Sammy Mulinge likes three things; swimming, reading and grooming young players. But there is one other thing that the Kenya Ports Authority (KPA) men's volleyball head coach enjoys the most - sleepless nights. Such have been his nights over the last one month and it's all for a worthy cause.
"I like it when I don't sleep, I'm always thinking about who should start. It's a good thing, it's the right thing for the team because it gives me solutions," says Mulinge before delving into the competition for places in his team ahead of the Africa Club Championships slated for April 16-28 in Tunis, Tunisia.
"Players, just like all other human beings, can't be at the same level throughout. It's good when all your players are in good shape because it means you will have a strong bench," he explains.
The agony of choice suggests an overload of options, a numbing saturation of possibilities in this KPA team ahead of the continental event. It looks like the perfect blend of youth and experience to finally deliver silverware at the Mombasa-based outfit, but Mulinge is thinking long term.
"This is just the beginning, we want to make an impact in Africa. We want to qualify (for Club Championships) again next year, and then work on a five-year plan. If the management can sustain the players then it will be much easier. The goal is to be in the podium in the next five years," said Mulinge, who worked on a similar project in Rwanda while in charge of Rwandan Patriotic Army (APR) between 2010 and 2019.
In his 10-year stay in Rwanda, Mulinge guided APR to five league titles and a remarkable sixth-place finish in Africa Club Championships in 2014. While APR is one of the established clubs in Rwanda and a semi-professional outfit enjoying massive support from the military, KPA is still finding its feet having been established in 2013. Mulinge insists that they have to get the basics right before dreaming of conquering Africa.
"Our sponsor KPA has realised that this team can do well and they have really taken good care of them during these tough times of Covid-19. This has really helped the players to focus on the job ahead.
"I am yet to sit down with them (management) but my appeal is that we need to find a lasting solution by tying them down with long-term contracts or employment. If these players can be assured of something at the end of the month, it will be a big boost to our project," advised the 50-year-old who has a coaching career spanning two decades.
Moulding young players
There is a whole daylight between APR and KPA. While at APR, players consider volleyball a full-time job, it's a part-time engagement for KPA. Their players assemble for a few days to prepare for local league matches, and they train together for less than 30 days in one season. Despite the scanty preparations, the dockers have qualified for the league play-offs four times, only missing out once in 2015 when they were promoted. The top four teams at the end of the regular season qualify for the play-offs.
"There is a lot of talent in this group, they just need to spend a lot of time together to become a cohesive unit. We are lucky we have an indoor arena (KPA Makande Hall) here that we can access freely. We should use it to our advantage since most of our local rivals train outdoor. I always tell my players to make the most of it whenever we have time to train together as a team," said Mulinge who sees KPA as a talent hub for the national team in future.
Mulinge and young players fit like hand in glove. Just like in APR, his project at KPA is anchored on discovering young talents and moulding them for the big stage. Yves Mutabazi (26) and Ndahayo Dieu Est La (20) stand out as his top products. The two have turned professional at Turkish top-flight side Niksar Belediye. Mulinge is also credited with discovering former Kenyan international James Ontere - who went on to play professional volleyball in Japan, Romania and Cyprus - at now defunct Mombasa West.
"APR changed its policy of signing established players in 2012 so we had to go to schools and look for young players. It was a very good experience for me since I realised you can help a player improve within a short time if you give him a chance on court. A player can be a king on the court if he is ready to learn and has sufficient time to train," said Mulinge with conviction.
"When we took Yves from school, he could not even make the first six of the junior national team. We gave him an opportunity to play at APR and after two years he was knocking on the door of the senior national team. He is now a regular. The same case applies to Dieu Est La, we signed him when he was 16 and last year at 19 he finally got the chance to go pro," added Mulinge before going into the nitty-gritty of player development.
"It's not easy. You have to understand the player and he has to understand what you want from him. You have to monitor him closely just the way you raise your own child. You have to know what he eats, what he does in his free time, what he likes... it's a long process that requires a lot of patience," said the father of two, Raymond (20) and Gerald (16).
'It's about life, not Mulinge'
This season, Mulinge has made five additions to the team that finished second in the 2019 league. All his signings - Peter Kamara (opposite), Levis Ogutu, Brian Nyabera (middle blockers), Chris Oalo (outside hitter) and Emmanuel Mwandori (setter) - are consistent with the demands of his project; promising, ambitious and willing to learn.
"It's encouraging that they have fitted in very well. Kamara has played for the first team and he has everything: height, power and jump. With more specialised training he can turn pro very soon. Ogutu is not very tall for his position but he can jump so high. He is strong physically and very aggressive. Brian is our last born here and with his discipline and focus he will surely go places.
"Oalo is a clever player and has got good jump and power. Once he improves his reception, he will be a key player for us. Mwandori is still learning but he has got great potential as well. They are all very young and this gives us hope. Naturally Kenyan players are stronger than Rwandans so we can even do better in developing them," noted Mulinge.
A brilliant start to the local league has seen KPA top the standings with 19 points from seven matches played across two legs. While this is evidence that his project has taken off, Mulinge is not the type to get carried away.
"It's not about Mulinge or KPA, it's about life. This is what we want to drill into their minds. We want them to realise that volleyball can change their lives. We are lucky we have a practical example (Enock Mogeni) with us. He has been with us for a short time and he is now playing professional earning good money," said Mulinge of Mogeni who joined Swedish Sodertelge last year after starring for KPA in the 2019 play-offs where he emerged best attacker.
KPA will arrive in Tunis as underdogs given this will be their maiden appearance at the continental showpiece. However, Mulinge believes their performance in this edition will lay down a marker for his ambitious project to conquer Africa with KPA.
"We have already tested our young players in the local league and they have done well. This is not going to change. I believe a young player can only improve when you give him confidence and that comes through playing time on court. I want them to go out there and enjoy themselves, I will take the blame for the results.
"I want them to live that experience of playing at the highest level and feel what it is like. When we compete at that level for two or three years consecutively then we can talk about silver or gold in the fifth year," reiterated Mulinge.
Until then, he can sit pretty and enjoy the two other thing he likes - playing beach volleyball and a plate of nduma (arrowroot) served hot. Whichever comes first won't really matter as long as his mission is accomplished!