The day after Stanford lost to Penn State in the regional final of last season’s NCAA tournament, Inky Ajanaku found out that the 2014 Final Four would take place in her home state of Oklahoma. “Mixed emotions there,” she said.
Now, with Stanford in its first Final Four since 2008 and just two wins away from its first national championship in ten seasons — with the same Penn State team again the biggest obstacle ahead of the Cardinal — Ajanaku has a clearer picture of what its like to be back home in The Sooner State with the season on the line, just an hour and a half south of her native Tulsa.
“If you told me four years ago that I would be playing in a Final Four in the place where [in high school], I usually played the regional finals just to get to nationals, I would’ve said you’re crazy,” Ajanaku said. “This is a crazy experience, but we’re trying to stay focused. The reason we came here was to play really great volleyball. It’s awesome, the distractions are fun; but I’ve had enough fun, I just want to win at this point.”
The 6-foot-4 junior middle blocker has experienced her fair share of winning, and it all started at Bishop Kelley High School, essentially a straight shoot from Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City on Interstate 44. Ajanaku’s team won state championships in volleyball each of her four years in high school, and she lettered in three of those years — not to mention twice in track and once in basketball as well.
But she didn’t go into Bishop Kelley as the same player she was in her senior year of high school, and certainly not as the same player she is now, having just been honored as an AVCA All-American for the third straight year and for the second time on the First Team. Her freshman season was a bit rocky, and she did not make the varsity team at the outset as her sister, Kita, had done the year prior.
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“I was god-awful as a freshman so I hope I’ve evolved since then. I was extremely raw, as you can believe because I was raw coming in to college,” Ajanaku said. “It’s a credit to my high school coach because she didn’t think I should just get in because of my athletic ability; I should work for it.”
Jerri “Wads” Berna was that coach who witnessed Ajanaku grow to become the Gatorade Oklahoma Player of the Year in her senior season and the No. 2 overall recruit in her class. Berna has coached girls’ volleyball in Oklahoma since 1990, including 18 seasons at Bishop Kelley over which she has led her team to 12 state championships and a 717-112-8 (.857) overall record.
“Inky’s evolvement as a volleyball player came a little bit later. When she was a freshman, she was just a tall, kind of goofy kid. But look at her now,” Berna said. “As a freshman, it wasn’t that she wasn’t talented enough, it was that I am all about the kid. I felt that she had a very nice class of players with her, and that it was important for them to play together as freshmen.”
A teammate said that Ajanaku is “the most excited she’s ever been to go back to Oklahoma,” and while part of that must have something to do with the Cardinal playing for a national championship, it’s also about being back around people like Berna. Ajanaku mentioned that Wads’ small act to keep her off the varsity team as a freshman six years ago, though it disappointed her at the time, represents the nurturing approach that’s common among the people you’d find in her home state.
“It represents the people of Oklahoma. Everybody wants to help and everybody is willing to help do whatever you dream of. That’s just good Oklahoma spirit, and I’m glad that everyone will get to experience it,” Ajanaku said.
“She said [in another interview] that something she really missed in college was the community aspect of being in Oklahoma. That is probably one of the fundamental pillars of our school,” Berna said. “We often find that our kids struggle a bit when they leave here because it’s not as warm and fuzzy out there in the big world as it is right here.”
A large part of that community will be on hand for the national semifinal match as Ajanaku’s worlds collide. Expect some interesting posters, too: About halfway through Stanford’s regular season, Ajanaku’s friends from back home texted her to ask which picture of her would look best as a Fathead poster.
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So while Ajanaku has definitely been impacted by her environment in Tulsa as well as the greater sense of community in her home state, the impact that she has had on the very same people will be even more evident at Chesapeake Energy Arena on Thursday night. Wads said that three qualities set her apart from the other players she’s coached in the past, including six other Gatorade Players of the Year. They are her open mind, her selflessness and her competitive drive.
“Competiveness doesn’t always come naturally to girls, we kind of have to work at that with them. Especially in our catholic schools here in the middle of the country; our kids are very nice,” Berna said. “It’s hard for them to sometimes be a beast as a volleyball player, ’cause they’re so nice.
“Inky was always highly competitive, which is very critical to somebody wanting to be a strong player — you have to want to win and do whatever you have to do to make that happen.”
One story stood out for Wads that transcends Ajanaku’s dominant play on the court, perhaps characterizing something that her current Cardinal teammates have already seen. Towards the end of Ajanaku’s senior season at Bishop Kelley, during the last week of practice, the team huddled up and had a talk. While their record didn’t necessarily show it, the team was underachieving at the time, doing just enough to get by, Wads said, which simply wouldn’t get the job done in the postseason tournaments.
Everyone in the huddle had her turn to speak, and Ajanaku, as the team’s captain, was the last player to hold the floor.
“Inky is very respected because one, she’s a stud, and two, she’s very wise for a young person. So when she decided to speak up, and she was the last one, people were just wide-eyed looking at her,” Berna said.
Ajanaku spoke about her teammate, Lindsay Cleaves, Bishop Kelley’s libero, who was also a senior that season. She said that she wanted to win the state championship for Lindsay because she herself already had a ring, but Lindsay didn’t and she wanted her to have one.
“And Inky started crying, which is completely out of character for her. You may never see that as long as you know her, it just doesn’t happen. So when that happened, there was a click of something inside of our team that happened in that moment. And we were different.”
The team went on to the state championship, and “one of the most beautiful things” closed that match and clinched the title for Bishop Kelley, Wads said. Cleaves received the serve, made a perfect pass to Claire Kelley, who won the Gatorade Player of the Year award the year after Ajanaku had, who then quickly set Ajanaku.
“Inky hit a ball so hard straight down that on the bounce it went all the way to the back wall at this huge gym we were playing at,” Wads said. “She spanked it probably harder than any ball that she’s ever hit, it was ridiculous.
“It was just completely fitting that it would happen that way, and that her and Lindsay both touched the ball on the point that won it. That’s her in a nutshell: She wanted to win so bad that really, it wasn’t about her.”
As Ajanaku makes her homecoming while leading the Cardinal through the most important volleyball matches of their lives, that Oklahoma spirit will undoubtedly be present both on the floor and in the stands surrounding her.
Contact Jordan Wallach at jwallach ‘at’ stanford.edu.