Under a closed roof at the Kasarani Indoor Arena eight days ago, a 5,000 capacity crowd watched breathlessly as the national women volleyball team beat Algeria to clinch a record ninth African Nations Championships title.
The African Queens, christened Malkia Strikers by sponsors National Oil Corporation, had easily glided through the competitions stringing up four straight victories before applying enchanting grace and precision to vanquish the North Africans in straight sets of 25-20, 25-22, 25-19 in the final.
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The African Queens had gripped the country throughout the competitions but on the day of the finals, they instantly became a subject of national obsession within these shores.
By elbowing out all their opponents in straight set victories in all five matches, the team had lived up to expectation and provided a happy ending to the tournament.
But most importantly, they had provided a refreshing sense of pride to local sports enthusiasts who are currently being choked by the hopeless failure of the country’s national teams.
Two days later, the team left for Mexico for the on-going FIVB World Grand Prix. The squad that is currently in Mexico comprises the same players who have participated in all major continental competitions in the last seven years. Therein lies the problem.
At ages 33, 32 and 31 respectively, team captain Brackcides Agala and award winning setters Janet Wanja and Jane Wacu are without doubt at the peak of their careers. The three have driven back the boundaries of local volleyball capability.
They have redefined our notion of world class and they boast slightly better numbers in comparison to their predecessors but, in the short arc of sports, ultimate decline follows the ‘peak’ stage.
A critical look at the women’s team shows that the average ages of the 14-member squad stands at 27. Wanja, Wacu, Agala and Lydia Maiyo have been the spine of the team for about a decade now, which flashes us forward to the next decade.
Veteran national team setter Judy Serenge speaks very fondly of her successors (Wanja and Wacu) and the entire team in general. She acknowledges that the team exceeded the public’s expectation, but even she warns that failure to come up with an effective succession plan portends serious problems in future.
“In our days we had difficulty competing against North African teams and we had become comfortable playing second fiddle. To see the team turn Algeria inside out like that and drag them to the very edge… that is original,” the former Kenyan international told Sunday Nation.
“I am however concerned that there is some form of over reliance on the key players. Wacu and Wanja have been setters for so long, and I doubt anyone has begun to think about getting their replacements,” she adds.
“These girls are at the peak of their careers, and I have noticed that even the young players who join the team tend to keep away from certain departments especially setting.
“It is like those departments are a preserve of some mainstay players and that is dangerous. You can imagine how far back the country will move if one (or both) of them get injured or cannot play anymore for any reason,” she poses.
The national Under 21 team is the only semblance of a youth structure within the Kenya Volleyball Federation (KVF), but its activities are few and far apart. The last competitive engagement of the team was way back in March when they finished last in the Women’s Under-20 African Nations Volleyball Championships. Prior to that, the last time the junior team had engaged in competitive action was in 2009.
But KVF Chairman Waithaka Kioni faults lack of financial assistance and inadequate infrastructure as the main hindrances to the development and sustainability of the team, although he says that there is a new crop of players currently being brewed in locally.
“Of course there is a great need to create a rich pool of talent and we are trying our best to make that happen, but insufficient finances and poor infrastructure makes sustaining the junior team difficult,” Kioni said.
“Apart from the fact that the team does not have a sponsor at the moment, getting a venue like the Kasarani Indoor Arena for the team to conduct training is also not easy.
“Even then, there is a lot of grooming that is going on locally. We have already identified two upcoming setters, Joy Lusenaka and Faith Imodia, who are immensely talented. We also have some more attacking players who are playing for local teams but who are ready to take over from their seniors,” he said.
Of course, like all other sports, volleyball is about experience and progression. But Serenge is of the view that for the ultimate progression of the Kenyan team, there has to be the right balance between experience and youth.
Now there is no doubt that no Kenyan national team is undergoing a bigger adjustment than the African Queens who happen to be nine-time continental champions.
Even the Algerian Francois Salvagni conceded that they will need several years to even begin dreaming of dethroning the Kenyan girls.
True, the team was all tricks and flicks. The attacking works of Ruth Jepng’etich, the palm stinging spikes of Esther Wangechi, the power of MVP Everline Makuto were matched perfectly by the setting prowess that won Wacu the tournament’s Best Setter award. All aspects of the game were beautiful, intriguing and captivating.
Inside the stadium, team captain Agala, seized by a fit of victory after the match and a breezy sense of confidence, led her team in a slightly provocative Lipala victory dance.
Morning newspaper headlines screamed victory for the girls, with full page splashes dissecting details of the girls’ achievement.
Every Kenyan would like to experience that seismic sense of pride again and again. But to avoid getting in line with other failed disciplines, certain steps have to be taken at this early stage to guarantee the team’s continuity.
It is impossible to do so without a proper youth development structure that goes beyond the national secondary school games. So how about we set up a national volleyball academy for this purpose?