In her four years on the Idaho women's basketball team, Yinka Olorunnife etched her name on 10 different Idaho career top-10 lists, breaking the Vandal and Western Athletic Conference records for career rebounds along the way. She earned numerous All-WAC, All-Tournament Team, All-Academic, and Player of the Week honors. She was even an honorable mention All-American after her senior season in 2010-11. With averages of 12.0 points and 9.3 rebounds over her four years, Olorunnife had a great career.
But after four standout seasons as a Vandal, her career was only just beginning.
Olorunnife was able to leverage her Vandal career into a professional contract in the top Spanish league, when she signed with Caja Rural in the summer of 2011. However, Olorunnife says, she soon realized that it wasn't the right fit.
"I started off in Spain and I loved everything about it," Olorunnife said. "It just wasn't the fit for me, I was working really hard but I just wasn't getting the playing time or the appreciation that I thought I deserved. I knew for my future if I wanted a job I needed to put up stats, and I just wasn't putting up any stats because I wasn't playing."
Olorunnife was able to get out of her contract, and immediately had two more offers come her way. She chose to head to Finland to play for Forssan Alku for the remainder of the season.
"Finland was really nice," she said. "That's when I was able to start playing again and build my confidence and I was able to put up some stats. I needed that just to make a name for myself and get my confidence back. I lost some confidence in Spain because I thought 'what am I doing wrong?'"
In Finland, Yinka averaged 13.0 points, 10.9 rebounds and 2.5 assists in 21 games. She also helped turn a team that had been struggling - enduring a seven-game losing streak before her arrival - into a fourth-place league finish.
"Me and the other new girl didn't know any better, so we just came out playing the way we knew how to play," Olorunnife said. "The team starting winning again and the fans started coming back out and we went from the bottom to finishing fourth. Going from eighth to fourth is a huge difference for one season."
The experience also helped the 6-foot post develop as a basketball player, a necessity if she wants to continue her career as a professional.
"I did get better. Even in college I was always undersized, which was not a big deal to me, I got used to it," Olorunnife said. "But when I went over there, I was extremely undersized. So I had to learn that maybe I had to try to play the 3 also. I was a 4 but if coach subbed me in for a 3 I had to learn because trying to play post in that league was basically not going to happen. I tried to improve my ball-handling skills and improve my footwork. I was so used to guarding the post and I had to learn to guard the perimeter guards. I worked hard and I've improved a lot on that, I'm still not perfect at it, and I will get better every season."
While Olorunnife focused on expanding her game at the pro level, she never got away from what got her there in the first place. The lanky 6-footer who pulled down 1,070 rebounds in college achieved her goal of averaging double-digit rebounds in her rookie season as a pro, and wants to continue to build her game from there in the future.
"My mindset is no matter how good or bad I'm playing, I always want to be consistent in my rebounding," she said. "Points-wise I didn't really have a goal. I could score 20 points in a night but I'm not going to average 20 points. The one thing I knew I was good at was rebounding so I wanted to finish the season at least averaging 10 rebounds, and I did so I felt good. I averaged a double-double so I'm happy with that for my first year. I'm hoping every year I improve and I become more of a dangerous player."
Yinka's rookie campaign was good enough to earn her another year of professional hoops, although it didn't quite happen the way she anticipated. When her agent asked if she would be interested in taking her talents down under, Olorunnife initially said no, that she'd rather stay in Europe. But a changing landscape of professional basketball in Europe led her to reconsider.
A lack of funds caused several European teams to fold, and a majority of the others to cut down on the number of import players they were signing. That also meant less pay for the ones who were staying overseas. Yinka had already turned down two offers when she finally received the offer she had been looking for.
"I finally got an offer from a Spanish team, and I really wanted to go back to Spain because I loved Spain," she said. "But they were taking a long time getting the contract, and there were a lot of excuses. Then we found out that they actually folded. I was devastated because I was pretty keen on that and it seemed like a good team with a good reputation, but when you don't have money, you don't have money."
That's when she decided to look at Australia's Women's National Basketball League (WNBL). Immediately she had two teams interested, and soon signed to play for the Townsville Fire in Queensland, Australia, where she will team up with a couple familiar faces for the 2012-13 season. Also playing for the Fire are former rivals Kayla Standish and Shanavia Dowdell. Standish, a Gonzaga standout who was selected 19th in the 2012 WNBA draft, and Dowdell, former Louisiana Tech standout and 2009-10 WAC Player of the Year who was selected 18th in the 2010 WNBA draft, combined to face Yinka and the Vandals eight times in college. After seeing their games first-hand, Yinka is more than happy to join forces with the two.
"I guarded Shanavia for a long time, and I'd rather be on her team than playing against her," Olorunnife said of Dowdell. "We're going to have a pretty good team, and I'm pumped. It's a team that we're going to have the possibility to win a championship. I need to win a championship, I've been playing for so long. As a professional it'd be good to have a title underneath your name."
Playing in Australia will be a homecoming of sorts for Olorunnife. The Nigerian-born spent most of her childhood growing up in Australia before moving to Canada with her parents at the age of 12. While returning to Australia is exciting, she said she will also be nervous playing in front of friends and family for the first time.
"I'm extremely nervous, I'm not going to lie," she said. "There's a lot of family and friends who I haven't seen since I was 12. They read up about me, they hear about me and in their head, Yinka is a superstar. I'm Canadian, I went to Idaho, nobody came to my games that I knew. So finally people are going to be there that I recognize and the nerves are really going to kick in. I'm trying to get past it but I'm definitely a little nervous, but I'm extremely excited and extremely happy."
Where this season will take her remains to be seen, but Olorunnife keeps looking toward the future, and raising the bar each time a goal is met.
"Australia doesn't really know who I am, I was 12 when I left, so I really want to go there and make a name for myself in that country," she said. "I'm hoping that one day I do really well in the league and I might be considered as a member of the national team. I would be honored because they're one of the best and that would really show me that I've accomplished a lot."
That would sure be one great career.