Sports

No. 2 Stanford all set for volleyball showdown with No. 1

Inky Ajanaku has a split personality and the junior middle blocker thinks it's perfectly sane. So do her teammates.

"She's like two different people," Stanford senior libero Kyle Gilbert said. "She can make daily life so much fun. She's a jokester and comic relief. On the court, she's 100 percent focused and you can't distract her."

Ajanaku laughs -- it was, after all, just an interview -- and remembers a time when she was upset at a teammate for trying to joke during a timeout.

"I wondered why she wasn't taking it seriously," she said. "I was thinking, 'this is a volleyball match.'"

Off the court, all bets are off.

"I like talking to people," said Ajanaku, the reigning Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week. "I like having fun."

She'll be all business when second-ranked Stanford (2-0) takes the court Friday against visiting Penn State in the Pac-12/Big Ten Challenge in Maples Pavilion at 6 p.m. UCLA will face Illinois in a second match at 8 p.m.

The Bruins will meet Penn State on Saturday (5 p.m.) with Stanford hosting Illinois on Sunday (11 a.m.) to conclude the tourney. Both Stanford matches will be televised by the Pac-12 Networks.

Penn State comes in as the top-ranked team in the nation, reigning national champion and the team that knocked the Cardinal out of last year's NCAA tournament in the Elite Eight.

"We've had a constant dialogue since December," Ajanaku said. "Four or five months of working hard were consolidated into three points. But that's what we signed up for. It makes me angry just thinking about it."

Stanford led the Nittany Lions by three points in the fifth set and let it get away. The Cardinal has lost in the Elite Eight in each of the past two years.

"The Elite Eight is not good enough," Ajanaku said. "The Final Four is not good enough. We want to start out great and get better."

The match between Penn State and Stanford is more than just No. 1 vs. No. 2 at an early part of the season. It's a match between the two most successful college women's volleyball programs in the nation and there's not much argument about it.

Stanford and Penn State are the only two schools to have participated in every NCAA tournament since its inception in 1981 and both schools own six national titles.

Penn State beat Stanford en route to the NCAA title four times, three in the championship match. The Cardinal beat the Nittany Lions to win one of its titles.

Penn State has the upper hand these days, having won five national titles since Stanford won its sixth title. The Cardinal has not advanced beyond the Elite Eight since 2008. Its last title was in 2004.

"I have much higher expectations," Ajanaku said. "I think we will dominate. We have some great people getting their turn."

The current junior class entered Stanford as the nation's top-rank recruiting class and Ajanaku may have been the least-polished of the bunch.

"Inky was a question mark when she was younger," Stanford coach John Dunning said. "We knew she could be good but she was an untapped talent. She's benefited from her teammates and has become a top player. She had enormous talent and is becoming more aware of that every day."

Unlike most of her teammates, Ajanaku was not born into a volleyball family.

"My parents did not play sports," she said. "It wasn't really part of my life. I didn't think about recruiting until someone sat me down my freshman year of high school and told me I could compete in the sport in the Olympics."

As a fifth-grader, she flippantly asked a coach what the highest level was. When she was told the Olympics, she decided that was her calling even without knowing about the Olympics. It could have been a neighborhood tournament as far as she knew then.

"When I got to Stanford, I had to keep telling myself that the Olympics were a possibility because my head was spinning," Ajanaku said. "I couldn't handle it. I realized being good might be hard. I needed to get organized and I needed to sit back and listen; connecting with people better than me."

Many of those people were Stanford grads and Olympians like Logan Tom and Foluke Akinradewo, a middle blocker with a remarkable resemblance (goggles and all) to Ajanaku.

"Logan practiced with us last year and I was horrible in comparison," Ajanaku said. "Foluke gave us a talk before a match. I texted her before the postseason and asked a couple of questions. She responded right away. I do respect all the great players who have come before us. I know what they accomplished."

Ajanaku also knows she'd like to accomplish the same things and knows her teammates are on the same page.

"There is a great work environment in the gym," she said. "We're all getting better collectively. That's because the younger players are right there on that level to see who plays. John makes its clear that if you're not playing 'A' level, then you get off the 'A' side. There are players on the 'B' side who are playing hard and working hard and could be 'A' level."

Penn State is one of just two teams (with more than one match played) in the nation, with Hawaii, that have a winning record against the Cardinal.

The Nittany Lions come in with an 8-7 record against Stanford. The Cardinal will be out to even the score.

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