Stanford's Inky Ajanaku was not supposed to be at Nationwide Arena on Saturday night. The 6-foot-3 senior came back from injury to help the Cardinal win its seventh national championship, beating Texas in four sets.
Stanford's Inky Ajanaku was not supposed to be at Nationwide Arena on Saturday night.
After enduring a season-ending injury last season, the 6-foot-3 senior decided to redshirt and come back to try to bring her team a national championship.
It was only fitting that Ajanaku was Stanford's main catalyst in helping the Cardinal win its seventh national championship, beating Texas in four sets, 25-21, 25-19, 18-25, 25-21.
"I have been wanting this for a really long time, and it wasn't exactly the way I thought it was going to be," Ajanaku said.
Ajanaku was just shy of leading the Cardinal in kills and continually formed a near-impenetrable wall that Texas struggled to get through. She was helped by Pacific-12 freshman of the year Kathryn Plummer working a Texas defense that was second-best in the nation this season.
The two combined for 34 kills and kept the Cardinal's emotions intact through a tough start to the first set and a resilient Longhorns team that won the third set.
Both teams came out a little wild, with multiple service errors and poorly timed jumps leading to a back-and-forth match. But Texas started better, constantly probing to find holes in Stanford's block by dumping the ball early or hitting balls crosscourt.
The hot start didn't last too long. Middle blockers Ajanaku and Audriana Fitzmorris quickly found a rhythm and began stuffing the Longhorns at the net. And as Ajanaku had mentioned after a semifinal against Minnesota, the block's job is easy when the Cardinal has someone like Morgan Hentz to dig out tough balls and reset the offense.
Hentz was responsible for some outstanding moments, sprinting crosscourt and nearly sliding into the press table to salvage points while Ajanaku and others rotated into position. And Stanford needed those points because Texas' Micaya White and Ebony Nwanebu got hot early and combined for 33 kills in the match.
The two Longhorns continued to lead the offense, but each blocked hit or mistimed slide gave Stanford more energy and belief.
The Longhorns lost in the national championship last season in straight sets to Nebraska. But like the Cardinal, Texas trends young with only four seniors departing. Chloe Collins and Nicole Dalton will be hard to replace for coach Jerritt Elliot, but the Longhorns seem capable of making this kind of run next season.
The Cardinal loses Ajanaku and Kelsey Humphreys, who coach John Dunning will likely struggle to replace, but Stanford is set up for the long haul.
For now though, the team will be focused on Saturday and its championship.
"I'm so happy to be able to share this with Inky right now and win it with her here for our senior year," Humphreys said. "It is so worth it."