Kenya’s “Malkia Strikers” captain Mercy Moim has urged Africa to trust in indigenous coaches after Kenya coach Paul Bitok delivered a tactical masterclass on Tuesday night in the 3-2 (25-16, 23-25, 25-21,23-25, 15-11) win over Cameroon at the ongoing Tokyo Olympics qualifiers here in Yaoundé.
Teamwork, experience, fighting spirit and pressure!
These are the three words that featured prominently in the post-match presser.
The first three combined to overcome the latter as Kenya bagged two crucial points and inched closer to a return to the Olympics after 16-year absence.
The win took Kenya’s tally to eight points and victory against lowly Nigeria today will see the nine-time African champions book the ticket to Tokyo.
For Moim, this will be the “best thing” in her career having participated in the 2008, 2012, 2016 Olympic qualifiers, unsuccessfully.
“I want to thank God for the win. We showed good fighting spirit against a tough opponent. Thanks to my coach for coming back to our team and bringing good spirit and teamwork.
“We Africans have to believe in our coaches first before looking elsewhere,” said Moim who contributed 19 points on the night.
It was a night that started with Kenya producing their best start in this competition and ended with Sharon Chepchumba, who scored a game-high 30 points, capping a historic night with the match winner. But in between, Bitok showed his tactical acumen to floor Cameroon’s Jean Rene Akono.
Bitok, who only took over this team in August last year, had earlier beaten Egypt ,coached by Brazilian Marco Queiroga, and Botswana, led by another Brazilian Augusto Sabbatini.
It was the third time Bitok was guiding Kenya past Cameroon having beaten them in the African Games final and the World Cup. But this win was certainly sweeter coming at their own backyard.
“Whenever we meet Cameroon it’s war, it’s not just a normal game. We remained calm all through and didn’t put our players under pressure.
“We had strong services which worked well for us since it prevented them from playing through the middle. Side block was going to be easy for us,” said Bitok.
“This win is important for me. I have now beaten both Cameroon men and women at home and I am proud of my players for giving me this win,” he added.
Qualifying for the Olympics was the ultimate goal when Bitok replaced Finnish coach Shaileen Ramdoo last year.
Taking over a divided team, Bitok’s immediate task was to unite the team and he did that by winning the African Games title.
But this was a different task. Kenya had last played in the Olympics in 2004 and beating Cameroon was the only sure way of securing a return to the Summer Games.
After beating Egypt and Botswana, Kenya had set the stage for a decider against the hosts who had also seen off Nigeria and Botswana in straight sets.
Bitok recalled Noel Murambi to his first six for the first set and her experience did count.
Kenya raced to an 8-5 lead at the first technical time out which was increased to 16-7 at the second technical time out.
The first set was secured at 25-16 but Cameroon regrouped for the second.
This one was closely contested and Cameroon coach Akono reaped big from his decision to introduce setter Yolande Amana and young middle blocker Ruth Bibinbe.
The pattern of the opening two sets resumed as Kenya won the third before Cameroon tied the set scores by clinching the fourth.
Trailing the fourth set 12-16 at the second technical time out, Bitok made a raft of changes that saw Gladys Ekaru, Joan Chelagat, Joy Lusenaka, Leonida Kasaya and Joan Chelagat all step on court.
“All my players know that they have a role to play so when I realised we were going to lose that set, I had to rest my key players and prepare well for the fifth set.
“It’s a tactic that has worked well for me before so I wasn’t worried,” said Bitok.
And the reward arrived in the tie-breaker.
His first six, well rested and recovered, opened an 8-2 lead at the change of sides. Then Cameroon cut the gap to only three points at 9-6 but Kasaya made a side out and Malkia Strikers were unstoppable.
Wisa delivered the match point with a sizzling attack through the middle and when Sharon Chepchumba’s spike flew past Christelle Nana and Ruth Bibinbe, the writing was on the wall.
Kenya’s best performer of the night packed so much power on the ball and there was no way Cameroon’s libero Cathy Ambassa was going to dig that.
By the time the ball landed on court, Edith Wisa went down on her knees and broke down in tears. Chepchumba raced past the first referee in celebration, one arm punching in the air and darted to the terraces where she embraced team manager Mududa Waweru tightly mid-air.
The drummists and dancers that had rallied the Cameroon team all night stopped cheering and the over 5,000 fans started trooping out of Palais polyvalent des sports (Paposy) Arena one after another.
It finally dawned on them that the Olympics ticket was gone.
But Bitok insists the champagne has to be put on ice until Kenya beats Nigeria on Thursday.
“We have not yet qualified, we have played three matches and have one left. It’s important that we concentrate and complete the job.
“Cameroon is down but not out, if we lose against Nigeria they can get the ticket. Our focus is to win that game and seal the ticket,” warned Bitok.
As fans trooped out of Paposy Arena, Malkia Strikers huddled together in a circle chanting Tokyo! Tokyo! Tokyo! In Moim’s words:
“This is my birthday month and I feel like I am celebrating my birthday again. Let’s nurture our own coaches and they will bring results,” said Moim who celebrated her 31st birthday on New Year’s Day.
A lifetime moment indeed, delivered by one of Kenya’s own: Paul Busienei Bitok!
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