Back in 2006, Bon Jovi released a song titled, Who Says You Can’t Go Home?
Eight years later, two AVCA First-Team All-Americans from Oklahoma are looking to do just that. Penn State senior setter Micha Hancock (Edmond, Oklahoma) and Stanford junior middle blocker Inky Ajanaku (Tulsa, Oklahoma) both enter the season in the top five of the AVCA Preseason Coaches' Poll with realistic expectations to be the one at the end of the year hoisting the NCAA championship trophy in, you guessed it, Oklahoma City.
Hancock, after leading the Nittany Lions to their sixth championship and fifth in the past seven years, will look to end her collegiate career in the state she first picked up a volleyball. Ajanaku on the other hand, one year her junior, will try to get the Cardinal back to the NCAA semifinals for the first time since 2008 and their first championship since 2004. Take a guess which two NCAA Division I volleyball programs have the most overall championships with six? You guessed right again: Penn State and Stanford.
While both Hancock and Ajanaku would love to win a championship in any city, they both acknowledge it will have added significance to do it in the Sooner State. Because of the Oklahoma way of life with tight-knit communities, the added meaning stems from a culture instead of geography.
“One thing that’s different from Oklahoma to Stanford is the people have a greater sense of community,” Ajanaku said of the adjustment. “They’re more inclined to say ‘hi’ and take the time to get to know you. Sometimes I miss that.
“I don’t think it’s added pressure, but more motivation. All of my friends said they’re going to come down, so it’s just more of a motivation to go because it would be a fantastic experience winning the national championship in my home state.”
Since Oklahoma has such a close community, there was certainly a strong awareness both players had of each other playing in the club scene. Ajanaku called Hancock the “superstar” of Oklahoma watching her play her sister Kitan Ajanaku (now at Georgia State), who she credits with introducing her to the sport. While Inky noticed Micha on the court as an elite setter, Micha definitely noticed a second tall and athletic Ajanaku in the gym.
“I’d always see her [Inky] as the younger sister wanting to play with us peppering on the side by herself. I definitely knew she was going to be a good player. I just knew at the time that she was so athletic, and once someone molds her she was going to be really good. Sure enough, she went to Stanford and I was like, ‘There you go. Inky and I are off.’ It was pretty cool to see a couple of us get out of Oklahoma and expand our horizons with a big team.”
While they both left to play for traditional volleyball powerhouses, with elite players now coming from Oklahoma coupled with the NCAA semifinals and championship taking place there, volleyball exposure back in their home state is on the upswing. So much so that when Hancock makes it home for a “break,” it turns out to be anything but.
“I know a lot of girls seem to be a little hungrier. When I go back home they hit me up to play beach or try to see what is my likelihood of playing. I have girls wanting to get my ideas about going to a particular college. They’re looking for advice, which is good because it shows they want to get out there and play.”
There is no question they have embraced the role as Oklahoma ambassadors, so while they can continue to assure their coaches, teammates and fan bases it’s all about the team, sometimes it’s a little more.
“It would mean the world to me,” Ajanaku said on the prospect of winning it all in OKC. “Last year in Seattle, my sister was going to come surprise me at the semifinals and I hadn’t seen her in forever. I was just thinking after we lost in the regional final [to Penn State] how much that would mean to me. That was just one person. To have all of that support in Oklahoma this year -- I’m not sure how I’d handle it. I think I just might break down. ... I honestly don’t have any doubts that we’ll make it this year.”
Is this all a coincidence the stars seem to be aligning for Hancock?
“Just being in Oklahoma for me, it’s almost like fate. The national championship is in Oklahoma. I’m a senior. That’s just crazy timing, and I would want nothing more than to hold up that championship trophy at the end of the year.”
Maybe Bon Jovi was right all along. Who says you can’t go home?