Entering the semifinals in the Japanese V1 Women’s League Final Stage, the big question was could the Toray Arrows complete the 2020-2021 season without losing a match.
Toray took on Denso Airybees at the Ota City General Gymnasium in Tokyo in the first semifinal on Saturday. In the other semifinal, reigning champions JT Marvelous played NEC Red Rockets.
At 6-6 in the first set, a spike and ace by Toray captain Ai Kurogo took her team on a 4-0 run to lead 10-6. Denso could not catch Toray in the set, which ended 25-16, 1-0 sets for Toray.
In the second set, Denso used two Kathryn Plummer spikes to take a 13-10 lead, but Toray tied the score at 17. At 23-23, Erina Ogawa spiked to give Toray set point, and Mayu Ishikawa finished the set with a kill. Arrows 25-23, 2-0 set lead.
With Denso needing to win the third set to stay alive, mistakes would be critical for the Airybees. At 15-15, a service error made it 16-15 Toray. Toray setter Nanami Seki then served an ace to make it 17-15. Another Seki serve led to a long rally that Kurogo finished 18-15 for Toray. Denso could not catch up and an Ishikawa spike ended the set 25-20 and the match 3-0 for Toray.
Kurogo led all scorers in the match with 18 points (a block and an ace). Toray were back in the finals for the first time since the 2018-2019 season.
Moving onto the other semifinal, JT Marvelous had a 23-19 lead in the first set, but Sarina Koga led a 4-0 run by NEC with two spikes and a block to tie the score at 23-23. As the set continued into extra points, a spike by Annie Drews and a block by Thailand’s Thatdao Nuekjang for JT, gave the Marvelous the set 29-27, 1-0 sets lead to JT.
In the second set, tied at 16-16, Drews led a 3-0 run with two spikes for the Marvelous. During one of those plays, NEC’s Neriman Ozsoy appeared to injure her left leg when approaching for a back row attack. Ozsoy left the match and did not return, replaced by Nanami Hirose. The gap gained by the Marvelous was enough to give them the set 25-21 and a commanding 2-0 sets lead.
JT had a 15-9 lead in the third set and appeared on their way to a sweep, but an 11-4 run by NEC including six points (five kills and a block) by Hirose off the bench gave NEC a 20-19 lead. An error by JT gave the Red Rockets the third set 25-23, and a JT 2-1 sets lead.
At 4-4 in the fourth, NEC went on a 3-0 run and kept pushing the lead higher to win it 25-15 and force a fifth set.
Tied at 6-6 in the fifth set, a hitting error combined with a Drews spike gave JT the lead 8-6 at the side change. At JT 10-9, Drews with back-to-back kills pushed the lead to 12-9, which was enough for the set win 15-12, 3-2 sets to the Marvelous.
Drews was incredible with 42 points, 18 of her spikes from the back row, five blocks and an ace. Kotona Hayashi had 17 (five blocks) and Nuekjang added four blocks for JT in the win. Sarina Koga led the Red Rockets with 21 (two blocks) in the loss.
In the final, Toray led 23-19 in the first set, but three consecutive blocks by Drews (two) and Nuekjang (one) followed by a service ace by setter Aki Momii, tied the score at 23-23. A Kurogo spike gave Toray a set point at 24-23, which she then followed with a block to give the set to Toray 25-23, 1-0 sets lead.
The second set was close with JT leading 12-11 on Toray's serve, but two separate 4-0 runs by the Marvelous which included four Arrows errors and ended with another Nuekjang block gave JT an unsurmountable lead. It was 25-21 for JT, tied 1-1.
The third set was also tight at 19-18 with Toray serving. Drews spiked to make it 20-18 for JT and Nuekjang went back to serve. Nuekjang then served consecutive aces to give JT a four-point lead, 22-18. Drew finished the set with a kill, 25-21, JT 2-1 sets lead.
At 19-18 JT in the fourth set, Drews killed twice on a 3-0 run to make it 22-18 for JT. Drews then ended the match on JT's second attempt at match point with a spike 25-20, 3-1 sets to the Marvelous.
It was a massive upset by the defending champions in the final to upend the Arrows' perfect season. Toray outspiked JT 63-56, but JT were a wall with 16 blocks to five for the Arrows. Drews led the Marvelous with 25 points, including two blocks. However, the star of the day was Nuekjang with 17 points, including seven blocks and two aces. She only played in seven games all season, but without her in the final, Drews may have had too much to carry for the Marvelous. Jana Kulan was the leading scorer for the Arrows in the loss with 28 (four blocks).
Marvelous Captain and Japanese women's national team libero Mako Kobata was named the league's MVP and Best Libero for the season. Drews, Kulan, Koga, Nanami Seki (Toray, S) Haruyo Shimamura (NEC, MB) and Foluke Akinradewo (Hisamitsu, MB) were also named to the league Best Six.
When the team introduced a new theme song in 2019, little did they know that it would change their history. Two years in a row in the final, and as the song goes "...You can't stop! JT Marvelous."
Final Stage Schedule for February 20, 2021
Toray Arrows - Denso Airybees 3-0 (25-16, 25-23, 25-20)
JT Marvelous - NEC Red Rockets 3-2 (29-27, 25-21, 23-25, 15-25, 15-12)
5th Place Semifinals
Saitama Ageo Medics - Hitachi Rivale 3-1 (25-23, 21-25, 26-24, 25-14)
Okayama Seagulls - Hisamitsu Springs 3-0 (25-17, 25-19, 25-19)
9th Place Semifinals
Victorina Himeji - Toyota Auto Body Queenseis 3-2 (35-33, 19-25, 25-20, 19-25, 15-10)
PFU Blue Cats - Kurobe Aqua Fairies 3-1 (25-10, 22-25, 25-15, 25-19)
Final Stage Schedule for February 21, 2021
JT Marvelous - Toray Arrows 3-1 (23-25, 25-21, 25-21, 25-20)
3rd Place Match
NEC Red Rockets - Denso Airybees 3-1 (19-25, 25-14, 25-21, 25-19)
5th Place Match
Saitama Ageo Medics - Okayama Seagulls 3-1 (17-25, 25-23, 25-20, 25-20)
7th Place Match
Hitachi Rivale - Hisamitsu Springs 3-2 (25-19, 23-25, 14-25, 28-26, 17-15)
9th Place Match
PFU Blue Cats - Victorina Himeji 3-1 (25-15, 23-25, 27-25, 25-18)
11th Place Match
(Both teams to play in Challenge Match Series, Promotion/Relegation against V2 1st and 2nd Place teams in April)
Toyota Auto Body Queenseis 3-1 Kurobe Aqua Fairies (21-25, 25-22, 25-22, 25-20)