As a student athlete, it is a challenging feat to be placed in the starting lineup. It is even more challenging to accomplish that feat as a freshman. Yet, Ayo Akinwole has done it at both the high school and college level.
“You could call me a military brat,” says Akinwole, who was born in San Francisco, traveling all around the world to places like Japan and Alaska before landing here. He attended Papillion La Vista High School, home of the Monarchs, where he was a four-year letter winner for high school coach Dan Moore (a renowned basketball coach who has worked with the likes of NFL running back Danny Woodhead). At three times as an All-Metro selection, two times as an All-Nebraska selection, and one time as the honorary captain of the Omaha World-Herald’s All-Nebraska team, Akinwole’s high school career could easily be deemed a success. He set a school record for his ability to shoot from behind the arc. And in his senior year, along with the honorary captainship, Ayo averaged 17.2 points and 5.2 assists per game.
Akinwole began the season by contributing from the bench, until injuries contributed to a “trial by fire.” On Dec. 5, Omaha forward Mitch Hahn left with an injury and on Dec. 21, Ayo was told he would start that night against Montana State. “I was shocked. I wasn’t expecting to start,” says Akinwole of that night. He would go on to score six points, grab five boards and add three assists, only turning the ball over once.
The young guard has started a total of four games this season, gaining vital experience by playing opponents like Kansas, Louisville, Oklahoma and Texas Christian. Akinwole has shot 47 percent from the field, and 41 percent from the 3-point line this season – among team starters, his accuracy from deep ranks second on the team.
Why Omaha? “I really liked the campus and I liked the coaches,” said Akinwole to the Omaha World-Herald after announcing that he would play for the Mavericks upon graduation. Now, Ayo says “Omaha was my only choice.” Sure, there were other schools showing interest – “San Diego – was it San Diego State? – I don’t want to give you any false information!” – but there was really ever only one school in the running, and it was the one in his backyard.
Akinwole faces a difficult challenge: at 6 feet “on a good day,” he is one of, if not the shortest player on the team. “I just try to get in front of them,” says Ayo of the challenge. One of his toughest opponents to guard would be Mike Daum from South Dakota State, who stands at 6 feet 9 inches.
After being slotted to play for Omaha, the difficulty was adjusting from a star-player starter role in high school to a bench contributor: “Coaches expect you to be hot right off the bench.” What wasn’t difficult was understanding the play style of Coach Derrin Hansen’s upbeat, high-powered offenses. “Coach (Moore) always said to run with the ball when you get it,” says Ayo, who found his high school and college styles similar.
Now, after a few starts and some great experience against the sport’s best teams, Akinwole is ready for what’s next. “He’s a great teammate,” said Coach Moore in an Omaha World-Herald interview. “He’s the hardest worker, very humble, nice to everybody at our school.”
“You couldn’t ask for a better kid to get what he’s always dreamed of – to be a Division I player.” Indeed, Ayo Akinwole is living his dream, and there is still much more to come.