Not many gave the Creamline Cool Smashers a chance of winning their seventh Premier Volleyball League (PVL) title.
Yes, they’d probably make it deep, but with a majority of the eleven other squads parading improved rosters and the league’s winningest franchise losing two key starters, many volleyball aficionados considered teams like Chery Tiggo, Petro Gazz, and even eventual finalist Choco Mucho the favorites to bag the All-Filipino Conference.
In the end, not only did Creamline prove all doubters wrong, but the Cool Smashers did it in dominating fashion by churning out another undefeated run—its third since joining the league in 2017.
The departure of iconic playmaker Jia Morado-de Guzman for Japan’s Denso Airybees and erstwhile middle rock Celine Domingo for the Nakhon Ratchasima Volleyball Club in Thailand left an air of uncertainty for Creamline. Coupled with skipper Alyssa Valdez’s recovery from a leg injury that ended her campaign in the previous PVL Invitational, the Cool Smashers had to run with a makeshift line-up that had backup setter Kyle Negrito orchestrating and two of the league’s best opposite hitters in Tots Carlos and Michele Gumabao adjusting to plug holes.
The signing of beach volleyball stalwart Bernadeth Pons proved to be vital as Creamline suddenly had more than enough help at the wing position, while Domingo’s absence rekindled the fire of energizer bunny Risa Sato at the pivot.
With all these ragtag components pieced together, Creamline won its opener against Choco Mucho in four shaky sets.
The Cool Smashers proceeded to trounce the opposition from that point on with its only close call being a come-from-behind five-set triumph against Petro Gazz.
Valdez came off the bench (and one time was even a DNP-CD) to slowly establish her confidence and rhythm. Rookie Lorie Bernardo from the University of the Philippines began getting more minutes at center, albeit against weaker opponents. Ella de Jesus got more starter’s minutes over 2022 Asian Grand Prix Best Libero Kyla Atienza. Former league MVP Jema Galanza started finding more opportunities in various attack spots that were not in her arsenal in her six-year stint with the Cool Smashers. Pangs Panaga was her usual consistent, defense-oriented self but had to contribute offensively for the first time since her college days at the College of St. Benilde.
By the time the preliminary round ended, Creamline brought an 11-0 mark to the playoffs and the rest, as they say, is history.
The winning formula turned out to be the system established by Meneses and former mentor Anusorn “Tai” Bundit, who was brought back by Rebisco management as a consultant.
The system that saw many options for back-row attacks, rhythmic distribution to all spikers, and keen attention to all-around floor defense enabled the team to withstand its personnel issues and the different line-up looks throughout the competition.
Against the Flying Titans in the Finals, however, Creamline also went up against a formidable coach in Dante Alinsunurin—who piloted the NU-Sta. Elena squad to a Spikers’ Turf championship while the PVL Finals was ongoing.
Alinsunurin also led the Choco Mucho run of ten straight victories in the prelims and is also known as a master of in-game adjustments. Before the Finals, his teams had never lost back-to-back matches all year.
After the Game 1 loss to Creamline, Choco Mucho came out with a brilliant game plan to stymy Valdez, diffuse Sato’s efficiency and limit Negrito’s options. The Flying Titans won the first set of Game 2 handily.
Meneses, a long-time assistant to the legendary Minerva Dulce-Pante at Adamson University who served as Bundit’s deputy with the Cool Smashers before inheriting the helm in 2022, suddenly went to his own in-game adjustment: he benched Valdez and Sato and utilized Pons and Bernardo. It took two sets for Alinsunurin and his staff to counter the move and by the time the fifth set came in and the Valdez-Sato tandem returned, the Cool Smashers knew how to counteract Choco Mucho’s ploys and went on to win the title—on the game-winner by Valdez herself.
Creamline has proven time and time again that it is its system and not its components that enables the team to win.
In no stretch of reality will anyone state that Negrito is a better setter than Morado-de Guzman—even Negrito herself. Domingo’s absence was dealt with not because of Sato’s brilliance, but because the system adjusted to Sato’s strengths and required more from Panaga. Pons’ adaptation to Valdez’s role held the fort long enough for the Phenom to attain full strength and the time-share between Gumabao and Carlos worked so well that even if Carlos garnered more points overall, it was still Gumabao who was feted as the league’s Best Opposite Hitter. Carlos went on to win Finals MVP. Galanza and Panaga also won the expected individual awards for their positions, fortifying the statement that the Creamline system is the true reason for its dominance and not its players per se.
That being said, Alinsunurin and his staff exposed several weaknesses. Petro Gazz almost came close to dismantling it. Other squads that took a set from the Cool Smashers in Farm Fresh, Chery Tiggo and Akari showed the blueprints of how to get certain advantages.
Creamline is not invincible.
However, its system allows it a solid chance of winning every time. And until the opposition figures out how to consistently pounce on its weaknesses, then it will be very difficult to count out the league’s winningest franchise from future title exploits.
Creamline can never be counted out.