National POY Watch: Volleyball contenders

Everybody knows a girl’s gotta win her own state first before she gets a shot at being Gatorade National Volleyball Player of the Year. That said, two elite performers to this point in the season are among those making a bid to be honored as the best of the best once mid-December rolls around. The Gatorade Player of the Year award recognizes not only athletic excellence, but also high standards of academic achievement and exemplary character demonstrated on and off the court. There’s plenty more work to be done, but here are two top candidates who remain in contention to win their own state and could someday call themselves a National POY.

Inky Ajanaku

Senior middle blocker, Bishop Kelley (Tulsa, Okla.)

2011 Team record: 32-3 (Class 6A)

2011 Team standing: Class 6A state champions; No. 49 on ESPNHS FAB 50

2011 Kills: 537

2011 Blocks: 127

2011 Digs: 29

2011 Aces: 5

Academics: A average

Collegiate destination: Stanford University

How she’s played herself into the National POY conversation: Collected a match-high 19 kills on 32 swings (.594 kill percentage) in the state title-clinching three-set sweep against Edmond North (Edmond, Okla.). Owned a .525 hitting percentage and .634 kill percentage. Averaged 4.9 kills and 1.2 blocks per set. No. 2 ranked recruit in Class of 2012 as rated by PrepVolleyball.com. 2011 Under Armour First Team All-American as named by the American Volleyball Coaches Association. 2010 and 2011 Class 6A state tournament Most Valuable Player. 2010 All-Metro Volleyball Player of the Year as named by the Tulsa World.

Amy Neal

Senior outside hitter, Lake Travis (Austin, Texas)

2011 Team record: 50-0 (Class 4A)

2011 Team standing: Class 4A state champions; No. 2 on ESPNHS FAB 50

2011 Kills: 538

2011 Digs: 287

2011 Aces: 63

2011 Blocks: 27

Academics: B-plus average

Collegiate destination: University of Texas

How she’s played herself into the National POY conversation: Compiled 23 kills, 12 digs and five blocks in the three-set Class 4A state championship sweep of Pearce (Richardson, Texas). 2011 USA Volleyball Girls' Junior Nationals Volleyball Championships 17 Open Most Valuable Player. 2010 and 2011 Class 4A state championship match Most Valuable Player. 2011 Westwood Warrior Showcase, Byron Nelson Classic and Pearland/Nike Volleyball Classic MVP. No. 18 ranked recruit in Class of 2012 by PrepVolleyball.com. 2011 First Team Under Armour All-American as named by the AVCA. 2010 and 2011 All-Texas Team selection as named by Lone Star Volleyball.

Make no mistake, the Gatorade State Volleyball Player of the Year races aren’t over yet, and the National POY race has just begun. Here are some other state contenders who’ve also entered the National POY conversation in this 2011 campaign.

Madison Bugg: Cardinal Gibbons (Raleigh, N.C.) senior outside hitter/setter

Jordan Burgess: Berkeley Prep (Tampa, Fla.) senior outside hitter

Nicole Dalton: Chaparral (Parker, Colo.) senior outside hitter/setter

Megan Courtney: Archbishop Alter (Kettering, Ohio) senior outside hitter

MacKenzie Dagostino: Berkeley Prep (Tampa, Fla.) senior setter/right-side hitter

Katie George: Assumption (Louisville, Ky.) senior setter/outside hitter

Molly McCage: Klein Collins (Spring, Texas) senior middle blocker

Caitlin Nolan: Southlake Carroll (Southlake, Texas) senior libero

Amber Rolfzen: Papillion-La Vista South (Papillion, Neb.) junior outside hitter

Kadie Rolfzen: Papillion-La Vista South (Papillion, Neb.) junior outside hitter

Emily Sklar: Presentation (San Jose, Calif.) senior outside hitter

Rebecca Strehlow: Woodrow Wilson (Long Beach, Calif.) senior setter

Sarah Wilhite: Eden Prairie (Minn.) junior outside hitter

Think we're missing a deserving Gatorade State or National Player of the Year candidate? Let us know via e-mail at ESPNHS_GPOY@ESPN.com or Twitter @ESPNHS_Awards.

A dedicated POY team at ESPNHS manages the Gatorade Player of the Year program selection process and oversees all research, reporting, comparative analysis and criteria-compliance on the award program’s behalf.

The Gatorade Player of the Year Program honors athletes who meet comprehensive and exacting criteria in high school sports. Candidates are judged on athletic production and impact in the current season. Contenders also must demonstrate high academic achievement and exemplary personal character, including volunteerism, sportsmanship and community leadership. Senior status has no bearing on a candidate’s merit and selections are made independent of ESPNHS recruit rankings.