Year in Review: Malkia Strikers braved it all to qualify for Olympics

Stanley Mutinda Chief volleyball writer

Despite the “Grand-Bluff” that was the year 2020,  thanks to the novel coronavirus pandemic which has brought major disruptions worldwide, Kenya’s national women volleyball team, Malkia Strikers, put a smile on the faces of their fans and Kenyans at large by sealing a return to the Olympics Games to end a 16-year wait.

It was in January, a few months before the pandemic threw the sports’ calendar into disarray, that the Kenyan lasses reclaimed their reputation as Africa’s top dog in the sport after bagging the sole Games ticket reserved for the African countries.

The qualifiers were held in Yaoundé, Cameroon from January 4 to 9 and attracted five countries namely; Kenya, Botswana, Egypt, Nigeria and the hosts.

Paul Bitok’s charges ended their campaign with a one-point advantage over arch-rivals Cameroon who came second on 10 and the hosts’ 3-2 defeat at the hands of the Kenyans, at the penultimate fixture played on January 7, proved costly.

Familiar foes meet

Prior to this decider, the two Africa heavy weights jointly led the table of the qualifiers which was organised in a round-robin format on six points.

But Cameroon who looked imperious as ever boasted a superior sets ratio difference after winning the first two matches – against Nigeria and Botswana – in straight sets. On the other hand, Kenya who had also shown no weakness in their campaign, had won 3-1 against Egypt and 3-0 against Botswana.

The explosive encounter was yet another series of unending duels between the two volleyball titans in the continent and as any other fixture between the two,  the match lived to its billing with many thrills and spills but finally Kenya put their biggest hurdle off their backs by winning 3-2.

By defeating favourites Cameroon, Kenya topped the standings on eight points, one above the hosts and went on to grab the single ticket after defeating lowly ranked Nigeria by straight sets as Cameroon also spiked Egypt in their final match, but the race to Tokyo was already over.

Interestingly, Bitok has not tasted defeat against Cameroon since he took over the reigns at the national team last year in August, winning in the three consecutive meetings; 3-2 in African Games finals in Morocco, 3-1 at the FIVB World Cup Championship and then at the January Olympics qualifier.

By securing the 2020 Games ticket, Malkia Strikers exerted revenge on their rivals who in 2016, at the same venue, won the rights to represent Africa in Rio – their first time -at the expense of the East African queens.

“I have reunited the squad since I took over and now we are playing as a family hence our good performance. The technical bench members and the playing unit are speaking with one voice.

“Cameroon is a good team and they have invested heavily in the game but I thank my players because despite our challenges we have been able to ‘contain’ them. That win is very important and we need to continue improving so that we can continue regaining our lost glory,” Bitok said after the Cameroon win.

No Wanja No Problem

Just two weeks into the Cameroon assignment, long-serving setter Janet Wanja pulled out of the squad citing ”personal commitments”.

On paper it was a big blow for Bitok to lose Wanja who in her decorated career,  has won five Africa Nations Championships, three African Games and a World Grand Prix title in 2015, a first for an Africa team, and six appearances at the World Championships since making her debut in 2004.

But that was not the case as Bitok was ready for life without the dependable Mukumu Girls alumnus, trusting Jane Wacu and Kenya Prisons’ Joy Luseneka to fill the void, and the duo did not disappoint.

“We must move on and I’m optimistic other players in that position will ensure they fit in Wanja’s big shoes. We will also have new changes in the team because there are other key players who will not be in Cameroon due to injuries and other commitments,” said Bitok.

Also, Bitok travelled with rookies Gladys Ekaru and Jemimah Siang’u, with the latter making her maiden appearance in national team colours while the former was called up to fill the shoes of middle blocker Triza Atuka who missed the qualifiers after she was ruled out with a knee injury.

Presidential treat

Just a day after grabbing the sole Games ticket for Africa, the gallant Kenyan queens jetted back to a heroic reception at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport on January 10.

A week later, President Uhuru Kenyatta hosted the team at the Mama Ngina Drive Waterfront in Mombasa where he paid glowing tributeto their tireless effort and dedication that saw the country end a 16-year wait for the quadrennial event.

“Sports is what has put Kenya on the map, in many ways. A lot of people know this country because of our gallant sportsmen and women because they represent what is best about Kenya,’’ President Kenyatta told triumphant Malkia Strikers players then.

At the event, the President challenged Sports Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohammed to ensure the team gets the best preparations ahead of the Summer Games which have since been postponed to July 23 to August 8, 2021.

“We will support you by giving out what you may need during the preparations for you to triumph in Japan because we have the Fund which is operational. Not only volleyball, but all our athletes must benefit from their talents and that’s why my administration is very serious on sports,” he added.

President Kenyatta then gave the nine-time African champions a Ksh 1 million token for their feat in Cameroon.