What you need to know:
- Appointed Kenya Pipeline head coach in January 2020, Gitau inherited a disjointed team still reeling from the departure of one of their star players in Sharon Chepchumba the previous year.
- Earlier in 2018, they had lost their assistant captain Noel Murambi, Violet Makuto, Leonida Kasaya, Jemimah Siang’u -- all following head coach Japheth Munala to Kenya Commercial Bank.
Funny. Young. Balanced. Fittest. Growing. Motivated. Unbeatable. Champions.
By the time we finish our interview, Kenya Pipeline coach Paul Gitau has used these seven words to describe his team. Perhaps a strong indication of the progression of his project after just over a year in charge.
Appointed Kenya Pipeline head coach in January 2020, Gitau inherited a disjointed team still reeling from the departure of one of their star players in Sharon Chepchumba the previous year.
Earlier in 2018, they had lost their assistant captain Noel Murambi, Violet Makuto, Leonida Kasaya, Jemimah Siang’u -- all following head coach Japheth Munala to Kenya Commercial Bank.
Agrippina Kundu, Gaudencia Makokha, Esther Wangeci, Ruth Jepng’etich, Naomi Too and Trizah Atuka are the senior players who remained. While Jepng’etich was recovering from cancer, Atuka and Too were nursing long-term injuries at the time with others like Rose Magoi wandering in oblivion.
In fact, during his unveiling on January 29, last year, when pressed on whether Pipeline would grace the 2020 African Club Championships in March, Gitau -- cognizant of the daunting rebuilding task awaiting him, was non-committal.
“That is a decision I’ll make later. I would not want to smear mud on myself. So when the time comes and I see they are ready, we’ll enter them. If not, there are many other editions to come,” said Gitau at the time.
But one year later, Gitau is brimming with confidence ahead of the same continental tourney which was postponed by a year due to Covid-19.
Although he is in the second year of his three-year contract, Gitau has practically coached his team for only three months with the 2020 season having been scrapped off by coronavirus. In his own words, the first quarter of the year has been “fulfilling.”
“When I came here I found a funny team. I had 15 players and nine of them were middle blockers. I only had one outside hitter so my first task was changing their positions and making sure every player plays according to her strength,” said Gitau.
His rebuilding process has taken in the resurgence of players such as Magoi, Jepng’etich and Celestine Nyongesa who were once deemed surplus to requirement.
“You cannot demand performance from players who are out of shape. I have really worked on the fitness and strength of this team and that’s why all the players can compete at the same level. We need the experienced players to guide the young ones but you have to be fit to play in my team,” emphasised Gitau.
Pipeline have leapt from strength to strength since the local league served off.
Identical 3-0 wins over Nairobi Water and Nairobi Prisons in the first leg represented a perfect start to the season.
“Firstly, I want to appreciate the management because they reviewed the salaries of my players in a big way. It’s much easier to coach a motivated group because they don’t have to worry about their welfare, especially during these tough times,” said Gitau. “With such good salaries players can also go enroll in colleges and plan for the future once they retire.”
In the second leg played in February, Pipeline lost 3-1 to KCB before going down with a similar margin to defending champions Kenya Prisons last month.
“I am not concerned by the results but the progress of the team. We lost to Prisons and KCB but the margins were very encouraging. This is a young team so it would be wrong to jump to conclusions right now. We had good scores, we are still growing and learning,” said Gitau before abruptly dashing to court cutting our interview short.
He stopped play and posed a question to his players. “Team, makosa ya Ruth ni gani (Team, which mistake has Ruth committed)?” Gitau asks moving towards the net.
“Amerukia chance ball (She attempted to block a chance ball),” the answer arrives in a chorus after a pause.
“Tulisema aje kuhusu chance ball (What should we in such situations)?” retorts Gitau.
“Tusiwe tunaruka (We don’t block chance balls),” the team responds in unison.
“Ruth, sitaki kuona hiyo makosa tena (Ruth, I don’t want to see such a mistake again),” emphasises Gitau.
Jepng’etich then nods in agreement as Gitau walks out of court back to the spot where we’re having our interview.
Livid, he looks me straight in the eye to explain why he had to interrupt training to correct that mistake.
“When we were playing against Kenya Prisons we had a four-point lead in the third set. We gave away four points through the same mistake and this cost us the third set (Prison won 33-31). If we would have won that set we would have got a point from that game which would have been a good reward for the kind of performance we had,” said Gitau, his eyes popping out.
“I have worked with female players for very long and studied their psychology. If you correct a mistake in training, it sticks in their minds but if you wait for match day to correct them you will be very frustrated,” he added with a chuckle.
It’s this hands-on approach that has won him admiration and envy in equal measure. Many are the times he has fallen out with senior players but that does not bother Gitau.
“The first qualification for you to play in my team is discipline -- that is non-negotiable. There is no special player or star when we step on court, all my players are equal,” said Gitau before revealing his penchant of working with young players.
“Coaching young players is like a hobby to me. They are disciplined and require very short time to learn new things. Currently, I have young players who are catching up quickly and I want to add three more in May once they complete high school,” revealed Gitau.
“My mission is to make this team great. Even if I’m offered a better paying job, I can’t take it now because my whole attention is with this team. I promise you nobody will beat this team next year,” vowed Gitau, raising his right index finger to the heavens.
But before that there is the small matter of African Clubs Championship due next week in Kelibia, Tunisia where Gitau is going for glory.
“Winning (the competition) is my target. Nine is close to 10 and remember whatever you say with your mouth is what God gives you. Nobody is focusing on Pipeline now but I like it that way when we are the underdogs,” says Gitau, who masterminded Kenya’s gold medal success in the 2015 All African Games in Brazzaville.
With a second-string side, Gitau did the unexpected, thrashing Egypt in the semi-finals before beating arch-rivals Cameroon 3-1 in the final. Cameroon had beaten Kenya 3-2 in the group stage.
“I am going to surprise people once again,” he said with deep conviction.
“There are a few grey areas like blocking and attacking on the net which we are polishing. Our back court defence is good and there is good understanding among the players. If we get to 85 per cent by the time the tournament starts, then we can be sure of winning.”
First team regulars Gladys Ekaru (middle blocker), Pamela Adhiambo (outside hitter) and Agrippina Kundu who are in the national team’s bubble training won’t be available for club duty in Tunisia. However, Gitau insists he still has a “very strong team.”
“Even in Brazzaville people thought I had a weak team but there was a lot of quality. This is the same case now with Pipeline, the composition is good -- we have height, talent and experience.
“All Kenyan clubs will be without key players so we can’t use that (their absence) as an excuse. I have a very strong bench because, for instance, I have an experienced player like Atuka. Her presence alone in the team is enough to motivate the younger players. I can also introduce her at a crucial moment in the game when I need a good service or blocks. I have a group of players with skills that complement each other, which is important for such an assignment,” said Gitau.
Pipeline and Gitau desperately need to complement each other.
Gitau, who has won the Club Championships four times as a coach, is craving a fifth gold medal while seven-time champions Pipeline have endured a 15-year title drought. This is a match made in heaven!