COLUMBIA — Columbia College volleyball coach Melinda Wrye-Washington loves sophomore Maria Omondi’s kills.
“She hits one right now that can’t be defended,” Wrye-Washington said. “We’ve timed it so she’s up before the center touches the ball and it’s upswing, and there’s no defense for that. She can swing over the block to the corners, no matter how good the blocker is, they’re not touching the ball. Even Bryan, our guy who plays with us at practice, he plays on the MU club team and has had Division I offers to play men’s volleyball, he’s not touching that ball. He can’t defend it. It’s too quick and she swings too high.”
And Wrye-Washington seems to be right. During the second set of the Cougars’ second match in the NAIA Volleyball National Championship, a 30-27, 30-26, 30-26 sweep of the University of Mobile (Ala.) Thursday at the Arena of Southwell Complex, Omondi took a set from senior Daniela Brazolino and blasted it over the middle of the net. The kill was untouched by the Rams’ defense, and the winner for the second game. Omondi recorded nine kills during the game.
“I felt like I played pretty good,” Omondi said. “I made some good plays out there, and so did everybody else on the team.”
Omondi’s strong play during the win over Mobile exemplifies her performance this season. After recording only 31 kills in 35 games last season, Omondi, who had an opportunity to represent Kenya in the 2004 Athens Summer Olympics after playing for the Kenyan National Junior team for one year, has drastically improved her play this season, recording 201 kills in 108 games.
“She just didn’t have the repetition (last year),” Wrye-Washington said. “Last year she was totally blind. Every ball was just hit the ball. There was nothing mentally attached to that. Now, a good thing for me is that she’s a 4.0 student who wants to be a surgeon. She’s a very, very smart girl who listens and changes things and is capable of changing things.”
Wrye-Washington said another reason for Omondi’s struggles last season was her lack of experience. Omondi only started playing volleyball her freshman year of high school.
“In Kenya, she only played with the national team for not very long,” Wrye-Washington said. “I mean she was right out of high school when she came here — very, very raw. Not a lot of training; just pure athleticism, just unbelievable, just jumps so high. She’s capable of making athletic plays that other people just can’t make.”
Since 2003, other than Omondi, five Kenyans have played for the Cougars: Rose Obunaga, a NAIA first team All-American in 2005; Jacqueline Makokha, a first team All-American in 2003 and 2004; Doris Wefwafwa, a first team All-American in 2004; Alice Mucheke and Nancy Sikobe.
“They’re (foreign players) more skilled players,” Wrye-Washington said. “They’re more athletic players than a lot of the girls that we can get here from the United States. A lot of the foreign programs, they specialize a lot more than they do here. Here kids will play one or two or three sports. Usually in Brazil or China, you specialize. They’re playing one sport and they’re learning to play it well.”
Other than playing on an all-boys soccer team during seventh and eighth grade, Omondi played only volleyball. Omondi's older sister, who had played volleyball throughout high school, got Omondi interested in the sport .
“She used to come home and tell us stories and that really gave me an insight about volleyball,” Omondi said. “She told me about the tournaments she went to and how they were fun. My sister is a real girly girl, so she used to be surprised how some of the girls would hit the ball hard, and for me, I would be like I want to be one of those people who hit the ball hard. That really intrigued me.”
Upon returning to Kenya to practice for the Olympics, Obunaga was intrigued with Omondi. After spending some time with Omondi, Obunaga suggested she play for the Cougars. Omondi herself had a chance to play in the Olympics but declined the opportunity. The Olympics would have taken place during her junior year of high school. During their senior year of high school, every Kenyan has to take the KCSC, a major final exam.
“It pretty much determines your life,” Omondi said. “I opted to stay. At that point, it was very crucial for me, because if I would have gone, I would have flunked that exam. It is a national exam. It’s what can make or break your life.”
Although she says she has has enjoyed her time in the United States, Omondi says she will return to Kenya after she is done with school.
“I have absolutely no family here,” she said. “All my immediate family is back home. After school I plan to go to graduate school — God willing. Honestly, you can never tell with life. But as of right now, I have nothing holding me here, and in terms of family, who I belong to. I feel it’s a privillage and honor to play volleyball here, but then after that I do have my roots and do have where I belong. I will go back.”