By Mitch Stephens
The same day she was selected Homecoming Queen by her peers last fall at Cy-Fair High School (Cypress, Texas), Nneka Ogwumike was admitted into Stanford.
“That was a really good day,” said the 17-year-old.
You get the feeling every day is an especially good day being Nneka.
After all, the long, lean and powerful 6-foot-2 senior followed up an All-American volleyball season by being named the MaxPreps and Gatorade National Basketball Player of the Year about a month after leading the Bobcats to their first state 5A title in 20 years.
You can line-up national elite female high school athletes from one end of the Lone Star State to the other, but none could match that double.
That made Ogwumike, quite frankly, the obvious choice as MaxPreps 2007-08 National Female Athlete of the Year.
“I can’t tell you how many times my assistant (former University of Texas volleyball starter Jo Beth Palmer) and I would watch in astonishment,” head Cy-Fair volleyball coach Donna Benotti said after watching Ogwumike pound down 863 kills the last two seasons, including 414 in 2007 when the Bobcats went 37-3, losing in the state 5A semifinals to eventual champion Amarillo.
“How she could reach balls that were set well over and behind her was just unbelievable. (Palmer) said she’d never seen such athleticism and (USC and former Texas and Olympic volley coach) Mick Haley told me after her junior season she could easily be an Olympian.
“Not bad for a second sport.”
Indeed, Ogwumike pretty much just dabbles in volleyball these days, three or four months a year.
Her main game is on the hardwood and after missing the first six games due to volleyball commitments, she carried Cy-Fair (39-2) to 35 straight wins and the coveted state crown. Her numbers weren’t shocking – 18.2 points, 9.3 rebounds, 2.5 steals per game – but much like Kobe Bryant in the NBA game, she gave up gaudy stats to make her teammates better.
“She would tell me (her numbers) just don’t matter – all that mattered was the team,” Cy-Fair coach Ann Roubique said. “She wasn’t saying it to be nice or to keep peace. It was genuine. On the flip side, when the game was tight she wasn’t afraid to tell her teammate to get her the ball.”
Like when Cy-Fair laced ‘em up against Kelsey Bone and Dulles (Sugar Land).
Bone, a 6-5 post, and another Houston-area starlet, 6-8 Brittney Griner (Nimitz) are considered the top two players nationally from the class of 2009.
But Ogwumike had her way in four consecutive wins over Dulles, averaging 26.3 points and 13 rebounds in four straight wins. She averaged 21.4 points and 13.3 rebounds in the postseason and had 17 points and 17 rebounds in the state title game.
“We had three chances to win a state title, so it was nice to get there and actually do it this time,” Ogwumike told the Houston Chronicle. “I wanted it more for coach Roubique than anyone.”
Said Roubique: “Athletically she does things you just can’t teach. She’s one of a kind.”
Roubique, a high school coach for more than two decades, knew that before Ogwumike even got to Cy-Fair. She first saw her play basketball in middle school. Even back then it was easy to spot Ogwumike’s terrific hands and fluidity, her 3-point shooting range and shot-blocking and rebounding prowess.
But there was something more about Nneka, Roubique said. Much, much more.
“Without a doubt she was head and shoulders above everyone else and not just because of her size or talent,” she said. “For someone her age she just had such poise and presence. You could just tell she was raised the right way.”
By all accounts, her parents Peter and Ify, natives of Nigeria, stressed all the right things to Nneka and younger sisters Chiney, Olivia and Erika.
Nneka, who credits her family for any and all success, is much more than a double elite athlete.
She’s a scholar (3.86 GPA), an artist, a pianist and practical joker. She raised money for the needy both abroad – the children of Darfur – and locally, like a family of a Texas high school coach who died of leukemia.
Though she aspires to play basketball in the Olympics and WNBA her No. 1 dream is to be a doctor.
“As amazing as this sounds, to me her character exceeds her athleticism,” Benotti said. “She’s just absolutely a great leader and coach’s dream.”
Said Roubique: “You hate to say too much or go overboard but honestly there are not enough good things to say about Nneka. And the thing is, those same compliments are passed on not only coaches and players but from her teachers in the classroom and the kids on campus.”
And echoed by journalists as well.
Houston Chronicle staff writers Sam Khan Jr. and Jenny Dial, who have covered her high school career extensively, said Ogwumike’s humble and outgoing nature never changes win, lose or draw.
“She’s just a great kid,” Khan said. “We always joke because Nneka and her sister always call us Mr. Khan and Mrs. Dial. As much as we cover them we try to tell them it’s OK to call us by our first names. But they’re just so intelligent and well-mannered and well-rounded for their age. It’s an honor to cover them.”
Khan said he started getting calls and e-mails about Nneka during her freshman season. Because Nneka transferred in from a private school she wasn’t allowed to play varsity in either sport that season.
“I heard she was the next big thing but in this job you hear that a lot,” Khan said. “Some work out and others flame out. But the first time I saw her play volleyball as a sophomore she was just unbelievable. She was doing things most seniors couldn’t do. It was obvious she was the real deal.
“Then someone told me that (volleyball) wasn’t even her best sport. That seemed hard to believe but they were right. She has to be one of the best athletes (the Houston area) has ever seen.”
Nneka made quite a first impression in her first varsity basketball game. With just a day’s practice – she came out late because of volleyball – she faced the area’s top team Westside and No. 1 player then Sidney Colson, now at Texas A&M.
“Nneka scored 35 that night,” Roubique said. “It was the first game she ever played in high school and it was so obvious from the beginning her pure talent. She was just being herself. She was unbelievable.
“I remember a couple times that night just getting lost in it. I would just start watching her instead of coaching her.
“That was some first impression.”
In this case the initial impression was correct. She backed it up for three remarkable seasons.
What will Roubique miss most about Nneka, who plans to focus strictly on studies and basketball at Stanford?
“For all her accomplishments, I’ll just miss her being a high school kid,” she said. “She’s kind and genuine. She’s a jokester. She’s a happy person and fun to be around. At the same time she knew exactly when to turn the fun off and to get serious.
“Like I said, she’s one of a kind.”
E-mail Mitch Stephens at firstname.lastname@example.org
TWO-SPORTER IS ONE OF A KIND
Name: Nneka Ogwumike
School: Cy-Fair (Cypress, Texas)
Volleyball numbers: 414 kills, 118 blocks
Volleyball honors: AVCA All-American, MVP of every tournament entered, MVP of District 17 5A, All-State
Volleyball team: 37-3 record and state semifinalist
Basketball numbers: 18.2 points, 9.3 rebounds, 2.5 steals per game
Basketball honors: MaxPreps and Gatorade National Player of the Year; McDonald’s All-American; Two-Time Gatorade State Player of the Year; Houston Chronicle Metro POY third straight year
Basketball team: 39-2 and state 5A state champion; No. 5 national rankings by MaxPreps; 35-0 with Ogwumike in lineup
Teammate sister: Chiney Ogwumike, a 6-1 sophomore, started on volleyball and basketball teams also
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10 More Girls Athlete of the Year Nominees (Listed alphabetically)
Mary Beck (Westlake, Austin, Texas) swimming
Kayla Braud (Marist, Ore.) softball
Rachele Fico (Masuk, Conn.) softball
Falyn Fonoimoana (Mira Costa, Manhattan Beach, Calif.) volleyball
Kenzie Fowler (Canyon del Oro, Tucson, Ariz.) softball
Jordan Hasay (Mission College Prep, San Luis Opispo, Calif.) cross country/track
Kathleen Hersey (Marist, Atlanta, Ga.) swimming
Kasha Kolb (Chelsea, Okla.) softball
Kelly Murphy (Joliet Catholic Academy, Joliet , Ill.) volleyball
Teresa Noyola (Palo Alto, Calif.) soccer