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 on 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-and-field 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 convinced 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 off-season 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 business-like 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.”