Week One of Fordham Softball’s 2015 season is in the books! During our first week back from winter break, we Rams got back into the full swing of things, on and off the practice diamond in the Bronx. Amid physical soreness, early mornings, stuffy indoor practices, and the loss of our strength coach, we managed to have a great first week back and make strides in our preparation for the upcoming season. Check out this Week One, behind the scenes look into what it’s like to be a Fordham Softball player:
Mobolaji Akiode is the type of passionate individual who makes others better by her very presence alone. The sort whose palpable aura of determination is understood just through hearing her speak. Yet, it has been a combination of Akiode’s unrelenting passion for success and commanding presence that has created a life full of purpose both on the basketball court during her time as a star player at the Division I and international levels, and with the non-profit organization she started in 2010 called Hope 4 Girls.
“I can remember during her freshman year (at Fordham University), the team was down by two points against Marist with one second left and Mobo was at the line for two shots,” recalled Eric Sanders, Akiode’s academic advisor at Fordham. “She made the first, but missed the second, then took off right for the bus crying because she thought it was her fault that the team lost the game. She was that kind of passionate leader.”
That fiery spirit is the reason, in part, why the 32-year-old American-born Nigerian found herself on espnW’s inaugural Impact 25 list of the most impactful people for women’s sports in 2014.
Akiode, a 2004 Olympian and former co-captain of the Nigerian women’s national basketball team, was stunned to see her name among those of women’s sports trailblazers like Serena Williams, Becky Hammon, Mo’ne Davis, Robin Roberts, and even First Lady Michelle Obama.
“To be on the same list as people who are all superstars in their own right is just amazing,” the 2004 graduate of Fordham University said. “It’s such an honor for me, especially because my work doesn’t deal with sports here in America. I don’t know if I’ll ever be on the same list as Michelle Obama again.”
Don’t let Akiode’s humility and unassuming nature fool you about the tremendous impact she has made for African females, however. Akiode’s organization is based in both America and Nigeria and is dedicated to the increased participation and empowerment of young and disadvantaged African women in basketball. Her groundbreaking work as the founder and executive director of Hope 4 Girls has made her a spearheading leader for international women’s sports initiatives.
I am beyond honored by this recognition. Thank you @espnW for your support for women globally #makeanimpact. It's like a dream😊
Following her three-year stint with the Nigerian women’s national basketball team after college, Akiode worked as an accountant for ESPN in Bristol, CT until 2009. It was then that she felt motivated to start Hope 4 Girls, in order to serve others on a larger scale.
“When I was working at ESPN, I had the opportunity to do community service,” Akiode recollected. “It made me think about Nigeria and what it’s like to grow up as a girl there and I just felt compelled to act. So, I decided to jump two feet in with Hope 4 Girls, and here we are now.”
Since 2010, Hope 4 Girls has created a gateway to basketball for young African women through a series of camps and clinics run by Akiode throughout the calendar year. At each Hope 4 Girls event, the messages delivered to participants go far beyond basketball instruction. Akiode and her staff work to mentor girls about the need for education, health, wellness, and social awareness in today’s global society.
“The mentoring is the most gratifying thing about Hope 4 Girls,” Akiode said. “I have a great time playing big sister, both as a disciplinarian and voice of reason.”
Akiode’s work has extended beyond the confines of the African continent and stretched into the American college basketball landscape. To date, Hope 4 Girls has helped six African girls land basketball scholarships through its fundraising and recruiting efforts, including Division I offers to Virginia Tech, Texas, Northwestern, and Butler.
As a standout during her own college career, Akiode was an All-Atlantic 10 Conference performer who finished her run with the Rams ranked in Fordham’s top 10 all-time in scoring and rebounding with 1,167 points and 554 rebounds, respectively. She was inducted into the Fordham Athletics Hall of Fame last January.
Aside from basketball, however, Akiode knows the value of a great education in an enriching environment. The Gabelli School of Business graduate developed her talents and found her voice while at Fordham.
“I really blossomed during my time at Fordham, and not just athletically and academically, but also personally and emotionally, learning that I could be anything that I wanted to be,” Akiode stated. “It was a great foundation that prepared me for the global life that I live now.”
The self-discovery that Akiode experienced as a student-athlete at Fordham is what motivates her to help other African girls find themselves through basketball.
“The girls in Africa don’t know what the possibilities for their lives can be through sports, and that’s something I want to continue to expose to them,” Akiode said. “I want to show girls that they can be leaders in whatever they choose to do.”
Although the recognition she received from espnW serves as a delightful reminder that she is living her purpose and aiding in the progress of African female athletes, Akiode is far from satisfied with her efforts.
“Working towards building a concession of role models in the continent of Africa that young girls can look up to is what motivates me on a daily basis,” Akiode revealed. “I never wake up feeling satisfied.”
While Hope 4 Girls has made great progress for young African women in basketball, plenty of barriers still exist for females interested in sports within the turmoil-ridden continent. And due to the absence of sports for girls in most African schools and a general discouragement of female participation in sports in Africa, Akiode believes it will take an aggressive effort by women across the world to create meaningful and lasting global changes.
“I think that we women need to have somewhat of a chip on our shoulders that says we haven’t come far enough, and we’re not just going to relax because we’ve made some progress,” Akiode stated. “We can do more, and if we continue to work and fight like we haven’t achieved that much, then I think we will continue to break more barriers.”
As long as Mobolaji Akiode and other impactful trailblazers are leading the charge for women in sports both in America and abroad, you can bet an unparalleled amount of passion and purpose will be on full display, and continue to make females eager to tackle any obstacles standing in their way.
Like a pirate searching the sea for hidden treasure, Fordham Women’s Basketball head coach Stephanie Gaitley looks high and low to find talented recruits. Unlike a pirate, however, Fordham’s fourth year coach doesn’t find her treasure in the sea, but rather on hardwood courts overseas.
“It’s an untapped market,” Gaitley, the winningest active coach in the Atlantic 10 Conference, said. “We hit heads with every school in the conference for certain kids when we go out recruiting, but when we go overseas, some coaches know nothing about those kids, so they are like hidden gems that you might steal.”
Gaitley’s championship squad involved three international players, including 2014 graduate and First Team All-Conference selection Erin Rooney (17.5 ppg, 7.3 rpg & 5.2 apg) from Christchurch, New Zealand.
“Erin, who was the best young player in New Zealand, took us to a title, but not a lot of coaches even knew about her,” Gaitley said. “She looked at some west coast schools, but the difference for us was that we went over there and took the time to meet her family.”
With just 18 total international players in the 13-team Atlantic 10 Conference this season – four of which attend Fordham – Gaitley has set a precedent for the rest of the conference to follow by attracting and developing overseas talent.
Gaitley and her coaching mates believe their ability to cultivate bonds with international recruits and their families ultimately aids in their eventual arrivals, and subsequent successes, at Rose Hill.
“For most of the international kids, it’s about relationships,” the 1982 Villanova graduate said. “They want to know that people will care about them, and that if they come over here, they are going to be in good hands.”
While Gaitley and her staff take the time to establish relationships with international recruits during the summer, they have another invaluable element helping their efforts during the recruiting process: New York City.
“I think for the international player, New York is a huge market,” Gaitley stated. “The number one American city they know is New York. So, not only do you have a great city, but you have a beautiful school, with a great academic reputation, and a great basketball conference. And now that we’ve won, we’ve kind of put the whole package together.”
Asnate Fomina (21). (Courtesy of Romualds Vambuts)
This package that Gaitley speaks of is what lured Latvian freshman guard Asnate Fomina to Fordham.
“The most important thing was the education,” Fomina said. “Fordham is a good school and the basketball team was conference champions last year, and I liked coach and my teammates, so it was a good decision for me.”
Fomina, a member of the 2013 Latvian National Team at the European Championship, chose the American college experience because it allowed her to pursue both an athletic and academic focus.
“It’s different from Europe to study here because you can be an athlete and a student,” the graduate of Riga Secondary School No. 49 said. “The schools in my country separate athletes and students, so I chose America to be able to do both things.”
Similarly, Slovenian sophomore Alina Gjerkes, a contributing member of Gaitley’s championship squad last season as a freshman (2.5 ppg), saw Fordham as an opportunity to pursue her passions both on the court and in the classroom.
“What attracted me to Fordham was the possibly that I would be able to merge basketball and great academics,” the guard said. “If I stayed back home and wanted to play at a high level, I wouldn’t be able to go to the type of academic school I would want to go to.”
For both Fomina and Gjerkes, the biggest adjustment to life at Fordham wasn’t the language barrier or feeling of homesickness, but rather, the style of play on the basketball court.
“Here, there is more aggressive basketball,” Fomina asserted. “Individually, girls are more aggressive and physically stronger.”
“The American game is way more structured than back home, where we have less plays and the details are not as important,” Gjerkes said. “Everything is way more competitive here because everyone is on scholarship and fighting for positions, so practices are way more intense than what we have back home.”
For Gjerkes, however, a year of college basketball in America has paid dividends athletically, by both increasing her level of play and basketball maturity.
Alina Gjerkes (3). (Courtesy of Richmond.com)
“I think I’ve learned to take instructions better and become a more complete player,” Gjerkes claimed. “I’ve also learned that when you think you can’t go any further, you have to just keep going. I didn’t know that concept before Fordham.”
Gjerkes learned these invaluable lessons in maturity and hard work from Fordham’s aforementioned former-star Erin Rooney.
“Last year in the summer, Erin would say, ‘I know your legs hurt, but they’re not going to fall off and you’re not going to die,’” Gjerkes said. “It made me better.”
Although Gaitley’s international players often encounter a learning curve when they first arrive at Fordham due to the physicality of the American game, they also present more-inclusive skillsets than first-year American college players usually possess.
“The style of play is more physical over here, but I think skill-wise, they come in more versatile because they get taught everything at a young age,” Gaitley said. “Sometimes over here, if you’re big, you stay in the post, if you’re little, you’re a guard. There, they teach them a little of every skill.”
While Gaitley’s quest for international treasure is somewhat uncommon and perhaps even unconventional by women’s college basketball standards today, it has proven to be as edifying for Fordham’s program on the court as it is off of it.
“Just having that diversity on the team and that cultural experience I think broadens the horizons of everyone,” Gaitley said. “It brings a completely different element to our program.”
For Fordham Women’s Basketball, the international treasure chest has proven to house the riches that money can’t buy. And, with Gaitley continuing to steer Fordham’s recruiting ship in the direction of undiscovered players and Atlantic 10 championships, more hidden gems are surely on their way to the Bronx.
In just one year at the helm of Fordham University’s women’s soccer team, head coach Jessica Clinton has changed the entire complexity of the program. After demonstrating substantial on-field improvements during Clinton’s first season, coupled with a newly established winning mindset, the Rams are primed for great success in upcoming years.
This upcoming spring will mark Fordham University Softball’s 30th season in existence. Over the past three decades, the Rams from the Bronx have gone from college softball obscurity to excellence on the national level. Fordham posted its first-ever winning season in 2003 and hasn’t looked back since. Under the tutelage of head coach Bridget Orchard, the Rams have had 12-straight winning seasons and have won the Atlantic 10 title in three out of the last four years. With four recent trips to the NCAA tournament under Orchard’s belt and a firmly established winning culture in place, she believes her program is poised for even greater success in upcoming years. Take a trip down memory lane, and relive 30 years of progress for Fordham University Softball:
From the time I was little, I studied my hero’s every move (2001).
I can still remember it like it was yesterday. Dave Winfield Day at Yankee Stadium, August 19, 2001. My Dad Tony and I arrived early on that scorching Sunday in the Bronx, as we did each time we ventured to The House That Ruth Built, to greet our boys of summer as they entered the Stadium. In the pre-9/11 world, Yankee fandom was quite different, as it simply took an earlier trek across the George Washington Bridge to have direct access to New York’s favorite sons; a truly personalized Yankee Stadium experience.
We watched as Paul O’Neil, Tino Martinez, and Derek Jeter approached the gates of Yankee Stadium like soldiers going off to war. While positioned along the barricade that separated me from my Yankee-favorites in suits, my Dad encouraged me to hop the fence and give Jeter a hug. I was still at an age when the bright-eyed Yankee shortstop would have been obligated to concede my embrace, thus, fulfilling my youthful aspiration to meet him.
I got one foot over the barricade before a police officer made his way over and said that since he heard my Dad encouraging the illegal act, handcuffs would be waiting for him if the deed was actually done. Needless to say, I did not meet my hero in that moment, and never was able to give him a hug. There was still batting practice to look forward to, my Dad promised.
I was eight; a budding Little League softball player and the daughter of a Yankee-loving single father. Without my mom in the picture, those days were often hard, as my Dad and I didn’t have much but each other and the small apartment we shared in Pequannock Township, New Jersey. No matter how daunting and dysfunctional our situation got at that time, the constant we both had to fall back on was that for 162 games a year, we had the New York Yankees. And most important to me, we had Derek Jeter.
I cannot pinpoint the exact moment in time when I became a Derek Jeter fan, but my love for him was always deeper than that of the other little girls my age, who either thought he was dreamy or liked him because he was born in our small, suburban hometown. I didn’t want to grow up and marry Derek Jeter; I wanted to grow up and play like Derek Jeter.
As a result, I soaked up every ounce of information about Jeter that I could and became a walking fact machine for him in that summer of 2001, after reading his and Jack Curry’s book, The Life You Imagine: Life Lessons for Achieving Your Dreams; not exactly similar to the Beverly Cleary and Andrew Clements books that adorned my eight-year-old bedroom bookshelf. I can remember reading about Jeter’s work ethic, and how he would come home during his lunch break every day in high school and take 100 swings. That really resonated with me, even as a little girl, and I never forgot it.
My first encounter with Derek Jeter (2001).
So, when Jeter approached me during batting practice before the Dave Winfield Day ceremony on August 19, 2001, it was naturally the best moment of my young life to date. After my failed attempt to meet Derek earlier in the day, I had been tirelessly calling out to him while standing beyond the wall of the third base line with my Dad, amongst a small group of ten or so other hopeful fans. The group of fans around us even dubbed me “Little Jeter,” as a result of the number two on my back and my fervent calls out to my hero. Derek had been fielding ground balls at shortstop in his Yankees wind-breaker, seemingly remiss to my hankering calls. But to my great surprise and eventual elation, he began back-peddling towards me and the rest of the small group of fans, and it quickly became apparent that he was making his way over to sign for us. Almost immediately, the section was blocked off, and for about five minutes, it was as though I had been chosen by him to join some exclusive clique. I had never been so happy. In those minutes, on the same day that Derek’s childhood hero Dave Winfield was being honored by the Yankees, my own personal Dave Winfield signed the brim of my over-sized hat, answered my trivial questions, and stole my heart forever.
For the next five years, my adoration for Jeter and the Yankees simultaneously grew with my love for playing softball. I was a catcher and shortstop, donning the number two on my back like my hero. I watched as Captain Clutch continuously came through for his team when they needed him most, while doing so with a certain grace and competitiveness about him that was both dignified and intimidating to opponents. I studied his mannerisms, from his calm and steady demeanor on the field, to his child-like and passionate ways of celebrating. I learned how to win from watching Derek Jeter, and thus, an insatiable desire for victory was also ingrained within me.
My second encounter with Jeter had me staring at him, completely starstruck (2006).
Our second place finish in the Little League Softball World Series led me to Derek Jeter, yet again, as we were invited by the Yankees to attend batting practice from the first row behind home plate. Derek once again came over to sign for me, but this time, my thirteen-year-old self could hardly form intelligible words to speak to my hero. Rather than letting him know that he had been personally responsible for providing so much happiness to my Dad and me during some of the hardest times of our lives, and was also indirectly responsible for my own softball success up to that point, I instead spent most of the fleeting moments with my Captain smiling senselessly at him. Words of that weight were nearly impossible for my teenage self to comprehend, never mind express.
It was at the Little League Softball World Series where I was forced to make a number change. When we were given new uniforms to represent the Eastern Region of the United States, our numbers were granted based on our sizes. I fought for my number two, acting as though a part of my identity was being given to a smaller-statured teammate. My requests were in vain, however, and thus, my relationship with the number eleven began. In my young mind, I was still paying homage to Derek with the double-digit number. If one looked at my back and saw Roman numerals or added one plus one to equal my cherished number two, it was still symbolic of my hero.
I continued to wear number eleven, even through high school, and later, in college. It represented my personal and unique tie to Derek Jeter, while granting me an identity away from the “Little Jeter” perception I had wanted to embody as a younger player.
When it came time to make a decision about where to attend college and play Division I softball, it seemed fitting, especially considering my Yankee and Jeter-history, that Fordham University came knocking. Just six stops on the subway from Yankee Stadium, Fordham was the closest I could get to playing for the Yankees, and once given the opportunity to play for the (other) Bronx Bombers, I couldn’t pass it up.
My decision to attend Fordham to play softball not only afforded me numerous chances to see my Captain play at the end of his career, but also use the competitiveness I learned from watching him to help lead my own team to two-consecutive Atlantic 10 Conference championships during my sophomore and junior seasons.
You could say I’ve picked up a few things from watching Jeter for so many years. (Left-Courtesy of Lodico.org; Right-Courtesy of Tom Wasiczko)
Now, in the midst of the final season of my playing career, I, too, am the captain of a championship-winning team in the Bronx, having just said goodbye to the Yankee who has shaped me, while also preparing to bid farewell to the game that has made me.
While the constant reminders of Jeter’s greatness on television, in the papers, and on social media make parting with my hero like losing a loved one, what gives me solace is knowing that his impact is not ephemeral in my life or the lives of millions of other Yankee fans.
He will live on forever in my mind and heart not as much for what he did in-between the white lines, but for what he unknowingly and unintentionally did for my soul; he invigorated my young spirit at a time when circumstances were bleak and ignited a competitive fire that has taken me to incredible heights and places in my life on the softball diamond and off of it.
The days of contemplating hopping over a barricade and giving Derek Jeter a hug are long gone, as the world has since been forever changed and that little girl is now a woman. What remains, however, are the memories of a back-peddling superstar, who heard the shouts of an adoring eight-year-old girl, stepped into her world, if only for five minutes, and became indirectly responsible for shaping so much of her life some 13 years later. For that, and a lifetime’s worth of clutch moments and championship celebrations, she’ll be forever grateful.