If Stanford fifth-year senior Inky Ajanaku needed something to cement her volleyball legacy at the school, than she accomplished that the past two days in Madison, Wisc.
Ajanaku, in a powerful display of strength, athleticism and determination, willed the Cardinal from a two-match deficit to topple host and third-seeded Wisconsin, 18-25, 24-26, 25-21, 25-21, 15-9, in a NCAA regional final Saturday, helping earn Stanford a spot in next weekend's Final Four, where it gets a rematch with Minnesota on Thursday.
“This season has been a roller coaster,” said Ajanaku, who missed last year with a knee injury. “We've had to go through a lot, and I've had to go through a lot, and I think that's kind of what bonded our team. We were learning to trust ourselves at the same time I was ready to trust myself again.”
Ajanaku, named the regional MVP, recorded a season-high 20 kills on .447 hitting to go with a career-high 11 blocks. Her first block of the night was the 600th of her career. With 610 overall, she joins Kim Oden (1982-85), Bev Oden (1989-92) and Carly Wopat (2010-13) as the only players in program history to reach the milestone.
“This is the reason I came back to Stanford; because everyone supported me every step of the way and helped me get to this point where I was able to trust myself to play more comfortably on the court,” Ajanaku said. “I knew that Stanford is the place that will embrace me and help me get to that level. It's emotional every year. Every year we're in it to win the national championship, and to be able to go to the Final Four is a great honor.”
Freshman Kathryn Plummer posted 12 kills, including the final point, to help guide Stanford to its NCAA-record 20th Final Four. Freshman libero Morgan Hentz contributed a season-high 30 digs to go with four assists and a kill. Plummer, with 27 kills in two games, and Hentz, with 57 digs in two games, joined Ajanaku on the all-tournament team.
“Inky is being modest about her leadership skills,” Cardinal Merete Lutz said. “She went on this amazing speech about working hard for each other. That's Inky: doing everything for each other, coming together, leaning on each other. I think that just brought everyone together and gave everyone a lot of confidence, all of because of Inky's amazing leadership.”
Coach John Dunning is making his 12th Final Four appearance overall and his eighth in 16 seasons at the helm of the Cardinal program. Stanford has 113 tournament victories, tops in the nation. Dunning is 89-27 all-time in the postseason.
"Wisconsin is really, really a great team, so for us to be sitting here is an honor," said Dunning. "I thought our team played really hard and played with courage when they had to. We hadn't been down two sets and come back and won a match this year. And I think we knew that coming out for the third game that maybe we'd learned enough and that we were ready for the fight that was ahead of us, and we were. I'm very proud of them."
Stanford, which had only lost the first two sets one other time this year (a 3-1 loss to Arizona), hit .271 for the match, while holding Wisconsin to a .244 clip. The Cardinal, which leads the nation with 3.34 blocks per set, totaled 18 against the Badgers.
"Being able to play to your potential, just pushing out all the doubt, that's what changed,” Ajanaku said. “Our freshmen are finally recognizing how good we all know that they are. "