Kat Tolentino and the Choco Mucho Flying Titans face the formidable Creamline Cool Smashers in their first trip to the finals. –MARLO CUETO/INQUIRER.net

The biggest volleyball stage in the country is set with two of the fans' favorites from the Premier Volleyball League (PVL) facing each other.

But although the two teams are practically tied in the stands, on the court it's a different story.

Creamline will enter the PVL All-Filipino Conference Finals as heavy favorites, having won all nine of their previous meetings against sister team Choco Mucho.

The Cool Smashers will also bring their depth and perfect running to Game 1 of the best-of-three series on Thursday at 6pm at the Mall of Asia Arena in Pasay City.

But the Flying Titans hope to bring something new in this last matchup against a team that hasn't been defeated in 13 games in this conference.

“I think the maturity of the team throughout the entire season will definitely help us,” said Kat Tolentino, who has been one of the pillars of Choco Mucho. “We gained a lot of confidence and growth even in the last few games, working together and again following coach Dante (Alinsunurin)’s system because I think that’s really the key.”

Alinsunurin is an important addition, but so is Sisi Rondina, the powerful hitter who gave Choco Mucho a new look in attack.

“We are constantly trying to improve the way we adapt and I think we are getting there, so hopefully in the finals we can show even more,” said Tolentino.

Creamline should be more vulnerable this time around, with the team losing starting setter Jia de Guzman and rising middle blocker Ced Domingo, both of whom left the team to explore career opportunities overseas. Meanwhile, the team's longtime anchor Alyssa Valdez was returning from a long layoff due to injury and played sparingly during the knockout round. In the team's first match of this conference, Choco Mucho dragged the defending champion to five sets before losing.

Yet somehow these casting problems turned into an opportunity for Creamline. Coach Sherwin Meneses managed to discover new gems in the squad, with new star Kyle Negrito showing the biggest jump in value so far.

After winning the elimination round, the Cool Smashers eliminated the Chery Tiggo Crossovers in the semi-finals.

Swollen knee

In the other semi-final pairing, Choco Mucho had to play a decisive Game 3 against Cignal just two nights ago, behind their main star, Deanna Wong, who played excellently despite a swollen knee.

“(Leading the team is) my responsibility and I don’t want to let the team down,” Wong told the Inquirer on Tuesday night after grimacing in pain in the crucial part of the fourth set because of an apparent aggravated knee injury. .

“I was feeling it even before the game, then during the fourth set game, something clicked (in my knee),” she said. “But I still focused on the game. Kinakaya (I joked).

Choco Mucho also breathed fire in the eliminations, winning 10 straight games after losing to Creamline. That run was interrupted by a surprising Cignal win in Game 1 in the semifinal opener.

Maddie Madayag will help Rondina and Tolentino attack the Creamline defense.

And despite the dark history of the match and the long journey ahead of Choco Mucho, Rondina believes that the Flying Titans' work ethic will make the difference this time.

“As I have said repeatedly, (success) can be achieved through (hard) work and if we really want to. This will depend on resilience, perseverance, hard work and patience. We know that Creamline will not back down easily, and we won’t back down either,” said Rondina.

Valdez has slowly regained his old form and will provide the Cool Smashers with a valuable option in addition to Tots Carlos, Jema Galanza and Michele Gumabao.

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The Crossovers and HD Spikers will also decide who will complete the podium in their own best-of-three Game 1 at 4pm at the same Pasay venue.



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