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Hockey: How She Cranes topped Zambezi Series

Positive outing. Members of Uganda's men and women's team pose with the latter's trophy. PHOTOS/JAMES MUGISHA

What you need to know:

In the final game on a windswept Sunday, Uganda lost 2-1 with Winnie Alaro’s goal turning into a consolation goal.

Uganda’s triumph in the women's June 7-9 Zambezi Series held at the Olympic Youth Development Centre in Lusaka, Zambia was a classic case of turning challenges into motivation.

The Hockey She Cranes drew their first game 2-2 courtesy of goals from Winnie Atim and Thuwaibah Kiggundu then won 4-2 with goals from the former, Hilda Star Balondemu (two) and Lucky Akello. In the final game on a windswept Sunday, Uganda lost 2-1 with Winnie Alaro’s goal turning into a consolation goal.

Team picked itself

Coach Moses Nsereko and his assistant Martin Okello would be the first to admit that they could have selected a completely different team had travel documents, sickness and family concerns not dictated otherwise.

The coaches, who ended up selecting 11 debutants, are a good combination of patient and diligent instructors who are also ready to show tough love when the situation demands it.

The selected girls pushed themselves so much that there is little to remember about the ones left behind. From the outside looking in, the captains Norah Alum and Balondemu also played a significant role through their interactions with the rest of the squad to suppress club ties among the players.

Fitness issues

However, with the women’s national team inactive for the past two years, hockey had fallen below the priority list for most of the ladies.

Even though all are active in the National League, not many have been pushing fitness-wise. For the coaches, it became apparent during preparation and the bip tests that fitness would be one of the last considerations for selection.

During the tournament, some suffered even bigger ailments; Alum, Lucky Akello, Joy Sserunjogi, Anitah Atim and Alaro among others had to deal with different niggles of varying degrees. 

Versatility

With the fitness concerns and a ‘dictated’ selection, the players had more roles to play. Carol Aguti covered in defence and on the wing.

Margaret Nassiwa played in midfield and both defensive wings, especially when Vanessa Abeja burnt out, while Balondemu brought her midfield skills to striking and helped with hold-up play.

Focus. Elias Okello receives the ball with the intention to bait the press.

Rachael Atim was utilized in defence and on the wing while Irene Atim and Winnie Nandi also had varied defensive roles. Among the replacements, only Evas Akello and Vero Atima were given one role on the attacking and defensive wings respectively but they also had to be ready to play either on the left or right.

Sserunjogi covered for Anitah when she needed a breather in midfield but the latter also exchanged roles with Lucky in the final stages of the tournament.

Coaches not getting carried away

When players excel, it is easy to reward them immediately with more game time. Aguti, for example, had a good cameo in defence in the first game but instead of starting her in the second game in a position that had caused problems, the coaches decided that she showed them more from the bench in the second match before starting her in the third.

On Friday, Kiggundu scored for a second successive match against Zambia – her first coming in the 2022 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) in Ghana. But instead of getting sucked into the history, the coaches kept trust in Balondemu as a starter and she repaid the faith with two vital goals in the 4-2 win on Saturday.

In preparation, Alum looked like she would handle the defence and that allowed her sister Alaro to push into midfield but the plan backfired in the first half of the first game. The coaches were quick to push both players into their natural roles and it helped a great deal.

Also with goalkeeper Hajirah Namwase, arguably Uganda’s best defender in the tournament, throwing her body on the line whenever the defence was beaten, the coaches stuck to her when they could have given Melissa Namuleme game time too. With the triumph, it is hard to question their wisdom.

Underdog status

Since Uganda had lost to Zambia in a completely different tournament before, the odds were against the She Cranes and understably so.

But for Kiggundu, Nassiwa, Sserunjogi and the three sisters; Alum, Alaro and Lucky, meeting Zambia again was a chance to avenge for 2022. Back then Uganda lost but left the match with the belief that they had done everything humanly possible to win.

So the Zambezi Series was a chance to show Zambia, who have been more active since, that they are not far ahead of Uganda.

Overall, the triumph leaves more good problems for Uganda Hockey Association (UHA) on how they will be able to leave the girls behind again for major tournaments. The ladies’ side has proved it can be successful, even after braving about 2,500km of road travel from home to Lusaka (and back), and will need more opportunities to prove so.

Working together. Assistant coach Martin Okello (4th L) hammers down instructions during one of the breaks to the She Cranes team. On the left is coach Moses Nsereko.

How They Ranked

She Cranes

Hajirah Namwase – 8.5/10

Only reason she’s not higher is because she conceded twice in each match but none of the goals were down to her.

She managed to keep her counterpart Melissa Namuleme from making her debut but the latter’s supportive character kept the squad even closer together

Winnie Nandi – 7/10

A huge stage for the teenager at the start but she was showing signs of adaptation by the third game. She will return even better

Winnie Alaro – 8/10

A disappointing start in midfield but she got her act together when put in defence. Was also vital in penalty corners and got a goal that proved important when it came to goal difference

Vanessa Abeja – 7.5/10

Topsy-turvy tournament; bullied the Zambian wingers in game one and two but had her ‘comeuppance’ in the final game as Martha Kalomo turned on the pace

Irene Atim – 7.5/10

Handled her new role in front of the defence a lot more carefully than expected. She made some vital interceptions and blocks but struggled when the game required her to support the attack

Norah Alum – 8.5/10

The captain travelled and played through illness. And although she struggled in defence in the first game, she redeemed herself and the team in midfield and left the tournament with four assists from the She Cranes seven goals.

For trivia, she assisted each of her sisters’ (Lucky and Alaro) goals too. Woman of the tournament!

Lucky Akello – 8/10

Only the numbers are against Lucky. She would be the first to admit that one goal and one assist is not enough for her. But her fighting spirit and competitiveness were there for all to see even in the face of burnout and an aching tooth

Anitah Atim – 8/10

At times she ran through Zambians like a knife in butter and was not afraid to express her skills. She also worked her socks off defensively. The numbers also deny her place in the top two players of the team.

Hilda Star Balondemu – 7.5/10

Two vital goals on her first trip with the national team joining Winnie Atim as the She Cranes’ top scorer. Her composure while facing goal will be vital for the national team

Winnie Atim – 8/10

The only player to score in more than one game. Her pace on the ball and goal instincts from the right side of the circle make up for the little work she puts in defensively

Joy Sserunjogi – 7.5/10

She is not a stickler for stats but if you like a wide midfielder that gives everything defensively, she would have given you joy! That selflessness usually allowed Lucky and Anitah to attack with the belief that they would be covered

Melissa Namuleme – N/A

Did not play

Vero Atima – 6/10

Hardly put a stick wrong when she came on but she had a few minutes altogether

Carol Aguti – 7.5/10

Two good games and one that passed her by. Very good at tackling the Zambians but could have done more in possession

Thuwaibah Kiggundu – 6.5/10

A well taken goal in the first match but divided the rest of her appearances into minutes on the wing and in striking

Evas Akello – 6/10

Also had a few minutes to show her potential

Rachael Atim – 6/10

One nervy moment as a defender probably shook her confidence a bit and got the rest of her moments in the tournament as a forward

Margaret Nassiwa – 6.5/10

Good cameo at right back in the second game but suffered as a left back in the third. Did not get a lot of minutes in her preferred midfield roles.

Coaches; Moses Nsereko / Martin Okello – 8/10

Largely made sound decisions

…………

Cranes

Goalkeepers

Charles Ekapolon – 7.5/10

Hard the confidence and made vital saves and must have been buoyed with named first choice in the first two games

Richard Kaijuka – 6.5/10

His confidence must have been shattered when he didn’t get a minute in the first two games. Gave away a flick in a match against Malawi and conceded twice in a decisive match against Zambia

Outfield players

Jordan Mpiima – 7/10

Good stops in penalty corners and dominated the men he marked. Also proved vital in midfield but could have distributed the ball more

Solomon Mutalya – 7/10

Refused to be bullied by the Zambians in the 1-all draw and sorted them in midfield in the second game

Brian Okodi – 6.5/10

Did his individual bits well but when Zambia’s high press was on, he could not get his charges in control

Elias Okello – 6.5/10

A boy fit to sit on the table of men now. His stops and tackles in nervy moments were vital but he needs the senior players around him to offer more guidance

Innocent Tumukunde – 5.5/10

Suffered in his first game and was slow to react to the press but very comfortable when Uganda were in control

Stewart Kavuma – 7/10

Tried a bit of everything; counter-pressing, dribbling, passing, direct runs and had most of his injections from penalty corners right


Emmanuel Baguma – 8/10

Easily Uganda’s best player if not the player of the tournament. A small body with a stinging drag flick and searing pace on the ball. A few long passes and the trophy would be here but he got six goals


Jordan Achaye – 7.5/10

A goal machine that seized his first senior national team trip with both hands

Jackson Musinguzi – 7.5/10

It says a lot about the character of the boy that the bench struggled to give him a breather

Innocent Raskara – 7.5/10

With so many young goal scorers on the team, Raskara was the right man to lead the line because his selfless character was always going to create opportunities for them

Brian Ofoyimungu – 6/10

Used his minutes to show what he is capable of in terms of individually creating opportunities but could have looked to combine more with the rest of the attack

Elvis Opoya – 5.5/10

Hardly played

Alfred Agaba – 6.5/10

Gave confidence in midfield in the first two matches but struggled to find spaces and pockets against Zambia. Eventually became useful at right back and his direct shots into the D created havoc

Brian Bayuule – 6.5/10

Got Uganda’s first hattrick in an international but he will be the first to say it is time to get more important goals

Shafic Abdul – 5.5/10

Hardly played

Maxwell Mugisa – 7/10

Hardly the smoothest with the ball but the energy and selflessness off it and in defending penalty corners cannot be overlooked