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Volleyball star's steady rise to the top

CALISTUS KOLANTSHO
Towering presence: Mtsonga has found his footing in Volleyball after initial interest in basketball
Tebogo Koobatlile grew up surrounded by the sparkling diamonds of Jwaneng and developed early interest in sport, but never envisaged his journey would reach a glittering stage.

The two-metre tall Koobatlile, has grown into a towering presence on the volleyball court, and has shared the stage with the game’s illustrious sons such as Shadrack Kapeko and Talaka Mothudi.

Mtsonga, as he is popularly known in volleyball circles, developed interest in volleyball in 2006 when he was a pupil at Teemane Primary School in the mining town.

However, a year later, he traded the volleyball court for the basketball pitch, until 2008, when he was a student at Morama Junior Secondary school. The talented Koobatlile was caught between the two choices, and ended up playing both sports.

"Growing up, the nearby school had a basketball court so we used to go there to throw baskets. That generated my interest in the game. When I was doing Standard 6, my teacher was a volleyball coach and one day he randomly picked us to go and play volleyball. He threatened us with corporal punishment, and out of fear, I proceeded to play. We continued with volleyball, but basketball was still at the back of my mind. I ended up being the best volleyball player in the school when I completed Standard 7,” he said.

Koobatlile said in 2008 he joined the Botswana Games camp though by then he did not consider himself a strong volleyball player. He captained the Jwaneng team, but his side was knocked out in the group stages.

"When I was in Form 2 and 3, I had improved a lot until I was admitted at Lobatse Secondary School. The rest of Morama students were admitted at Good Hope Secondary School and I was the only one enrolled at the Volleyball School of Excellence, being Lobatse Secondary. Upon arrival, I still played both basketball and volleyball," he said.

Koobatlile was forced to pick between the two, when one day, there was a clash of fixtures. This led to a conflict between his coaches, as both were not prepared to let him go.

But his divided attention persisted, and in 2011 while doing Form 4, he was invited to play for the national Under-17 basketball team.

"Upon return, I decided to focus on volleyball after the headmaster intervened. They instructed me to quit basketball because I was brought to Lobatse Secondary due to volleyball. We were coached by Peaceful Seleka and I was playing with the likes of Nonofo Motswetla and Tlhalefo Mongalelwa," he said.

Seleka saw potential in the young player and decided to register him at Kutlwano volleyball club.  After his studies he joined The Big House full-time where he met seasoned coaches such as Isaac Samuel and Percy Roberts.

"The two coaches moulded me to what I am today and that is why I even got a chance to play in the national team," Koobatlile said.

The 26-year-old has always played position two, but upon signing for Kutlwano, Samuel wanted him to play centre. 

"I told him that I was not a centre man, but I play opposite attack. In the position I wanted, I found strong players, the likes of Kapeko and Mothudi. They were the dominant  forces in that position. My intention was not to fight for a position. I was just excited to

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have joined a big club and I was going to learn volleyball. I knew my time would come," he said.

He made his league debut against Molepolole-based Desert Kings in 2013. It is not a big club and it was always at the bottom of the log. In one of the games, Mtsonga came in a substitute for Mothudi.

"The moment I stepped onto the court, I literally froze. I did not know what to do. But my coaches kept motivating me until I gained confidence. We won the match," he said with a chuckle.

Koobatlile said the most difficult club to beat has always been Police VI. He said Police has strong players from centre, outside and libero. The club has more than seven national team players. He added that to beat Police, one has to dig deeper.

Before the end of 2013, he retraced his footsteps back to Jwaneng to further his studies at the technical college. He then joined Itekeng club on a four-year contract.

"I went to Itekeng as a good player. In 2015, I was nominated in the Mascom Volleyball League awards for best setter. I was nominated alongside the talented duo from Police, Happy Ribbin and Alec Engleton. Engleton won the award, but for me it was not about winning, but I was excited to be recognised. This meant I was amongst the best players in the country," he said.

Koobatlile had a good season and was selected into the national senior team. In 2016, he re-joined The Big House after completing his studies in Jwaneng.

But there has been a drought of local volleyball action, as the national league has not been played since 2018.

"When you play volleyball with passion, and you learn that there is no league, it is painful. We miss volleyball and this has killed us. Most of the players have now joined the Constituency League. It is only us who play for national teams who are left behind. If there were no such regulations, I could be playing in the Constituency League as we speak," Koobatlile said.

He said they were looking forward to league action this year. He said the national team had some activities last year,  but they did not last long.

Koobatlile said his dream is to play ply his trade outside the country.

"Despite lack of action, I keep myself fit by weightlifting and hitting the gym. I am not building muscles but just toning. I want to be in shape so that when I tell someone that I am a sportperson, evidence should be there," he said.

Koobatlile said the outbreak of COVID-19 has not spared any sporting field globally. He said it has been a long time since volleyball pulled a crowd.

"Some players have given up. Some have gained weight and some have babies. It is only a few who are active in their homes. If we are to play next year, it is going to be difficult," he added.

FACT FILE

Full names: Tebogo Koobatlile aka Mtsonga

Date of birth: January 14, 1994

Place of birth: Jwaneng

Sporting code: Volleyball

Position: Attack

Club: Kutlwano

Height: 2 metres

National team caps: 5

Hobbies:  Hanging out with friends and watching movies.



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