realtors have done perhaps the biggest facelift in the league; losing half of its lineup from 2019 and not even bringing back any of their American imports in Casey Schoenline and Molly Lohman. The team has now entered a full rebuild phase but have so many marquee pieces that it's hard to overlook them as an early dark horse, at least on paper.

The signing of Mika Reyes set the local volleyball scene on fire as the five-time PSL champion will be looked upon to lead what is touted to be a major upheaval and an indication that the league's balance of power could be shifting. More intriguing is Reyes' upcoming partnership with former college rival Amy Ahomiro (who is slated to start at the team's opposite hitter) to form what could be one of the better net defenses in the tournament. Add to the mix former two-time NCAA MVP Royse Tubino, the heady setting of Djanel Cheng (who was Sta. Lucia's first ever playmaker) and the incredible floor patrolling of Bang Pineda and the Realtors have all the ingredients of emerging as an elite squad in the league.

A healthy pair of MJ Phillips and Alex Bollier also gives new head coach Edison Orcullo more weapons which he can mix and match depending on the opposition and we haven't even mentioned the firepower that Pam Lastimosa is capable of brandishing.

The enigmas, however, are Jessica Vestal and import Shainah Joseph.

The 5'11" Vestal, 27, is half-Filipina and discovered about the PSL through Instagram and made a few connections before hooking up with Sta. Lucia and inking a one conference deal. This lawyer by profession was a consistent NCAA Division I scholar and became nationally acclaimed while playing as a graduate student for Belmont University in Tennessee. She is listed as an outside hitter, but possesses a wicked running attack akin to a middle-hitter and is also quite lethal from the backrow.

"Instagram is everyone's best friend," Vestal shared. "I'm looking forward to everything coming together. We've poured in our blood, sweat and tears into training and we have a great group here so I can't wait for the season (to begin)."

Joseph has become an instant sensation since fans caught their first glimpse of "the new" Sta. Lucia and the 24-year-old Ottawa native and former All-American second team member out of the Florida Gators program has shown her explosive attacks and vocal leadership during the recently concluded Mayor Maliksi Cup in Imus, Cavite (the PSL's lone preseason tilt). She also made a bond with the crowd and only adds to the new mystique of a team trying to get its first ever podium finish since joining in 2017.

With the departure of franchise faces Rebecca Rivera (now with Petron), Rachel Austero (now with Chery Tiggo) and erstwhile captain Amanda Villanueva, who declared she is taking a breather from the sport this year, the new look Realtors don't look like a team that is starting anew but an almost finished product where cohesion and chemistry could be the factor between success and struggle this season.