With the opening of the 2020 Philippine Superliga (PSL) Grand Prix just a day away, ESPN5.com looks 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 wholesale changes while some have stood pat.
Since 2017, F2 Logistics and Petron have met for the Philippine Superliga (PSL) championship six times with the Cargo Movers only managing to defeat the Blaze Spikers on two occasions. One of those, however, was in the 2018 Grand Prix when the tandem of "The Blonde Mamba" Kennedy Bryan and eventual MVP Maria Perez upended their rivals' combination of Kath Bell (who only came in during the playoffs) and mainstay Lindsay Stalzer.
Stalzer has since joined F2 Logistics but was denied in 2019 when Petron fielded in Steph Niemer along with Bell plus a determined local crew that went 14-0 entering the Finals.
Now that the Blaze Spikers have lost most of that core during the offseason, will the Cargo Movers reclaim the title or will a new system led by a legendary coach be enough for Petron to win its fourth Grand Prix and seventh overall crown?
Here is our final instalment for team previews for the upcoming 2020 PSL Grand Prix.
Petron Blaze Spikers
Yes, the inevitable finally happened to the Blaze Spikers: they are now a team in transition.
With only five members (and only three starters) of its championship runs still with the squad, many don't expect Petron to be that same dominating entity that clobbered the opposition last season en route to a 14-0 sweep of the preliminary round all the way to the semifinals. The two key pieces in their success have always been Rhea Dimaculangan (who spent all but one season of her PSL career in Petron) and iconic libero Den-Den Lazaro (who is sitting out all volleyball activities after her recent marriage to PBA player L.A. Revilla).
With only national team members Ces Molina and veteran Aiza Maizo-Pontillas left to man the wings along with vastly improved middle hitter Rem Palma, can the Blaze Spikers get its new acquisitions to be vital cogs in this year's opening campaign?
The pieces are quite valuable, actually.
Rebecca Rivera is with a new team for the first time in four seasons and will have to fill those big DMac shoes immediately. The University of Connecticut (UConn) alum has shown so much promise with her playmaking and leadership abilities in her years with Sta. Lucia and will now have to distribute to some of the most talented scorers in league history, namely Molina and Maizo-Pontillas.
The resurfacing of two former PSL champions in Ging Balse-Pabayo and ageless floor patroller Angela Nunag (with the four-time titlists Philippine Army) will add that necessary boost while former Best Opposite Hitter awardee Shang Berte could find herself in a situation where she will have to play multiple positions as she did as a collegian in Holy Cross Davao.
Gallenero will give ample support to Nunag while the towering duo of Lut Malauan and former Sta. Lucia starter Roselle Baliton won't leave the Blaze Spikers wanting in terms of ceiling.
The news that actually rivalled the departure of its mainstays is actually the hiring of 70-year-old volleyball icon Emil Lontoc as the new coach.
Lontoc-known in the industry as a legitimate "star maker" due to his success with the Lyceum of the Philippines University (LPU) program which he led to multiple WNCAA titles without a recruitment system-is no-nonsense coach who drills on basics and trust to attain positive results.
"He's an old school guy," Bell shared. "But he's my kind of guy because he certainly knows what he's doing and we all respond to him."
Whether Petron has spent enough time in training camp to not only familiarize with one another but also imbibe Lontoc's winning system remains to be seen. But what is sure is that most of the vocal leadership on and off the court will fall on the shoulders of Bell who will be donning the skipper's stripe under her jersey number.
This will be Bell's third season with the Blaze Spikers. She played a big role in their the last two titles due to her gung-ho approach on the court and the camaraderie she sparks off of it. Lazaro once called her the "ultimate teammate".
Bell treats this season as an "expansion" but that doesn't mean they won't be giving it their all.
"We know how to win," she said. "It's now just getting everyone to believe in it and putting it all out on the court. This may appear to be an expansion year, but we're still going to do our best to defend our championship."
F2 Logistics Cargo Movers
The Cargo Movers are the most intact team as far as its core is concerned. The only non-collegian they lost is reserve Fritz Joy Gallenero who was picked up by archrival Petron but they did gain another former De La Salle University (DLSU) volleybelle in 5'8" Rovena Instrella-who only played one season in the UAAP.
It hardly matters as national team members Majoy Baron, Dawn Macandili and skipper Aby Maraño will still be joining forces with wunderkind Kim Kianna Dy, former MVP Ara Galang and a now healthy Kim Fajardo to comprise the local starters for Coach Ramil de Jesus.
Of course, reigning All Filipino Conference MVP Kalei Mau is in tip top form and now that she is able to work consistently with Fajardo it could yield a barrage of points that the opposition may not be able to diffuse.
Another former MVP in 6'1" Stalzer-who looks to be in excellent shape-will be detonating anew for F2 Logistics, who dealt the Blaze Spikers their lone loss last season after their titular series went the distance, denying Petron what would have been the first "perfect conference" in league history. That one blemish in Petron's otherwise stellar run in the 2019 edition of the Grand Prix served notice that the Cargo Movers were just a heartbeat away from the crown and with Petron in rebuild mode to start the year, many experts see a clean path to the championship for F2 Logistics.
Imagine having Mau and Galang manning the outside wing, Stalzer in the opposite wing with Maraño and Baron alternating at the middle, Fajardo setting and Macandili not allowing anything to drop. Then when frontline substitutions come in, here come Dy and veteran Alex Cabanos to sustain the attack. That's ridiculous.
Of course, anything can happen in the PSL. On paper, though, F2 Logistics should be the favorites coming in.