When Emmanuel Akanyirige saw his newborn baby, he named her Precious.
As she’s developed into an all-Big 12 soccer player, Baylor coach Paul Jobson can think of a few other adjectives to describe her.
“She’s tenacious, she’s tough, she’s not scared of anything,” Jobson said. “Her name does not fit her style of play, that’s for sure. She’s willing to lay everything on the line for her teammates, and that’s big when you’re almost the last line of defense.”
Akanyirige showed how much she means to the Baylor soccer team when she switched from a defensive stopper into an offensive threat as she hammered home the winning goal in Baylor’s 3-2 overtime win against Notre Dame last Sunday in College Station to send the program to its first Elite Eight.
It was the biggest goal in Baylor soccer history, and was an unforgettable moment for a senior who is trying to extend her career as long as she can.
“It’s awesome,” Akanyirige said. “I think Aline ( De Lima) said it after our game Sunday that it’s kind of like a dream. I never could have imagined how this season could have gone. It feels great to be a senior and saving the best season for last.”
After advancing through the first three rounds of the NCAA tournament, the Bears (15-5-3) will face their biggest test against No. 1 regional seed Duke (22-2) on Friday at 4 p.m. in Durham, N.C.
The Blue Devils have run roughshod over the best teams in the Big 12, knocking off West Virginia, Oklahoma State and Texas by a combined score of 14-0 this season. But Jobson doesn’t think the Bears will be overwhelmed by the moment as they attempt to become one of four teams to advance to the Women’s College Cup in Orlando, Fla.
“We’ve played three Top 25 teams within our conference, had to beat two to win a Big 12 championship,” Jobson said. “We had to knock off two great teams – defending national champion USC and a perennial powerhouse in Notre Dame – last weekend. So our team has seen some of the best of the best. I think the only thing will be just that it’s a new venue and playing a team that is always tough. But I think the awe factor of playing a nationally recognized program should be out the door by now for our girls.”
Akanyirige has played major roles for the Bears since she stepped on campus in 2014 out of Pleasanton, Calif., located 45 miles east of San Francisco. She starred four years for her high school team and played on the Pleasanton Rage club team where she was noticed by college coaches in an Elite Clubs National League showcase events.
Her athleticism was striking since she ran the 4x100-meter relay and the 100 and 200 meters for her high school track team. But the ball skills and instincts she developed from playing nine years with the Rage were also attractive to college coaches.
“A few times a year, the ECNL has a showcase where there are hundreds and hundreds of college coaches,” Akanyirige said. “Before the tournament you get a list of who’s coming and you send your emails to coaches of the schools you’re interested in. I was just sending emails out to different colleges and didn’t really know what I wanted to do. But one of my mentors back home said Baylor was a great school.”
The Baylor coaches liked what they saw and began recruiting Akanyirige. When she visited Baylor’s campus, she was convinced it was the school for her even though it was far from her California home.
“I didn’t know anything about it, I didn’t really want to come to Texas because I thought it was too hot,” Akanyirige said. “I talked to Baylor through my coach and then I was able to come on a recruiting visit here the summer going into my junior year. I just loved the environment here and the team and how close they were and how immediately welcoming they were to me.”
Akanyirige started 19 games as a freshman and scored two game-winning goals as she made the Big 12 all-newcomer team. Though she’s started 78 games and has scored 11 goals, she’s left her biggest mark as a defender with the ability to shut down some of the best offensive players in college soccer.
Akanyirige’s versatility and unselfish attitude have made her valuable to the Baylor soccer team.
“That kid has stepped into really anything we’ve asked her to do through her career,” Jobson said. “She’s a natural center back, and when she came here we needed her to play midfield, we needed her to play forward. There were just positions that we needed her to step in. And while she’s most comfortable in the back, she’s willing to do whatever it takes to make the team successful. That’s leadership right there.”
The game-winning goal against Notre Dame through a scrum of players was Akanyirige’s fourth of the season, and easily the biggest moment of her career.
“I think it’s just fitting for her to be able to get a goal like that with everything she does in the back for us,” Jobson said. “As a defender sometimes, you don’t get the recognition that you deserve. But for her to be able to put a goal in like that, I think it’s just a special moment that she’ll always look back and remember through her career.”
Akanyirige has managed to balance playing soccer at a high level with her biology major. She’ll graduate in May and plans to enroll in medical school. She said she’s already been accepted at University of Texas School of Medicine at San Antonio and at the University of California-Irvine School of Medicine, and has applied for many others.
“I wanted to be in the medical field for a long time and doctor was the biggest thing I could think of,” Akanyirige said. “Throughout college, I’ve volunteered and worked in different clinics, so that solidified my desire to be a doctor. I’ve always liked science and I felt it would be a great way to provide my passion for people and helping people any way I can with something I’m good at.”
Someday she hopes to visit Ghana where she has numerous relatives. Her parents met in the United State, but they’re both from Ghana and she’s stayed in contact with family members.
“I’ve met a few of them,” Akanyirige said. “My dad has a huge, huge family, but I get to talk to them on the phone sometimes.”
But before she can think about the future, Akanyirige wants to keep building some more college soccer memories like the one she experienced against Notre Dame last weekend.
“I know being in the tournament is such an honor and making the Elite Eight is awesome,” Akanyirige said. “It hasn’t hit me how big of a deal it is. It’s great to have another opportunity to play with my teammates.”