Palo Alto Weekly

Sports - October 25, 2013

Ajanaku has Stanford back in contention

by Rick Eymer

Stanford junior Inky Ajanaku wears goggles, not because she has an odd sense of humor (which she has), but because of her willingness to leap tall nets in a single bound and put her face and eyes at risk of redirected volleyballs.

It's for both her humor and ability to play volleyball that has endeared her to her Stanford teammates. She could be jumping out of a large laundry basket one minute, and recording a key block that found her chest instead of her hands the next minute.

Imagine how far off the ground Ajanaku has to get to have a ball slam into her chest over a 7-foot, 4-inch high net. The sophomore middle blocker has never dunked a basketball, but dunking volleyballs are easy.

Ajanaku was credited with seven block assists, while senior middle blocker Carly Wopat added seven assists and one solo block as the sixth-ranked Cardinal swept visiting Oregon, 25-22, 25-13, 25-22, in a Pac-12 Conference match on Wednesday night.

Stanford (7-2 in the Pac-12, 14-4 overall) heads into Friday night's 7 p.m. conference match with visiting Oregon State as the nation's leader in blocks (3.09) per set.

The Cardinal relinquished the lead to Dayton (3.07) following last weekend's activities. The Flyers return to action on Saturday.

"As a team we make sure all our skills are up to par," Ajanaku said. "If we miss a block, we know our defensive players are there."

On one block, Ajanaku was descending and still managed to get her hands on it.

"She's a remarkable athlete," Cardinal coach John Dunning said. "She's very long and she's learning every day. She works hard at getting better."

She's also known for her practical jokes. One recent incident, which also involved fellow sophomore Brittany Howard, had Ajanaku hiding in a large laundry basket. The duo managed to surprise several teammates as well as coach Dunning.

"Physical humor is really my specialty," Ajanaku said. "The only joke I can think of wouldn't be appropriate."

When it comes to volleyball, the Cardinal doesn't fool around.

"We want to go out and get better as a team for the next round of games," Ajanaku said. "We have some tests coming up at home and we want to show how well we play at home. We also need to improve on the road."

Wopat, who had 11 kills on 20 swings without an error, entered the match ranked third in the nation in hitting percentage at .480. She improved her standing after hitting .550 against the No. 20 Ducks.

The Cardinal moved within a half-game of co-leaders USC and Washington, who are headed for a showdown on Sunday.

If the regular season ended today, 11 of the 12 conference teams would have a legitimate chance at making the 64-team NCAA tournament. The top 11 teams are ranked among the top 52 nationally in terms of the RPI ratings.

A good portion of those ratings are based on strength of schedule and several schools have helped themselves with quality wins. Colorado owns a victory over the Huskies, Arizona can point to last weekend's win over USC while Arizona State toppled defending national defending champions Texas. UCLA beat the 22nd-ranked Sun Devils last weekend.

The second half of the conference season begins next week, with USC coming to Stanford next Wednesday night.

After opening the conference schedule with five road games out of the first eight, Stanford's win over Oregon opened a stretch of seven home games among the final 12.

"We have the advantage of getting to play USC and Washington at home," Dunning said. "You have to be aware that there are going to be losses, because I don't think you can call them upsets. We're trying to be the team that doesn't do that."

Jordan Burgess added 11 kills and hit .370, while Brittany Howard added 11 digs and nine kills. Madi Bugg recorded 36 assists and Kyle Gilbert had 21 digs.

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