NAIROBI, Kenya May 11- “Kenya…. Yes we can!” was the war cry that echoed the hollow Moi Sports Centre Kasarani indoor gymnasium on Wednesday morning as Kenya’s women volleyball team stepped up their preparations for the World Olympic Qualifiers in Puerto Rico from May 22.
Malkia Strikers face hosts Puerto Rico, Colombia and Algeria as they seek to clinch the sole slot that will see them return to the Summer Games for the first time since 2004.
Kenya had an ‘easier’ route to make it to the games that will be hosted in Brazil’s capital Rio de Janeiro through the African Qualifiers, but lost out to Egypt in the Semi-final with hosts Cameroon going on to clinch the ticket.
The African volleyball queens have however gotten a second chance but through a tougher competition.
“Yes, we are under pressure. We had a chance to do it in the African Qualifiers but we failed. We need to put that behind our backs and focus on the second chance we have. It is tough, but I trust in the ability of the girls. They are determined and motivated to do it,” head coach David Lung’aho told Capital Sport.
In his travelling squad of 12, only 32-year old Janet Wanja has ever tasted Olympic prestige.
As a young 19-year old girl just beginning her volleyball career, the Kenya Pipeline setter managed to get into the Kenyan team to the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece but since then when Kenya failed to win even a single set, it has been a mirage to qualify for the world’s most prestigious sporting event.
“I really want us to qualify for the Olympics, not for my own sake but for the sake of the upcoming players. It would be something huge for them and I am hoping we make it. It is tough because all three teams are no pushovers but we are going there to do our best,” Wanja stated.
Lung’aho says the allure of playing in the Olympics is the push propelling them towards the Roberto Clemente Coliseum in San Juan, Puerto Rico where the three day tournament will be played.
“Most of them feel that in the next four years, they might not be as good as they are now to get a chance to fight for an Olympic ticket. This is their chance and that is what is pushing them to work hard in training,” the coach said.
Lung’aho has dropped experienced players Lydia Maiyo and libero Elizabeth Wanyama and despite murmurs over their exclusion, the coach was quick to point out their absence is due to current form and the need to get the strongest team possible.
“Each tournament has its own rules. If we were allowed to take 14 players, then we would have picked two liberos. But we have only 12 slots and that means we only need one libero. If we carry two, we sacrifice one position which we are not ready to do,” Lung’aho affirmed.
“We picked Aggripina (Kundu) over Wanyama because she has been doing well and it is her time to play as well. In the previous times, Wanyama has always been top and picked over Aggripina. Now it is the other way round. It is not to say the national team door is closed on them. There are other many tournaments and we will still consider them,” the coach disclosed.
Lung’aho will be looking on the experience of Jane Wacu, Brackcedes Agala, Esther Wangeci and captain Mercy Moim who have spent the last season playing in Europe.
He says the presence of the four has added morale in the team and he believes the experience and better playing techniques they have picked in France and Finland will give them an edge.
“I have learnt quite a lot because playing in the top French League is not easy. I have toughened up and improved on my defense which was one of my weak points. I trust that my experience will be vital for the team,” the soft spoken Wacu told Capital Sport.
Kenya has played numerous times against Algeria while they have faced Colombia only once, last year in the Grand Prix Group Three. They have never faced Puerto Rico and that is some point of concern for Lung’aho.
“We lost to Colombia in the Grand Prix but I am certain it is a team we can compete with because they play almost like us. Algeria, I think we know them inside out. The task is Puerto Rico because we have never played them. We have just watched their clips but I trust if we play to our abilities and minimize on mistakes, we have a chance,” the coach said.
The team departs May 17 for the South American country and will begin their quest on May 22 against Colombia then face Algeria and Puerto Rico on 23rd and 24th respectively.
Kenya will be hoping to pick the Olympic ticket which will give them a huge leap of confidence into their debut in Group Two of the World Grand Prix which begins in Tucumán, Argentina a week later.