Alyssa Valdez and Jia Morado are Coach Tai Bundit’s lasting legacy in volleyball

Coach Tai Bundit’s volleyball journey in the Philippines is much like The Karate Kid. No, not the Jackie Chan version but the original one featuring Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita.

The similarities are striking. Bundit is like Mr. Miyagi who is poor in English but rich in wisdom. Luckily, he did not have one Daniel-san but two: Alyssa Valdez and Jia Morado. He guided the development of these two volleyball dynamos through thick and thin. Now that the sensei is walking off into the sunset for the forseeable future, his contribution to Philippine volleyball is cemented by the duo that will forever be linked to him.

Wax on, wax off

To continue the Karate Kid narrative, the Ateneo Lady Eagles were trying to topple the De La Salle University Lady Spikers which can be considered as the Cobra Kai of UAAP women’s volleyball. The ladies in green and white have shown no mercy to their opposition as they have made three straight finals appearances from Season 71 to 73. It was Ateneo’s turn to challenge the defending champions in Seasons 74 and 75 but they came up short. Then, former head coach Roger Gorayeb resigned.

Enter Anusorn “Tai” Bundit: an unknown Thai coach who was brought in by then-team manager Tony Boy Liao.

Bundit preached to his players to be “heartstrong”. But in order to reach that state, one must be physically strong first. He implemented a gruelling training regimen of four to five hours of training twice a day and even on weekends. He willed his players to do four laps in a 400-meter track oval in seven minutes or less. This was his “wax on, wax off” moment to prepare the Lady Eagles for the grinding UAAP season.

This system had its detractors at first. Even Valdez confessed in a recent interview about the countless arguments she had with Bundit. Yet the tension will be gone as the Thai mentor sends a peace offering of kutsinta.

Yet in the middle of the punishing sessions, he gives his players a few minutes to perform a task that completes the Heart Strong training: meditation. Just as it is an integral part of his daily life, Bundit has encouraged every Lady Eagle or Creamline Cool Smasher he has coached to pause and reflect in order to mute the noises inside one’s head and focus on the task at hand.

Path to the championship

The odds of making a return trip to the finals were not in their favor during Season 76. The Lady Eagles clinched the third seed with a 10-4 record but De La Salle had an immaculate 14-0 slate to gain an automatic Finals bid.

Ateneo defeated Adamson in the first round and trashed National University’s twice-to-beat advantage in the second round to make a return trip to the championship stage. But this time, they would have to defeat the Ramil de Jesus-coached squad three times to bag the title.

The goal was not easy. Beating them once is such a tall order, much more thrice. But Bundit’s approach of tough practices and mental preparation has prepared Valdez, Morado, and rest of the Lady Eagles for the battle against the Lady Spikers.

The teams split the first two matches and Ateneo took the first two sets of Game Three. Yet La Salle wanted to re-run the script from last season by capturing sets three and four. Ateneo is staring at losing yet another finals in this fifth set. But battered and bruised they may be, they exorcised the ghosts of last year by winning an extended set and the match, 17-15.

It was then Ateneo’s turn to shut the door and win their first title in UAAP history by besting De La Salle in straight sets. The sensei has taken his students to the top. As for the player who argued much with Bundit? The tough love her coach gave enabled her to attain a black belt in volleyball by becoming Best Scorer, Best Server, Season Most Valuable Player, and Finals MVP all in one year.

There were more “happy, happy” times for the Lady Eagles as they clinched their second consecutive title with a perfect 16-0 season. Valdez won her second Season MVP distinction while Morado earned her stripes as Best Setter.

From Ateneo to Creamline

Valdez wanted to leave the UAAP as a champion. Such was not the case as the Lady Spikers regained the crown in Season 78. The following year turned out to be Morado’s last playing season for Ateneo as the Lady Eagles again fell short against De La Salle. But they will be reunited as players of the Creamline Cool Smashers franchise during the inaugural Premier Volleyball League season. Watching over them is the same master that nurtured their volleyball kung fu: Bundit.

But just like La Salle in the UAAP, the Balipure Purest Water Defenders became their nemesis. They defeated the Cool Smashers in the semifinals of the 2017 PVL Reinforced Conference. Creamline suffered the same fate in the Open Conference despite having a 7-0 record in the eliminations.

Two third-place finishes is something to celebrate. This was not enough for Bundit, Valdez, and Morado though as the mentor pushed her students even further. The Spartan-like training paid off as Creamline won its first PVL title during the 2018 Reinforced Conference by defeating the Paymaya High Flyers. Then as a parting gift to the coach who has molded them for greatness, the duo led the Cool Smashers to another title in this year’s Open Conference. Valdez attained her fifth PVL MVP award while Morado was hailed as Finals MVP.

A lasting legacy in Philippine volleyball

Bundit is leaving a champion just like how he started with Valdez and Morado in Ateneo. But beyond the four titles in six years, his lasting mark to Philippine volleyball are the two players that have endured yet achieved the most under him. The duo that he trained have become permanent fixtures of the Philippine women’s volleyball team and were part of the team that competed in the Asian Games after a 36-year absence.

Now at the peak of their careers, Valdez and Morado has become role models to a new generation of volleyball players who aspire to be like them. Their exploits have attracted a resurgence of Philippine volleyball in the local and international scene. But none of it would be possible if not for a man who, in Jia Morado’s own words, has high standards even though they are at their best already. His high standards has helped the sport grow. That’s why all the players he has mentored has nothing but praise for him.

As he leaves for Thailand on December 14, the best scene to end this movie-like journey is Valdez, Morado, the Lady Eagles, and the Cool Smashers taking a bow to pay reverence to the man that made them masters of the sport.

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