ATENEO star Alyssa Valdez said she can count with the fingers in her spiking hand the English words in the vocabulary of the Lady Eagles' Thai coach.
Yet those few words have gone a long way in inspiring the Lady Eagles to victory after victory.
With Thai Anusorn 'Tai' Bundit plotting Ateneo's attack from the sidelines while mumbling those few English words during animated huddles, the Lady Eagles have gone on a magical run that saw them reach the UAAP women's volleyball finals for the third successive time.
This latest finals appearance, though, is the most unexpected of all for the Lady Eagles, who, after last season's finals loss to nemesis De La Salle, not only lost coach Roger Gorayeb as well as most in the 'Fab Four' core that had turned Ateneo into a volleyball power in the league.
More surprising is the fact that the Lady Eagles have somehow survived three do-or-die games in the playoffs - two against the Santiago sisters-powered National University - despite the obvious language barrier between them and their coach.
Valdez, the lone remnant of the 'Fab Four' core from last season, said by her count the only words 'Tai' can speak during games are four, namely 'heart,' 'strong,' 'happy,' and 'no problem.'
Recently named Ms. Volleyball by the Philippine Sportswriters Association (PSA), Valdez said the communication gap can be frustrating at times, but coach and team somehow feel a connection, thanks to the game.
“Minsan 'yun 'yung naiinis kami kasi nag-i-instruct siya di namin maintindihan," said Valdez. "Sasabihin niya, 'Oh oh oh.' So kami, 'Coach, we cannot understand.' Sasabihin niya naman, 'We did last time,' so kami gets na namin, kasi may common ground kami - volleyball.”
The Lady Eagles wobbled during a stretch when Bundit had to go back to Thailand to attend to his duties as coach of the country's Team B training squad.
But Ateneo has no doubt been reinvigorated since Bundit's return, winning seven straight games in a run capped by Saturday afternoon's 25-22, 8-25, 25-19, 25-22 win over the twice-to-beat Lady Bulldogs that set it up for a title rematch against three-time champion La Salle.
In all, Bundit, absent during the Lady Eagles' two losses to La Salle during the season, has dropped just one game with Ateneo all season - the opening-day loss to the NU Lady Bulldogs.
On second thoughts, Valdez said it was good the 46-year-old Bundit only knows a few Tagalog words. Otherwise the Lady Eagles would've gotten a mouthful from their coach during their struggles, she added.
“Feeling ko effective nga siya kasi isipin mo kung marunong siya mag-Tagalog lahat ng bad things na ginagawa ng team sasabihin niya, and it affects the morale (of the team),” said Valdez with a smile.
“Eh ngayon ang alam niya, heart, strong, happy, no problem. So paano ka di mai-inspire maglaro.”
Valdez continued: “Pag iniisip namin na happy, okay, light lang 'yung mood. Pag nagkaka-error, ok bawi tayo next time, walang mag-iiwanan. So heart, strong talaga. 'Yun talaga ang nagma-matter kasi pag papalo ka ibibigay mo na lahat.
"'Yun ang psychology na nagagawa ng simple words niya (Bundit). Nababago niya ang paglalaro namin.”
But more than anything else, Valdez said it is Bundit's spartan-like training regimen that has transformed this unheralded Ateneo batch into a championship contender.
As backbreaking as the regimen is, the hardwork has been all worth it, she added.
“Si Coach Tai, oh my God, siguro kahit kayo 'pag nakita niyo kami sa training maaawa kayo sa amin,” said the Ateneo stalwart. “Sabi nga ni Sir Tony (Liao, the Ateneo team manager), tao lang kami na nawawalan ng patience minsan, and napapagod din kami sa practice, twice a day, may school pa.”
“Pero at the end of the day, everything na pinapagawa niya nagbubunga talaga. Nagkakaroon kami ng muscle memory na ito na ang gagawin namin. Mino-motivate niya kami to play with heart strong, happy, and unity lang.”