'Grandma' Inky Ajanaku lifts young Stanford to national championship game
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- For all the talk about Stanford volleyball's young guns being goofballs, here's a little secret from freshman Kathryn Plummer:
The silliest kid on the Cardinal is fifth-year senior Inky Ajanaku, whose 15 kills and nine blocks in a 3-1 victory over No. 2 Minnesota lifted No. 9 Stanford (26-7) into Saturday's national championship game for the 15th time in program history.
They'll play Texas, which shocked No. 1 Nebraska with a three-set sweep in the Thursday nightcap at Nationwide Arena.
"She's the pot stirrer; she's a little kid at heart," said Plummer, one of four freshman starters for the Cardinal. "Only when it comes to volleyball, you can tell she's the oldest person on the court."
And at the ancient age of 22, Ajanaku doesn't have time to hang around while the Cardinal kids mature -- not that they need to. (Unless, of course, you're talking about "the three Instagram accounts they all have or their DMs [direct messages]. I mean, are people still doing that?" Ajanaku asks with a playful roll of the eye.)
"All of us want to win it for her," Plummer said. "One of the things Inky always says is 'next point.' That brings a sense of urgency to our game. When we were not doing as well earlier this season, we were focusing on what we did wrong. The second half of the season, we've done better just moving along to the next point."
Ajanaku had a sense of a special season right from the go. "Preseason, when we had our first practice, we saw what the freshmen could do. We were blown away by the talent."
Leading the talent pool is the 6-foot-6 Plummer, whose imposing presence against the Gophers was reminiscent of a WNBA center. You want to duck when she gets the last word. The national freshman of the year finished with 15 kills and 11 digs against the methodical Gophers.
Then there's another frosh, setter Jenna Gray, whose two dumps in the fourth set proved critical for a Stanford team that needed to keep its edge in the national semifinal after the Gophers gritted out the third set 25-22.
Libero Morgan Hentz?
"It's really easy to be a great blocker when you only have to take up a certain part of the court," Ajanaku said. "And Morgan allows that for us."
And then there's 6-6 Audriana Fitzmorris, who had 10 kills -- her last one on match point -- and eight blocks against the Gophers.
Ajanaku said Wednesday that she hasn't had much time to reflect on a season that hasn't exactly played out according to plan. Six games in, it became clear that All-American Hayley Hodson, last year's AVCA freshman of the year, would not be a go the rest of the way for health reasons. Another injury to Michaela Keefe led coach John Dunning to abandon his 6-2 offense in favor of a 5-1, and even Ajanaku missed time due to an ankle sprain.
"We've been through so much and that matures you," Ajanaku said. "A lot of people might not think the freshmen could handle the situation, but they handled it. They keep proving to people that they can handle it and can play at a really high level when there are high stakes."
This is a team that trailed Wisconsin last weekend only to rally in five, a stunning defeat for the Big Ten powerhouse in its own building.
"We were playing decent volleyball, but the environment got to us," Ajanaku said. "After that locker room talk, we decided nobody's going to fault us for taking the big swings. We said, 'Let's just cover each other and let's just go for it.' That's what we did."
Those are the moments when Ajanku lives up to the "Grandma" nickname her teammates cajole her with. Most of the time she's the one singing "Mr. Brightside" or dancing to "Caroline" (by Amine, by the way, not "Sweet Caroline" by Neil Diamond).
But Dunning said when he's needed Ajanku to become the leader, she's become that calming voice in the huddle. Previously, he said, she led by example. But he told her before the season that while she's done a lot, he knew she was capable of more.
"To have somebody on your team, a player step up and talk to their team and have everybody be glued to it, that's really, really big," he said.
Ajanaku embraces that role and is cognizant that this could have all worked out completely different. After all, she really isn't supposed to be here, sweating out her cellular immunology exam while her teammates weather English composition. A torn ACL last season led to the redshirt year and a head start on a master's in biology for the wannabe orthopedic surgeon.
Don't think she doesn't know it.
"My volleyball career didn't go as I expected, but that's life," she said. "You go with the opportunities you have."
Thanks to her, Stanford has another on Saturday night.