Malkia Strikers have one foot in Tokyo Olympics after beating Cameroon
When Malkia Strikers left for Yaounde, Cameroon for the 2020 Africa Olympic qualifiers, top on any fan’s wish was for them to beat the hosts.
That was the surest way of ending their 16-year drought for a slot at the summer games.
And heading into this evening’s clash with Nigeria, they seem to have one leg in the July 24-August 9 Games in Tokyo, having accomplished this mission on Tuesday.
Paul Bitok’s charges are now three points away from realising their dream following a marathon 3-2 (25-16, 23-25, 25-21,23-25, 15-11) win over Cameroon at the Paposy Arena.
Now, Nigeria, currently ranked bottom of the five-team table, stand in their way to the games in the Japanese city.
Kenya last featured at the Games in 2004 in Athens, Greece after also taking part in the 2000 edition in Sydney, Australia but since then, they have missed 2008 in Beijing, 2012 in London and 2016 in Rio.
En route to the qualifiers, Malkia Strikers suffered what seemed like a crippling misfortune as one of Kenya’s most dependable middle blockers Triza Atuka suffered a knee injury that kept her out of Bitok’s plans.
Then came Janet Wanja’s absence as she failed to report for training, citing personal commitments.
The two are some of the most experienced players in Kenya’s ranks and Wanja’s absence was seen as a major blow given she is the only surviving member from the ‘Class of 2004’.
However, that gave chance to some emerging talents who have lived up to expectations.
Sharon Chepchumba, who has been sensational in Yaoundé, picked an ankle injury in training with just days to the competition.
However, she passed a late fitness test to travel with the team and she has become a pillar for the side.
Unlike the 2004 Olympic qualifying coach Gilbert Ohanya who had four foreign-based players, Bitok went for a mixture of youth and experience with only Jane Wacu plying her trade for Seychelles’ side Anse Royale
When he took over from FIVB-seconded Italian coach Shailene Ramdoo last August, Bitok’s brief was to return Kenya to the Olympics.
At the time, it looked difficult as he was taking over what seemed like a divided team but he set the tone by beating Cameroon to retain their African Games gold in Morocco and never looked back.
He is now poised to deliver what he was brought in to do.