IN YAOUNDE, CAMEROON
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 on her knees and broke down in tears. Chepchumba raced past the first referee in celebration, one arm punching in the air and darted straight to the terraces where she embraced Kenya's team manager Mududa Waweru mid-air.
The drummists and dancers that had rallied the Cameroon team all night stopped cheering and one by one, the over 5000 fans started trooping out of Palais polyvalent des sports (Paposy) Arena. It dawned on them that the Olympics ticket was gone.
Kenya coach Paul Bitok had just delivered a tactical masterclass as his charges edged Cameroon 3-2 (25-16, 23-25, 25-21,23-25, 15-11) at the ongoing Tokyo Olympics qualifiers.
Every player stepped on court as Kenya came out victorious in a nervy five-set thriller at the fully packed Paposy Arena. The win takes Kenya’s tally to eight points and victory against lowly Nigeria will see the nine-time African champions return to the Olympics after 16 years regardless of the result between Egypt and Cameroon on Wednesday.
Cameroon have seven points and can only qualify if Kenya fail to pick maximum points against bottom-placed Nigeria on Thursday.
“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 took over from Finnish coach Shaileen Ramdoo in August 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 decided 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 in 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, but Cameroon coach Jean Rene Akono reaped big from his decision to introduce setter Yolande Amana and Bibinbe. The pattern of the opening two sets was returned 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 so 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 it's about experience,” 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 then the star of the show Chepchumba delivered when it mattered most.