As the confetti rained down inside the Batangas City Coliseum, one of the first things the Ateneo-Motolite Lady Eagles did was move to their opponent’s side of the court.
It is one of the many post-match volleyball traditions for each team to say thank you to the opposing team, in a manner that resembles how elementary school students are taught to greet their teachers before class.
For the Lady Eagles, it meant so much more, as they were thanking their former coach Tai Bundit.
In an emotional scene, the Lady Eagles thanked Bundit not just for a hard-fought Finals series, but also for everything the Thai mentor has done for Ateneo, the school’s program, and their individual careers.
Bundit first entered the local volleyball scene in 2013. He was brought in to coach the Lady Eagles prior to the UAAP Season 76 Women’s Volleyball Tournament.
When he first saw that batch of Lady Eagles, Bundit was reluctant to continue.
“Akala niya Team B ‘yung napanood niya,” recalled the Lady Eagles team manager Tony Boy Liao, who also helped recruit Bundit.
It was no coincidence that Season 76, the season Bundit first coached, became a seminal moment for local volleyball. The Lady Eagles headed into that season with minimal expectations having lost five key players.
Bundit turned the players he initially deemed as scrubs into stars. Season 76 was Alyssa Valdez’s first of three MVP seasons. She, along with Denden Lazaro, Ella De Jesus, Jia Morado, Amy Ahomiro, Aeriel Patnongon, and Michelle Morente, pushed the Lady Eagles to one of the most unlikely UAAP championship runs, capped by a classic series against thrice-to-beat rivals De La Salle University Lady Spikers.
Ateneo went on to make three more UAAP Finals and win another UAAP title under Bundit. Along the way, he mentored some of the country’s best volleyball players.
Though he always had difficulty communicating with his players, Bundit reached out to them through his Happy-Happy and Heartstrong mantra.
“Iba talaga ‘yung training niya. He really wanted to push us to be our best,” disclosed Valdez.
“Kahit sobrang hirap talaga ng mga ipapagawa niya sa’yo, makikita mo rin in yourself how much you improve. You can really tell how much he cares for his players in that way.”
Bundit believed that Philippine Volleyball has great potential. He was in charge of Thailand’s youth teams and coached their current senior National Team stars – Nootsara Tomkom, Moksri Chachu-on, Kongyot Ajcharapor, to name a few.
Like Filipinos, Thais are also short compared to the international volleyball powerhouses. But our Southeast Asian neighbors have reached the peaks of the international through reliance on speed and an organized volleyball grassroots system.
Bundit’s Lady Eagles teams and Creamline squads pushed for the same style. Bundit wanted his spikers to be powerful and fast, while his setters were dynamic.
In a way, Bundit opened the eyes of everyone in Philippine volleyball. Up to this year, Bundit has always expressed a willingness to help the National Team, even serving as assistant coach in the 2015 SEA Games.
“Magaling talaga si Tai.
“Marami siyang dinala dito sa Pilipinas na na-adapt na rin naming ibang coaches dito. Mapu-push ka talaga as a coach kapag team niya ‘yung kalaban mo,” said La Salle head coach Ramil De Jesus, who faced Bundit in five straight UAAP Finals.
“Alam naman natin kung ano ‘yung level ni Coach Tai. He did so many things for Ateneo, and also for how we look at volleyball in the country. Coach Tai changed Philippine volleyball. He did so much to help volleyball reach where it is now,” expressed current Lady Eagles head coach Oliver Almadro.
Bundit had known the Open Conference was possibly his final stint as a head coach in the Philippines long before the Finals. Five years in the Philippines had cost Bundit valuable family time. His three kids are getting older. He could not remain absent for much of their lives.
The Cool Smashers pushed through injuries and various other challenges to reach the Finals. Destiny wrote the perfect the script, as the Lady Eagles survived a classic series with BanKo to book the other Finals seat.
Facing his beloved former Lady Eagles squad with his current team – which features some of his longtime wards – Bundit was in a win-win situation, even if the Cool Smashers had not won a title.
This is best illustrated in the Open Conference’s select team – five of the seven were at one point coached by Bundit.
“Today, I’m super happy because five of my players became best players (individual awards winners) in the PVL,” Bundit shared.
Of course, Bundit still got a fitting exit, leaving as he did when he entered: a champion.