As head coach of the girl's volleyball team at Ft. Lauderdale (Fla.) St. Thomas Aquinas High School, Lisa Zielinski is familiar with winning. At the helm of the program for over 16 years, she guided the Raiders to a state title in 1995 and has won over 84 percent of the matches she has coached. And in the Fall of 2001, Zielinski felt like she won the athlete lottery when a freshman by the name of Foluke Akinradewo enrolled at STA. Not only did Akinradewo have the tall and lean body that many coaches covet, but she was also amazingly athletic and quick. Much to her dismay, Zielinski did not cash in on her prize immediately; as Ayoola Akinradewo informed her, his daughter was strictly a basketball player and a track athlete.
Some heavy persuasion throughout the year from members of the volleyball team and Zielinski was needed to allow Akinradewo to even consider stepping out onto the court. The transfer student from California was apprehensive about taking up another sport, especially since she had never touched a volleyball. In the end, Akinradewo agreed to play for Zielinski beginning her sophomore year, and the wait has been well worthwhile. In just three short years, not only did Akinradewo secure an athletic scholarship to play for John Dunning and the Stanford Cardinal, but she also made quite an impression on the coaching staff at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.
"I had no idea she was going to be that good," confesses Zielinski. "I don't want to say that she is raw, but she is nowhere near her potential right now."
When Akinradewo showed up to the gym the August before her sophomore year, she did not know what to expect. Volleyball was a completely foreign sport to her, and she relied on her athleticism and the guidance of Zielinski to make it through the season. She performed well enough for STA to earn a spot on the All-Broward First Team after registering 238 kills and 71 blocks. After the season was completed, Zielinski suggested that Akinradewo tryout for the Junior National Team. A qualifier was being held in nearby Tampa, and Akinradewo agreed to give it a go - realizing that she had nothing to lose. Despite being pitted against girls who had been playing volleyball for most of their lives, Akinradewo made it through the qualifiers and eventually was named to the Junior National Team. She competed for Team USA that summer at the National Team Challenge Cup held in Montreal, Canada, helping the United States place third.
Akinradewo followed up her rookie campaign with an even better junior year, both at the high school and international level. She led the Raiders to the Class 5A Regional State Finals and tallied 443 kills and 110 blocks on the year. For her efforts, she was selected to the All-State First Team and named the Broward County Volleyball Player of the Year. The following spring, she once again tried out for the USA Junior National Team and made the squad scheduled to compete at the World Junior Championships Qualifier; Akinradewo helped her country to a gold-medal finish after starting in the semifinal and final games.
Heading into her senior year, Akinradewo was no longer an unheard of volleyball neophyte still learning the nuances of the game. She was a marked player every time she stepped out on the court, and opposing teams were fired up for the chance to block or dig one of her attacks. The pressure never fazed Akinradewo, as she was named the Gatorade Florida Player of the Year and Florida's Class 5A Miss Volleyball after pounding down 647 kills and putting up 158 blocks. More importantly for the team-oriented Akinradewo, she guided her teammates to a Class 5A state championship, collecting an amazing 34 kills and eight blocks in STA's five-set victory over Venice High School. Akinradewo hopes to take another team, this time the Junior National Team, to another prestigious title at the Junior World Championships currently in progress.
According to Zielinski, the success that Akinradewo has enjoyed the past three years can be attributed to two main factors. For one, her supreme physical abilities allow Akinradewo to compensate for her lack of experience on the court. The rare blend of speed, agility, and explosiveness that she possesses enabled her to physically dominate her peers up at the net, using a 10'9" vertical reach to generate countless kills and blocks.
USA Volleyball officials got a firsthand glimpse of Akinradewo's jaw-dropping athleticism when she participated in the Tampa qualifier three years ago. Prior to the actual evaluation period, players had their vertical measured by the Vertec machine. When it was Akinradewo's turn, she surprised everyone in the gym by easily surpassing the initial 10-foot mark. As officials continued to move the mark up, Akinradewo repeatedly exceeded each new height until the Vertec had reached its limit of 10'7". It was clear to everyone that she could still jump higher.
All of Akinradewo's accomplishments in volleyball have also come as a result of an incredible work ethic. Zielinski recognizes that Akinradewo's hard-working attitude stems from an intense desire to improve her game and be the best that she can be in volleyball. A coach's dream, she willingly listens to Zielinski's instructions and absorbs every bit of knowledge thrown at her. Akinradewo admits that she constantly observes her teammates and other players in order to better her skills. When she isn't playing volleyball, many describe her as shy, quiet, and easygoing, but once she slips on her kneepads, Akinradewo becomes a focused and competitive individual whose primary objective is winning.
"I think she expects to exceed and excel in everything she does," her coach comments. "When she decided to play, she wasn't just going to play for fun, but she was going to play to do well."
Originally born in Ontario London, Canada, Akinradewo moved to Fresno, Calif. when she was five years old. It was in this central Californian city that she began her athletic career. Akinradewo was introduced to basketball at the age of eight when she participated in the Little Hoopersters program and later added track & field to her list of activities. Her two older brothers, Folu and Foluso, played a significant role in the development of her skills, teaching her moves on the court and working out with her on the track. In addition to being one of the brightest prospects in volleyball today, she evolved into a top-notch basketball center and is considered one of the best triple jumpers in the country. Folu and Foluso's influence over their youngest sister ran deeper than just improving her jump shot or jumping technique – they were also serious students and proved it was possible to excel in both the athletic and academic arena.
"My parents are intelligent, my brothers always did well in school, so I kind of had to [do well in both school and sports]. It let me know that I should be able to do it as well," Akinradewo offers.
Sporting a 4.2 GPA, Akinradewo works hard to maintain her perfect academic standing and hopes to follow her parents into the medical field; her father is an oncologist and her mother is a registered nurse. With such dedication to her performance both in the classroom and on the court, Akinradewo surprised no one when she signed a letter of intent to attend Stanford last November. While she faced a lot of pressure to stay local and compete for the University of Florida, Stanford offered the academic and athletic balance that she was seeking in a university. Furthermore, a childhood dream had been fulfilled when she accepted Dunning's scholarship offer.
As a 10-year-old, Akinradewo first stepped onto the Palo Alto campus to cheer on her brother Foluso who was taking part in a track meet at Angell Field. Midway through the competition, a children's 200-meter dash was being contested and Akinradewo decided to enter the race. She blew away the field in such impressive fashion that the timekeeper mentioned that he hoped to see her in a Stanford uniform in the coming years. And from those few words of encouragement, her dream of being a Cardinal was born.
"Before that track meet, I had heard of Stanford, but never gave it much though. But ever since then, Stanford was always in the back of my mind," Akinradewo admits. "I never thought I could get into Stanford, but I did."
Stanford's Class of 2009 is full of athletes who have the ability to contribute immediately, and Akinradewo will have the opportunity to earn significant playing time from the get-go due to her physical and athletic capabilities. The fact that her experience on the volleyball court has been limited to only three seasons of high school ball and two summers with the Junior National Team does not worry Dunning. He anticipates that she will adjust quickly to the fast-paced environment of college volleyball; fans should not be surprised if she earns All-American honors by the time her career on The Farm is finished.
"My feeling is that we are going to be pleasantly surprised with how quickly she will be acclimated to the college game," says Dunning. "She is a superior athlete, and when you are that gifted, it doesn't take long to figure out what you are doing."
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