THIS time a year ago, the Philippine men’s volleyball team scored a miraculous come-from-behind win over powerhouse Thailand to clinch the silver medal of the 30th Southeast Asian Games and change the landscape of its sport.
On December 8, 2019, Bryan Bagunas nailed the biggest spike of his career as the Filipino Spikers stunned the "five-peat"-seeking Thais, 17-25, 25-20, 23-25, 27-25, 17-15, in front of their loud and proud countrymen at the PhilSports Arena in Pasig City.
It was a day when the national team proved that anything is possible.
They recovered from the brink of elimination, fighting back from a 21-24 deficit in the fourth set against the four-time defending SEA Games champion.
“Noong fourth set kasi lalo na yung match point na ang Thailand, niremind ko lang yung team na mag-focus sa game, dinetalye ko yung sitwasyon sa loob ng court, advantage tayo kasi nasa home court tayo. Nandoon yung puso ng mga players na naglalaro sa court. Kitang kita mo sa kanila na gusto nilang manalo,” national team head coach Dante Alinsunurin recalled to Spin.ph.
“Kaya nung nakuha namin yun fourth set sinabi ko sa team na para sa atin itong game kaya wag tayo bibitaw, kaya pagdating ng fifth set nakuha na namin yung momentum at nanalo kami,” he added.
The Filipino spikers survived a nail-biting fifth set and stunned the Thais with Bagunas delivering the game-winning hit, off a brilliant back set from Jessie Lopez, to assure a silver medal finish for the first time after four decades.
Bagunas finished with 27 points capped by a game-winning hit that went down as one of the greatest spikes in Philippine volleyball history.
But even though he was immortalized as the hero of the national team, the former UAAP MVP said that he gained the strength and courage from his teammates bannered by Marck Espejo, who finished 20 points and 12 excellent receptions in that game, as well Kim Malabunga, Rex Intal, Ranran Abdilla, John Vic De Guzman and starting setter Joshua Retamar, and veteran back-up Lopez as well as liberos Jack Kalingking and Ricky Marcos.
“Kinakabahan na talaga ako ng malala pero iniisip ko na lang na may tiwala ako sa teammate ko. Alam kong hindi sila bibitaw and siyempre mas tinatagan ko din sa mga part na crucial. And doon sa match point wala na ako ibang iniisip dun kung hindi, spike ko nalang talaga,” said Bagunas. “Kasi yung defense ni Marck and set ni Kuya Jess nilaban so inisip ko pag di ko pinalo yun masasayang yung effort nila dun kaya nilaban ko na lang talaga.”
Two days after that miracle comeback, the Philippine men’s volleyball team yielded in the gold medal match against Indonesia in four sets but the players and coaches were all proud in receiving their precious silver medals as they all believed that they took their sport to greater heights.
“Life-changing talaga yung SEA Games na yun para sa akin at hindi lang sa akin, sa lahat ng men’s volleyball player sa Pinas. Unang-una mas nabibigyan ng pansin na yung men’s volleyball jan sa atin sa Pilipinas. Then para naman sakin ayun madami ako natutunan noon at mas nakilala pa ako sa larangan ng Volleyball,” said Bagunas, who is currently in Japan for his second year stint as Oita Miyoshi’s import.
That silver medal really embarked a golden age for men’s volleyball.
The Filipino Spikers gained more interest from fans and aspiring players and earned more respect as they were prioritized by the Larong Volleyball sa Pilipinas Inc. (LVPI) in joining Asian Volleyball Confederation (AVC) tournaments.
They were listed as participants of the Asian men’s Club Volleyball Championship and AVC Cup. The UAAP also changed the schedule of its volleyball games, giving alternating timeslots for men’s and women’s games for equal exposure.
“Dahil sa performace namin nun last SEA games marami ang mga player na naging interesado players na itaas ang kanilang laro para na rin makasama sila sa National Men’s Volleyball Team at mag represent ng bansa sa darating na SEA Games,” Alinsunurin said. “Ito na rin ang pinakamataas na achievement ng isang coach sa SEA games after 42 years, dahil sa achievement na ito nagkaroon ang UAAP Men’s Volleyball ng magandang time slot sa TV.”
However, the Coronavirus pandemic halted the flight of men’s volleyball in reaching greater heights including all sporting events.
Fast forward to the present day, the volleyball players are still limited to online individual training for the past nine months. Espejo and Bagunas are the only active players, playing in international leagues, while the others are still waiting for the plans of Spikers’ Turf for next year as it has yet to bare its calendar for the next season.
It’s frustrating and overwhelming for Alinsunurin as they were hopeful to keep the momentum going for the male spikers this year.
But everytime Alinsunurin remembers and watch the replays of their amazing silver medal run in the SEA Games, it gives him hope that the Philippine men’s volleyball players will come back stronger and continue to strive hard even though they will have to start from scratch again.
“Hindi lang ngayong araw ko naalala, nung nagkaroon ng pandemic lagi ko rin binabalik balikan panoorin yun games namin sa SEA games,” the national team coach said. “Yun nga lang nasayang talaga kung ano ang nasimulan namin last SEA Games. Kasi ngayon parang back to zero na naman kami dahil walang practice at wala ding game exposure.”
“Sana payagan na ng IATF makapag start na rin ng training at mag-resume na ulit ang mga liga. Malaking tulong kasi ito sa programa ng National Team,” he added.