There will be a real sense of purpose for the University of Fort Hare’s table tennis team at the USSAs in Bloemfontein next week.

A full complement of players is set to do battle at the tournament for the first time, marking a significant moment in the development of the sport at the institution.

Only two players attended the University Sports South Africa event in 2022, but this year four men and four women will be making their way to the City of Roses.

The growth of table tennis at Fort Hare is largely down to the efforts of Azikile Makaula, the student who has taken it upon herself to get others interested in the sport.

Her love of the game has translated into her becoming de facto coach even though she remains a player herself.

“Coaching and playing is challenging,” she acknowledged ahead of the squad’s trip to the Free State on Sunday.

“[As a coach] you have to know what style each player plays; they are not going to play how I play. But I am proud of how far I’ve come.”

While there may be an element of learning on the job, Makaula has been clear on the importance of fitness in improving her team’s performance.

UFH - Table Tennis - Azikile (FSC) (2)

Player-coach Azikile Makaula will lead University of Fort Hare’s groundbreaking table tennis team to the University Sports South Africa tournament in Bloemfontein. Photo: Full Stop Communications

For the past two weeks, she has ensured that they are up at the crack of dawn to run around the sports fields at the Alice campus. Then it is rinse and repeat later in the day.

Daily practice sessions on the tables have also become part of the pre-USSA routine.

Makaula conceded that the Bloem competition would be a learning experience for her teammates, who had never played in a tournament before.

However, she added that they were taking the USSAs seriously, especially since they had received backing from the university.

“There is a lot of potential in the team.”

As for her own chances, she hoped to repeat the top-four finish she achieved last year when she placed third in her category. That ensured her selection for the USSA national team.

She believed her form was good and she also knew many of the opponents she would come up against. She had spent a lot of time visualising her points of attack and defence against them, she said.

The library and information sciences student has had a busy year.

She made her second appearance at senior level for Team Eastern Cape at the SA Open Table Tennis Championships, having first donned provincial colours in this category in 2018.

While by her own admission she had not been at her best in singles, she found some form in the doubles to claim the bronze medal with partner Nitaya McCuur.

Seeing her inexperienced side spring a few surprises at the USSAs may well trump that.