AN­THEM EATER UC Irvine vol­ley­ball star is worth price of ad­mis­sion for ‘Star-Span­gled Ban­ner’

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - By Mike DiGio­vanna

Idara Ak­pakpa was a lit­tle winded, her brow a bit moist, as she com­pleted a vig­or­ous five-minute warmup with her UC Irvine vol­ley­ball team­mates be­fore Thurs­day night’s match against Cal State Fuller­ton.

Ak­pakpa had a minute to catch her breath and retie her head­band be­fore she grabbed a mi­cro­phone at the scorer’s ta­ble and sta­tioned her­self in front of the net. As fans in the Bren Events Cen­ter rose for the na­tional an­them, the 6-foot se­nior mid­dle blocker stood tall and confident as she faced the Amer­i­can flag.

What fol­lowed was 90 se­conds of mu­si­cal magic.

Ak­pakpa belted out a pow­er­ful, soul­ful ren­di­tion of the an­them with per­fect pitch and ex­cep­tional con­trol, her pre­sen­ta­tion mostly tra­di­tional, but en­hanced with a few stylish riffs, runs and trills. When she was fin­ished, the small crowd erupted in cheers and ap­plause.

“She nails it ev­ery time,” UC Irvine coach Ash­lie Hain said. “I al­ways joke that the en­try fee to the game is worth hear­ing the na­tional an­them. Peo­ple are get­ting their $8 worth just hear­ing her sing.”

Ak­pakpa, from the East Bay town of Brent­wood, is a four-year starter who was a first-team Big West Con­fer­ence se­lec­tion as a ju­nior last year. As the Anteaters (11-7 over­all, 5-1 in con­fer­ence) chase their first NCAA tour­na­ment berth since 2004, she leads the team and ranks sec­ond in the Big West with 69 blocks. She also ranks sec­ond on

the team with a .322 kill per­cent­age en­ter­ing Satur­day night’s home match against UC River­side. Ak­pakpa was cho­sen con­fer­ence de­fen­sive player of the week Mon­day.

She has risen from a barely re­cruited high school player with lit­tle elite club ex­pe­ri­ence to a ma­jor col­lege star who has a 26-inch ver­ti­cal leap and a quick, pow­er­ful arm stroke.

A pub­lic health ma­jor and dean’s list stu­dent, Ak­pakpa is on course to grad­u­ate next spring. She plans to take a year to strengthen her aca­demic re­sume be­fore en­ter­ing den­tal school. And boy, can she sing. Ak­pakpa has sung the na­tional an­them be­fore ev­ery home match since the end of her fresh­man year at Irvine. She’s so good, the school’s bas­ket­ball, base­ball and track teams have asked her to sing be­fore their games.

Robyn Ah Mow-San­tos, Hawaii’s vol­ley­ball coach, was so im­pressed that she asked Ak­pakpa to sing be­fore the Rain­bows’ fi­nal reg­u­lar-sea­son home match against the Anteaters on Nov. 15.

“It’s their se­nior night and there will be 8,000 fans there, so that will be pretty cool,” Hain said. “We’re out­sourc­ing her now.”

Ak­pakpa’s tal­ent was dis­cov­ered when she was in fourth grade af­ter her par­ents — Syl­vanus, a pas­tor of Nige­rian de­scent, and Iva, a nurse of Amer­i­can Samoan de­scent — en­rolled Idara in a church choir.

“They didn’t put me in know­ing I could sing or any­thing,” Ak­pakpa, 21, said. “One of my choir direc­tors gave me a solo, and it was at that con­cert per­for­mance that my par­ents heard me sing for the first time.”

Ak­pakpa be­gan tak­ing voice lessons, which she con­tin­ued through high school. She sang the an­them be­fore her school matches and au­di­tioned for “Amer­i­can Idol” as a high school fresh­man and “The Voice” as a sopho­more. She didn’t make ei­ther show but was en­cour­aged by the ex­pe­ri­ences.

“Their feed­back was that I was very young and to come back when your voice is more ma­ture, more de­vel­oped,” Ak­pakpa said. “I chose some big songs. Bey­once, Jen­nifer Hud­son, Whit­ney Hous­ton, Celine Dion … those were my idols. I tried to chal­lenge my­self and sing the cra­zi­est songs that por­trayed my vo­cal abil­i­ties.”

Ak­pakpa had no plans to play vol­ley­ball in col­lege. That changed af­ter a coach per­suaded her to join the Rage vol­ley­ball club of Ripon, Calif., dur­ing her se­nior year at Lib­erty High.

“I wasn’t ex­pect­ing much from it,” Ak­pakpa said, “but in our first tour­na­ment, a UCI coach who was check­ing on one of my team­mates saw me play and of­fered me a schol­ar­ship right there.”

That coach was Paula Weishoff, who was re­placed by Hain be­fore Ak­pakpa’s first sea­son. Sev­eral in­juries thrust Ak­pakpa into the start­ing lineup as a fresh­man.

“She had a lot of ath­letic po­ten­tial but very lit­tle ex­pe­ri­ence, so she suf­fered a bit her fresh­man year learn­ing the game,” Hain said. “But that first off­sea­son she made a lot of im­prove­ments, and she’s been on the court for us ever since.”

Mid­way through her fresh­man year, Ak­pakpa ap­proached Hain about singing the an­them for the Anteaters.

“She was like a scared fresh­man, ner­vous about even ask­ing me,” Hain said. “I was like, ‘Well, can you sing?’ She said yes, and all the girls were like, ‘Yeah, she’s re­ally good.’ So she had a try­out with our sports in­for­ma­tion di­rec­tor, Stacey King, and our mar­ket­ing di­rec­tor, Maria Sop, and they said, ‘Wow, she’s re­ally good.’ ”

Hain, a set­ter on the last UCI team to reach the NCAA tour­na­ment, has vivid mem­o­ries of the first time she heard Ak­pakpa sing.

“It was the best na­tional an­them I’ve ever heard, and I’ve heard a lot of them,” she said. “But as a coach I was wor­ried about what was go­ing to hap­pen af­ter that. Is she go­ing to come out of it un­fo­cused?”

Those con­cerns were quickly put to rest. Ak­pakpa’s on-court per­for­mance has not suf­fered.

“She’s very busi­nesslike when she sings, and I think it fires the girls up,” Hain said. “They go out there, and they’re ready to go.”

Ak­pakpa has never had an ath­lete kneel while singing the an­them, a ges­ture some ath­letes have used to protest racism, so­cial in­jus­tice and po­lice bru­tal­ity. But she would not ob­ject if any did.

“I think it’s peace­ful protest, as peace­ful as it gets, and I per­son­ally don’t think it’s dis­re­spect­ful in any way,” Ak­pakpa said. “Peo­ple who are of­fended, I feel like they don’t re­ally un­der­stand the sever­ity of the rea­sons be­hind the protests. So I don’t find it of­fen­sive at all.”

Pho­to­graphs by Luis Sinco Los An­ge­les Times

IDARA AK­PAKPA, a four-year starter at mid­dle blocker for UC Irvine, spikes the ball against Cal State Fuller­ton at the Bren Events Cen­ter on Thurs­day. Ak­pakpa has sung the na­tional an­them be­fore ev­ery home match since late in her fresh­man sea­son.

“SHE NAILS IT ev­ery time,” UC Irvine coach Ash­lie Hain says of Ak­pakpa, who also sings the an­them for other school teams.

Luis Sinco Los An­ge­les Times

IDARA AK­PAKPA’S per­for­mance on the court hasn’t been af­fected by her singing be­fore matches.

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