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From also-ran to NC champ

Joey Villar (The Philippine Star) - January 29, 2016 - 9:00am

MANILA, Philippines – College of St. Benilde’s road to NCAA women’s volleyball success was never easy.

The first time Michael Cariño looked at his team when he was appointed Lady Blazers’ new coach three years ago, he mistook his squad for a sumo-wrestling team because most of his players were overweight.

“The first time I saw them, I thought this is a joke. I thought I was seeing a sumo team,” said Cariño.

But through discipline, hardwork and a strict training regimen, Cariño slowly but surely turned the Lady Blazers from the league’s punching bag to what they are right now – champions.

In his first season two years ago, Cariño’s team didn’t even make the Final Four but last year, it came out of nowhere to reach the semis.

This year, St. Benilde barely made the semis. It was the last team to advance along with No. 3 Perpetual Help, No. 2 and last year’s champ Arellano U, and elimination round sweeper San Sebastian – sides the Lady Blazers failed to beat in the elims.

But the Lady Blazers bucked the odds and beat them one after another and capped it with a shock upset of the Lady Stags, who enjoyed thrice-to-beat advantage in the finals.

“The turning point was the semis game against Perpetual Help. It showed us we’re capable of achieving something big,” said Cariño.

Jeanette Panaga came through with the biggest performance as she ended up with a series-high seven blocks in helping St. Benilde shackle reigning back-to-back MVP Gretchel Soltones and San Sebastian in the deciding (25-22, 25-23, 22-25, 25-22) Game Four win Thursday.

For that, Panaga earned the Finals MVP plum and was named new team captain for next season.

“Yes, It’s definitely her,” said Cariño pointing to Panaga, a 21-year-old native of the coastal town of Limay, Bataan.

Panaga was quick to accept the challenge.

“It’s a big responsibility but I will give it my best to live up to expectations,” said Panaga, the league’s two-time Best Blocker.

Like Panaga, outgoing skipper Djanel Cheng and Janine Navarro were also pivotal in the title run.

Cheng provided stability for the team, playing the facilitator to the hilt while contributing in other things like blocking and defending while Navarro was the main weapon in St. Benilde’s attack.

But Cheng and Navarro played their last NCAA game, leaving Panaga the leadership mantle.

ACIRC ARELLANO U ATILDE BEST BLOCKER BUT CHENG AND NAVARRO BUT THE LADY BLAZERS CARI LADY BLAZERS PANAGA PERPETUAL HELP ST. BENILDE
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