Winning the national championship did not make Inky Ajanaku the VolleyballMag.com player of the year for the second time.
But it didn’t hurt.
And certainly her performance in Stanford’s six NCAA Tournament victories, including Saturday’s four-set win over Texas in the national-championship match, cemented the award for the senior from Tulsa, Okla., whose senior season became an inspiration for the college volleyball world.
Like Ajanaku, Texas freshman Micaya White had to watch from the sidelines in 2015, having to wait an extra year to get on the court. But when she did join the Longhorns in earnest, she had an incredible season and is the VolleyballMag.com national freshman of the year.
Just three days after winning it all and back in Tulsa, Ajanaku was already hitting the gym and planning her future. She’s finished with school, having earned both her undergraduate degree from Stanford in human biology and her master’s in biology.
“I feel like I still have a lot of work to do with my knee and my body and figuring out a great way to continue on my career,” Ajanaku said. “I’m really proud of the progress but I know this is not the end result and I have a vision of what I want the vision to be and it’s keeping me pretty focused.”
That might be scary to future opponents when you consider that the 6-foot-3 high-jumping middle blocker hit .407 this season. Ajanaku had 360 kills, 89 in the NCAA Tournament alone. She also had 192 blocks — 16 solo — averaging 1.54 per set.
Most likely Inky — whose father is from Nigeria and whose full name is Oyinkansola OluSeun Ajanaku — will play professionally, but only with a team that “knows my situation.
“I want to go to a team that’s understanding and willing to work with me and that could be a really good step with me. If not, I could stay in America and still train.” She said that she’s consulted with USA women’s Olympic coach Karch Kiraly.
Certainly Ajanaku will be in the mix to play with the national team with an eye on the 2020 Olympics. It was in the summer of 2015 when competing internationally for the USA that she blew out her knee.
It made for an exhaustive physical, mental and emotional rehab, about which Ajanaku openly discussed, especially the past few weeks in NCAA tourney news conferences.
When she arrived at The Farm in 2013, she was part of a class that included three other four-year starters in Madi Bugg, Jordan Burgess and Brittany Howard.
“I showed up and was thinking, ‘Wow. I’m incredibly unqualified to be here. I don’t know who I duped to let me into this university.’ But don’t give away the gifts that are given to you in the world even if they were addressed to the wrong person. I was really excited to be there, but I didn’t think I was going to play freshman year.”
She played. Ajanaku made the Pac-12 all-freshman team and was an AVCA honorable-mention All-American after averaging 2.42 kills and 1.23 blocks per set. It was the tip of the iceberg.
“I didn’t know what I was doing,” she admitted. “I was athletic. I could put a ball down in good circumstances but I had a hard time in compromising ones. But that year did teach me a lot and the coaches’ confidence in me helped to have confidence in myself and helped propel me into the learning process of volleyball. It made me mature faster than I probably would have on my own.”
As a sophomore she was a first-team AVCA All-American (only third team for VBM) after hitting .438 and averaging 2.42 kills and 1.38 blocks.
She was the 2014 VBM national player of the year and AVCA first-teamer again after a season in which she hit .428 and averaged 3.48 kills and 1.14 blocks.
But everything changed the next summer.
“To be honest: I’ve been incredibly lucky in my life and incredibly privileged with the stuff and the opportunities that I’ve been given,” Ajanaku said. “That makes it easy for you to be confident.
“And when I tore my ACL I wasn’t confident that I was going to get back on the court, I wasn’t confident that I was going to be the player I used to be. I wasn’t confident that I wasn’t going to hurt myself going back out there.
“When I was faced with that amount of adversity where I had never really been challenged before I really had to figure out ways to grow my confidence. It felt like it had been stepped on and it was something I aways relied on. I knew I was an athletic player and knew I could be a really great teammate, but I thought that the thing that made me more successful than others was my mindset. It was my confidence and when I didn’t have that I didn’t know what kind of player I was.
“I knew from the beginning of preseason I had to get that back.”
It was a process, of course. Stanford was upset in its first match of the season, but Ajanaku had 11 kills, hit .429 and had eight blocks against San Diego. But she was up and down, sometimes putting up great numbers, but struggling at times and her slumps seemed to mirror the team’s. At one point Stanford was 10-5 overall, 4-3 in the Pac-12, before finishing 27-7, 15-5.
“But I couldn’t find that confidence halfway through the season,” Ajanaku admitted.
“I was shaken. I didn’t know how to play, I was second-guessing everything I did. I had never played like that before.”
She understands this much: “It helped me grow a lot and I feel like it helped me face other adversities I might face in life.”
None of that was lost on her Cardinal teammates.
“She’s one of the strongest individuals I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing with and knowing,” said Stanford’s Kelsey Humphreys, the team’s only other senior. “And all the struggle that she’s talking about, you would never know by the way she walked in the gym or the way she interacted with any of our teammates.”
Stanford eventually caught fire as coach John Dunning made some lineup changes in a season filled with well-documented twists and turns, mostly caused by injuries. And after upsetting second-seeded Minnesota in the national semifinals, the sixth-seeded Cardinal knocked off Texas 25-21, 25-19, 18-25, 25-21.
Before the match, Ajanaku said she told the team that it had to play great volleyball and that win or lose that would be enough.
“She let us believe in ourselves,” Humphreys said. “She’s an amazing leader, and I think that’s part of the growth she had in her year off.”
As her teammates went wild, Ajanaku had to ponder the moment.
“It’s a cliche, but it’s really surreal,” Ajanaku said. “We had match point a couple of times and I was focused on the game that once we won I didn’t run onto the court because I was still in game mode: Next point, next point! Even though I knew we had won. I was extremely excited but I wasn’t extremely emotional because I was still in that mode and it takes me a while to come down from it.”
It took a while, but soon she felt it.
“After we got back to the hotel and we had the trophy and John gave us a little speech, I realized that this was everything I had been working for these past five years and it’s finally here. And all I could think about was how we didn’t play great volleyball in the third set and how I would change some things.”
She laughed heartily.
“But I realized how I’d wanted this championship for so long and now that I have it I realize that’s a real success if I play well and play a game I’m proud of.”
And with that, Ajanaku said she had to get to the gym.
In the NCAA championship match, she had 10 blocks, hit .419 with 16 kills in 31 swings, but one of her three errors?
“I thought I’d be relaxed after I won and say that’s it, ‘I’m never playing volleyball again,’ but all I want to do is get back on the court because I remember that my last hit was out of bounds and I want to make sure my arm is up fast enough so my next hit is in bounds.”
She laughed again.
“I’m having a little case study on myself. It’s interesting how I reacted to it.”
In a year where NCAA volleyball seemed at times dominated by freshmen, White stood out.
The 6-foot-1 outside hitter led Texas with 462 kills — 80 in the NCAA Tournament —averaged 4.02 kills per set, hit .274, had a team-best 24 aces, had 77 blocks — 11 solo — and 252 digs.
But the highly touted player from Dallas and the daughter of former NBA standout Randy White arrived in Austin already injured. She had a stress fracture in her left tibia.
“I guess I had it for about eight months before college,” she recalled. “I went to a couple of doctors and they didn’t see anything.”
She said the doctors she visited told her not to be concerned, “so I didn’t worry about it. And I got to college and doctor said, ‘I don’t know how you’ve been playing. Because you’re basically playing on a broken leg.”
So this high-flying player with a whip of an arm and a vicious jump serve today has a rod and two screws in her leg.
But a year off made her a better player.
“It helped me so much because I got to watch and learn so much more about my game. I got to watch other players like (former USC star) Samantha Bricio, who’s one of my all-time favorite outside hitters growing up. Getting to watch her season and just comparing and learning was a really big advantage. A lot of kids coming out of high school don’t get that advantage.
“At the time I didn’t enjoy it, Jerritt and I had a couple of words my true freshman year, but I take it as the biggest blessing.”
White finally got to start practicing with the Longhorns late in the 2015 season and then had all of the 2016 spring season.
“It was rough at first,” she admitted, “getting used to playing with metal in your leg.
“But, yeah, it was kind of like unleashing an animal. I couldn’t get out of the gym. I’ve continually wanted to work with Erik (Sullivan, UT assistant coach) or Jerritt or our strength coach. I just wanted to be better than I was coming in.”
White had 14 kills in the season opener at Oregon, but in the next match, against Nebraska, she was awful, with three kills in 21 swings and a -.143 hitting percentage. As an aside, when Texas knocked off Nebraska in the NCAA semifinals, she had seven kills, hit .269, and had eight digs and five blocks.
“When we first started practicing (in August) I could feel that our team was going to be really good,” White said. “Just because of how hard everyone wanted to work and how excited everyone was. Usually some are in it and some are out of it, but everyone was driven and I knew we’d have a lot of fight in us.”
Texas never had a losing streak as it finished 27-5. The Longhorns, by all accounts, had a fantastic season. But White was none too happy after losing the NCAA title match, although she had 17 kills, 11 digs and six blocks. She was also not happy that Texas finished second to Kansas in the Big 12 and said that next year she thinks the Longhorns will be even more driven to win it all.
Like Ajanaku, she hit the gym this week as well, getting in some volleyball time with her old club, TAV.
“I’m very proud of what I’ve accomplished, but I always set a high standard for myself and think I can do better,” White said. “I feel I’m blessed to receive the awards I did, but this is a team sport and we’re not winning the Big 12 and the national championship, I could have done more.
“So that’s what I’ve been thinking about the past couple of days since I’ve been home. So we do win the Big 12 and we win the national championship next year.”