The Sunday News
HAVING Fortune Sithole-Ndlovu, Edson Sibanda, Vulindlela Moyo or Herbert Mutisi on the front court ready for a block in a volleyball match was a forgone conclusion of a failed attack by the opposition.
With an average of 1,95m height they were one of the best deference formations in national volleyball in the 1990s.
If Sithole-Ndlovu did not stand out because of his left handedness, he did because of his light complexion which stood out of the rest of the team.
Throw him on the serve and backcourt to receive and defend, he was a jewel that brought honour and pride to the region. It was a memorable time for revived Bulawayo and Matabeleland volleyball as Bulawayo Raiders stood to challenge Midlands side David Whitehead, Harare sides Autobody Construction, Wild Cats, Black Rhinos and University of Zimbabwe’s dominance of the sport.
These clubs had replaced Unit Fairbridge, winners of all silverware in Bulawayo and Zimbabwe including the 1993 Zone Six Clubs title as top national sides.
Very light, skinny and tenacious on the net both with attack and block, he was part of a generation which carried the torch for Matabeleland volleyball with distinction.
His speciality was the high ball out and the slower shoot-set (4-2) to position four which he executed with aplomb to earn himself a place among the Zimbabwe legends, a select group of players who won the 1994 Zone Six Under-20 Championships and made the grade for the All-Africa Games squad.
The 43-year-old could have made it into football considering that he played at primary school for Mzilikazi with the likes of legend Muzondiwa Mugadza and Lloyd Jowa, both who served Zimbabwe Saints and Zimbabwe with distinction.
Another player he rubbed shoulders with is Methembe Ndlovu who made his name at Bosso and Young Warriors. His footprint is still there at Dartmouth College in the United States and that country’s Development League.
They were key members of the 1995 All-Africa Games team which won silver at home in 1995. While the duo was flying the flag high in football their Mzilikazi Primary School mate was part of the volleyball squad.
“I played as a striker at school. I played with Muzondiwa and Lloyd. I was a striker and I do not think I was so bad and had I followed them to Saints or gone to Highlanders, probably volleyball and swimming would have lost out.
“I have no regrets though. Volleyball made me what I got to be in life later. It taught me life lessons that in order to excel in life you need to work very hard and have discipline at all times. I learnt to respect the next man,” said Sithole-Ndlovu.
Born on 13 August 1975 in the City of Bulawayo to MaSithole and Highlanders and Zimbabwe football great, Silas Ndlovu (former Highlanders player, coach and chairman), Sithole-Ndlovu gew up in Mzilikazi.
“I played Bulawayo City Council club sports like sloga tennis and football at Mzilikazi Club. I was good at swimming too. The club was a stone’s throw from home and that made me a sports bug.
“After our Grade Seven examinations I started playing volleyball seriously at a court behind the Mzilikazi Primary School toilets and at club,” he said.
When he advanced to secondary school education, Njube High turned out to be just the place to be for him. Coached by Stewart Sydney Ncube, Sithole-Ndlovu matured into a seasoned star who at Form Two was already being eyed by Highlanders Volleyball Club coach Raerburn Ndebele.
“We had a good team with a number of guys who went on to play club volleyball like Phillip Mbirimi, Busani Ndlovu, Christopher Major, Tamuhla Ncube. Later while still at school and after I finished my four years I coached players like Sarudzai Maderera, Mosisa, Nothando Donga, Grace Malikebhu, Thabo Joy Mpofu, Bartness Phiri and Taurai Vialli Mlauzi.
“My volleyball got the lift I needed when as a Form Two student I joined Highlanders and started training with great players like Itsanang Abu-Basuthu, Vulindlela Moyo, Mankila Gwala, Kossam Mupita, Qinisa Fuyana and Buggernin Dube from Hwange,” he said.
He acknowledged that breaking into the first team was not easy but his coach Ndebele held onto him despite interest from other clubs who included Unit Fairbridge, the country’s top club back then in 1992-93.
His break was to come in the 1993 mid-season tournament when Highlanders won their first tournament, a hard fought 3-2 victory over a polished Sparrows Thabani side that fielded former national team stars Clifford Makunike, Sydney Dube and Sairota Banda.
“It was a test of nerves being thrown to face guys I grew up admiring. Once my first touch went right and got a nod of approval from my setter and other guys on the court, it was gloss all over me as I acquitted myself with the ball on both front and back court. Guys like Vulindlela, Qinisa, Gwala and coach Raerburn were there for me,” said Sithole-Ndlovu.
He was also part of Highlanders the same year as they won their very first national tournament — the last Anniversary Trophy. They beat star-studded Thornhill Airbase 3-2 as a young generation of stars emerged to replace the old guard that included the Makunike brothers, Clifford and Mike, Dube siblings Jack and Sydney, the late Phios Moyo, Nicholas Mavunde, Silas Nyabadza, Nephati Ngwenya, Themba Ndlovu, Sairota Banda, Jairos Nyirenda, Patrick Ncube, Clive Sibanda, Themba Moyo, Jairos Nyirenda, Sydney Phakathi and Jeffrey Mlauzi as stalwarts of Matabeleland volleyball.
Sithole-Ndlovu’s stars continued to shine, earning his first Matabeleland colours that year in the provincial championships in Gweru. It was both at Under-20 and senior level.
He was to get his first national team call-up in 1994, the Zone Six Under-20 Championships held in Harare and won by Zimbabwe. That saw him earn a call-up to the senior team which would tour Botswana at the end of that year as preparations for the All-Africa Games gained momentum.
“I was fortunate to play with two generations of volleyballers. The 1980s guys and my generation and I learnt a lot from both and they pushed me hard to up my game. My coaches in the national teams, Banny Manokoro taught me much about attack while Martin Dururu drilled me on reception and defence with Vulindlela topping it up with an all-round approach in tactics and approach.
“I grew up as a player because of my friendship with Edson Sibanda. We were ever together talking about the game and how to improve, we put on a lot of hours in the gym and court in order to satisfy the high expectations coach Moyo and management had at Raiders,” he said.
In the Under-20s Sithole-Ndlovu found himself competing with Gavin Jima, Gwala, Peter Chitashu, Ford Mutate, Hatirrarami Mutambirwa, Farai Masawi, Collin Ngulube and Mike Rusenza for places.
In the All-Africa Games team he was to rub shoulders with greats like Morgan Phiri, Nsikelelo Mlauzi, Sere Chirenje, Dumisani Vundla, Herbert Mutisi, Patrick Ncube, Mutate, Chitashu, Masawi, Mangava, Sydney Dube, Clifford Makunike, Chekuda Makuyana, David Chikukutu and Fuyana before coaches finalised their final 12 for the Games.
“The Zone Six Championships of 1994 for both seniors and juniors, add the 1993 Club Championships won by Unit Fairbridge improved the game at home. We got to learn so much about the effectiveness of the high ball. Prior to that Matabeleland tended to play quick centre attacks with the ball while Mashonaland had running attacks,” he said.
But Sithole-Ndlovu says his best was in 1996-97 at Bulawayo Raiders.
“I decided to leave the club that got me from school volleyball Highlanders. I wanted exposure and a better challenge. Raiders guys had taken us to the national team and national tournaments.
“My friends also shared the same vision, we joined Vulindlela and his schoolboys. The new guys at Raiders in 1996 were Mutisi, Abu-Basuthu, Edson, Gari Sibanda, Hudson Kaluwa, Sairota Banda, Ndaba Magutshwa. What a team and disciplined guys committed to the sport and sharing a common vision. We went to every tournament in the country and won the coveted Zimbabwe Open, finishing as runners-up in most away in Harare while sweeping everything in Bulawayo between 1996-98. There are so many unsung heroes of that time as volleyball in Matabeleland rebounded with a sponsored league by Alvercote Technology that saw teams and players get money at the end of the season courtesy of Bernard Utete.
“Competition was enhanced with clubs from Epoch Mine in Filabusi, David Whitehead and Shangani playing in our league. Tournaments even attracted clubs from all over the country and Botswana because of the competition and committed polished management,” said the left hitter who was a reserve centre hitter good on the surprise shot set on either side of the setters Taurai Mlauzi and Inambawo Ndlovu.
Sithole-Ndlovu confirms that Fairbridge and Rhinos attacker probably the country’s hardest hitter ever Patrick Ncube was his toughest opponent.
“He was my toughest opponent while Vulindlela Moyo and Clifford inspired me as I was growing up. Moyo was fantastic with the high ball, the best there was, while at the centre Makunike was just something else with his setter Sydney Dube. You just felt compelled to be at Tshaka to watch or play volleyball as the sport’s popularity grew with as many as 54 schools and clubs at tournaments,” he added.
The pair of Peter Chitashu on the high ball and Ford Mutate at the centre, his and Edson Sibanda, he regards as one of the best pairings by coaches in the local game.
As a player Sithole-Ndlovu won best receiver, blocker, utility player and server several times.
His best game and tournament was the invitational tournament organised by Raiders at BCD Courts in May of 1997.
“Vulindlela had created a monster club that defied odds to qualify for the Matabeleland Aids Council Invitational Tournament in which they beat a well-funded Botswana National Under-23 team which had been kept together from 1993 with players like Shadreck Kapeko and Tiro Sethlale later to play abroad.
“We went into another level matching them pound for pound, ball for ball and won 3-2 to everyone’s admiration in the game. Not to be outdone the Batswanas invited us to Botswana where they beat us narrowly 3-2 in the final,” said Sithole-Ndlovu.
Sithole-Ndlovu quit playing at a tender age, at just 26 due to pressing commitments at work before emigrating to South Africa in the early 2000s to join his maternal uncles who hail from that country.
He has been visiting his family in Bulawayo.
Sithole-Ndlovu has called on former players to give back to the sport and help groom tomorrow’s stars.