Stanford's Inky Ajanaku A Woman With (Almost) Everything
Stanford's Inky Ajanaku gets a lot of well-deserved kudos about her achievements as an All-America volleyball player. But the last couple of years, she also received compliments for her outstanding basketball play.
Except she doesn't play hoops for the Cardinal. Hmmm ...
"Chiney and I call each other 'my twin,' because people would always get us confused," Ajanaku said, chuckling, about another tall athletic and academic former star for Stanford, basketball player Chiney Ogwumike. "If she had a really good game, sometimes people would stop me and say, 'Great game yesterday!' And I would not even be in season.
"But I'd just say, 'Thank you so much!' and pass it on to Chiney. She'd laugh and say, 'It happens to me, too.' Even our boosters, who are very involved in our sports, sometimes did it. It's funny, but I'm flattered by it. It's a great person to be compared to."
Fair to say Ogwumike, who was recently named the WNBA's rookie of the year, doesn't mind either. Both are daughters of Nigerian parents who came to the United States to get advanced degrees and instilled in their children a strong love of learning.
Ajanaku's father, Olakunle Ajanaku, is a doctor specializing in internal medicine. Her mother, Tola Elliott, is a pharmacist. Ajanaku is interested in going to medical school herself.
For now, she is a junior middle blocker with the No. 2-ranked Cardinal. And she seems so like Ogwumike personality-wise -- with a sunny disposition and a lot of interest in the world beyond sports -- that it's understandable how people might get them mixed up. By the way, Chiney is 6-foot-4, and Inky a smidge under that at 6-3.
Also, both have older sisters who play the same sport and with whom they are very close. Nneka Ogwumike played alongside Chiney for two seasons at Stanford and is also in the WNBA.
Ajanaku's sister, Kitan, plays volleyball at Georgia State. She is 15 months older than Inky but redshirted a season when she started her career at Long Beach State. So she's also in her junior year of volleyball.
Ajanaku said she did several sports growing up in Tulsa, Oklahoma -- track, basketball, soccer, and even fencing -- but settled on volleyball in part because it was what Kitan was most enthusiastic about.
"I wanted to be exactly like her," Ajanaku said.
But there was also another draw. Seeking more top competition, Ajanaku's club volleyball team regularly would go outside of Oklahoma.
"It wasn't the sport that enticed me so much at the beginning," she said. "It was getting to travel with all my friends and just spend time with them. It was like a constant slumber party.
"I was actually pretty awful at volleyball at first, but I started to get better. Once you find something that excites you every day, you work harder at it. My sister and I really got into it, and we would practice on our own together. It just stuck."
I was actually pretty awful at volleyball at first, but I started to get better. Once you find something that excites you every day, you work harder at it.Inky Ajanaku
And when Kitan was watching the Division I volleyball national semifinals in December 2008, Inky sat down to catch the action, too. She found herself immediately picking a favorite team: Stanford.
The fact that it was an academically challenging school made it even more a draw for her.
"I just decided I was coming here," Ajanaku said of Stanford. "I really didn't even have much of a backup school."
She didn't need one. Part of Stanford's very talented incoming freshman class in the fall of 2012, Ajanaku was immediately an impact player for the Cardinal. She was on the Pac-12's all-freshman team in 2012 and last year became a first-team All-American.
What Ajanaku has not done yet is make it to her sport's final four, the volleyball championship. In fact, Stanford has not advanced that far since the match that Ajanaku watched back in 2008 that drew her to the Cardinal in the first place.
For Stanford, which is tied with Penn State for most NCAA titles in women's volleyball with six, going five seasons without a national semifinal appearance is an inordinately long time. The Nittany Lions were the team that stopped the Cardinal short last year in one of the best matches of the season, a 3-2 Penn State win in the regional final in Lexington, Kentucky.
The exceptional play by both sides was worthy of a national championship match, but it came two rounds before that. Tough bracket.
"People on our team got very emotional afterward," Ajanaku said. "But I was thinking more about what we could have done to win. I had my sights on next year pretty fast."
And this season has started very well for Stanford and Ajanaku. The Cardinal challenged themselves with road matches at Iowa State and Nebraska this past weekend to open play. They won both in 3-0 sweeps, the latter in front of more than 8,000 Nebraska fans.
Ajanaku earned Pac-12 defensive player of the week honors. She had 14 kills and six block assists while hitting .522 against the Cyclones. Then against the Huskers, she recorded 10 kills and three block assists while hitting .500.
Now look who's coming to town Friday: No. 1 Penn State, which meets the No. 2 Cardinal at Maples Pavilion at 9 p.m. ET on the Pac-12 Network. That's part of the Pac-12/Big Ten Challenge. On Sunday, Stanford will host No. 9 Illinois. UCLA is at Stanford for the challenge, too, and also will play the Nittany Lions and Illini. (The Cardinal and the Bruins will take part in their annual Pac-12 rivalry on Oct. 24 at Stanford and Nov. 13 in Los Angeles.)
Stanford trails 7-8 in the all-time series with Penn State. Evening that record against the Nittany Lions and beating the Illini would firmly put the Cardinal in the No. 1 spot in the next AVCA poll.
But even if that doesn't happen, Ajanaku feels confident that come December, the Cardinal will be a national-championship-caliber team. And it so happens that the volleyball semifinals and final will be held in Oklahoma City. If Stanford is there, expect a good-sized caravan of Ajanaku fans from Tulsa to make the hour-and-a-half drive down Interstate 44 to OKC.
"Ever since freshman year, that's been my goal: to get to a final four," Ajanaku said. "If I'd get to play in one in my home state, that would be icing on the cake."