What you need to know:
- European champions Italy, Belgium and hosts the Netherlands are all through to the second round from Pool A.
In Arnhem, the Netherlands
When the draw for the FIVB World Championship was done back in March, little emphasis was put on this fixture, and significantly so.
Kenya had lost to Cameroon in the Africa Nations Championship final last September while Puerto Rico had qualified through the 2021 North, Central America, and Caribbean Volleyball Confederation (NORCECA) Championship where they finished second after losing to the Dominican Republic.
But on Saturday, all eyes will be on this Pool ‘A’ clash where at stake will be a place in the second round.
European champions Italy, Belgium and hosts the Netherlands are all through to the second round from Pool A.
An inexperienced Cameroon side is the punching bag of Pool ‘A’ and after four straight losses, they are out of contention for a place in the second round.
Kenya and Puerto Rico both have a chance of taking the last available slot with either side requiring a win of any kind to proceed.
Kenya warmed up for this encounter with a spirited fight against European and Volleyball Nations League (VNL) champions Italy on Thursday despite losing in straight sets (15-25, 23-25, 16-25).
Puerto Rico, on the other hand, thrashed Cameroon 3-0 (25-23, 25-16,25-11) to bag their first win in this competition and set up this do-or-die clash with Kenya on Saturday.
Kenya coach Luizomar de Moura said the performance against Italy showed that Kenya is ready to dine with the big teams at the high table.
He has backed his team to make history by qualifying for the second round for the first time in seven appearances at the World Championship.
“I am proud of what the team showed today. The performance was great, they showed the world what they are capable of and everybody is going to prepare better when facing us. It’s going to create more difficulties but we are ready to show Kenyan spirit and fight any opponent,” said Luizomar.
“We need to play another great match against a very good Puerto Rico side to realise our target of advancing to the next phase. A lot of their players play overseas which gives them an advantage because of experience. It also presents a different challenge to this team of fighting for a position at the highest level which is important to build a fighting spirit for the future.”
Luizomar will be banking on star opposite attacker Sharon Chepchumba who has now hit double digits in three consecutive matches. Her latest feat of 17 points against Italy brought her tally to 55 points from four matches.
“It’s been great learning from the big teams here, that’s why I’m motivated to qualify for the second round and get even more experience. I’m in good shape, my services are back which gives me even more confidence in back row attacks. They are a good team but we need to believe we are better than them,” said Chepchumba. “We have to put in more effort and work harder than we did against Cameroon and Italy.”
Skipper Mercy Moim, who was rested for the entire Italy match, said they need to approach the Puerto Rico game with caution, especially in attack and backcourt defence.
“Their strength in attack is in cross-court so we need to defend well. They also have tall blocks and good service so we need to focus on reception and be tactical in the attack. I am well rested and ready to do my part. I believe everybody is ready, we need to show the same spirit we showed against Cameroon and Italy,” offered Moim, who will be relied upon for leadership.
Similarly, Puerto Rico will look up to the experienced Karina Ocasio who was recently recalled to the national team for her sixth appearance at the World Championship.
The 37-year-old Ocasio scored a game-high 13 points against Cameroon and is looking forward to an enticing battle against Kenya.
“I am so happy to be here to lead these young girls and play at my sixth World Championship. It’s going to be an interesting match since we both want to proceed. Kenya is a good team that is strong in attack, they jump high and have a good block. We need to have good service and play better than them in all departments,” said Ocasio.
She noted that the win will be a welcome relief to Puerto Ricans back home who are yet to recover from the havoc of Hurricane Fiona.
“We have been growing as a team because we didn’t have the best preparation due to the Hurricane back home. It’s been tough for us emotionally but we’ve been growing with every game. It’s been tough to concentrate but we need to leave that outside of the court and focus on the game. This win will be a gift to the people of Puerto Rico since they are struggling. They don’t have power, water and other basic needs,” underlined Ocasio.
Head coach Fernando Morales singled out Chepchumba and Veronica Adhiambo as the biggest threats to his side in this clash.
“We need to serve really tough and prepare in block and defence because they have two players who can score a lot of points,” said Morales.
“It’s been a difficult summer, we didn’t have enough time to prepare for this tournament because our league was still on. We were also affected directly by the hurricane since five players arrived late here because their towns were closed. Qualifying for the second round will be a huge achievement for us and we are going to fight for it now that we are just one win away.”
Mercy Moim, Veronica Adhiambo, Edith Wisa, Gladys Ekaru, Emmaculate Nekesa, Sharon Chepchumba, Aggripina Kundu (libero)
Karina Ocasio, Enright Stephanie, Ortiz Neira, Reyes Diana, Abercrombie Brittany, Valentin Natalia, Shara Venegas (libero)
Pool A fixture (all Kenyan time)
Kenya v Puerto Rico (5pm, Gelredome arena)