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Team Philippines have quality bets and heart as it goes to battle in Cambodia Southeast Asian Games

THE COUNTRY’S greatest Olympic athlete of all time may not be in tow but Team Philippines won’t be lacking in quality bets and heart as it goes to combat in the May 5-17 Cambodia Southeast Asian Games (SEAG).

In the absence of Tokyo Games gold-winning weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz, who is focusing on her qualifying tourney for Paris 2024 at this time, world champion gymnast Carlos “Caloy” Yulo and other world-beaters banner the 840-strong contingent in the Phnom Penh meet that officially opens Friday.

Two more medalists from that historic Olympic campaign in the Japanese capital — silver earners Nesthy Petecio and Carlo Paalam — banner the crack boxing contingent as it seeks to continue with its productive harvest in the biennial SEAG.

From that Tokyo Olympiad pool also comes world No. 3 pole-vaulter EJ Obiena in athletics and lady boxer Irish Magno, who are expected to make waves in these Games.

The Billiard sport delegation is filled with cue greats like Efren Bata Reyes and Rubilen Amit. But Mr. Reyes is competing in men’s carom as fellow former world champ Carlo Biado fights for the gold in the 9-ball singles and doubles, along with Johann Chua. With women’s pool scratched off, Ms. Amit is enlisted to play in the carom events with Chezka Centeno.

Jiu Jitsu world champ Meggie Ochoa and World Games winner Junna Tsukii of karate take the cudgels for the Philippine martial artists.

Ms. Diaz’s beloved weightlifting squad offers good prospects themselves, as the pride of the Philippines herself stated.

Vanessa Sarno, the defending SEAG champion and 2020 Asian titlist tipped as Ms. Diaz’s heir apparent, guns for back-to-back in Phnom Penh in a starring role along with Olympian Elreen Ando and promising Kristel Macrohon.

Philippine volleyball’s “Phenom” Alyssa Valdez headlines the popular volleybelles, who underwent training in Japan in line with their medal bid.

Ms. Valdez has been chosen to serve as flag-bearer for the Philippine Sports Commission-backed delegation in Friday’s opening rites. She leads a female-oriented Philippine representation in the parade of nations.

“Alyssa (Valdez) best fits our goal of an almost all-female delegation in the opening ceremony,” Philippine Olympic Committee (POC) President Rep. Abraham “Bambol” Tolentino said yesterday. “She’s not only the face of Philippine volleyball, but Philippine sports as well.”

Some of the top basketball pros of the land like Justin Brownlee and Christian Standhardinger are also on board for Gilas Pilipinas, whose driving force is regaining the lost gold in the sport closest to the heart of Filipinos.

Meanwhile, action continues for the early birds in Cambodia today.

The Filipinas, on the heels of their historic qualification to the FIFA Women’s World Cup and triumph in the Asean championship, begin their hunt for a milestone SEAG women’s football gold today. The Pinay booters face Myanmar at 7:30 p.m. (8:30 p.m. in Manila) at the Army Stadium in a Group A opener.

Coach Alen Stajcic is tempering his expectations against traditional powerhouses like Vietnam and Thailand.

“Vietnam are the favorites to win this tournament. We’re just growing at the moment and we know we have a long way to go to catch up,” he said.

“Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar have been strong for a long time. We respect that they have better history, Hopefully, this tournament will show that we’ve closed the gap even more. Over time, we want to keep progressing not just in Southeast Asia but also in the world.” — Olmin Leyba