PHOENIX – Wrenwyck “Shay” Ijiwoye’s basketball journey didn’t begin like most girls. In fourth grade, she was one of the taller athletes on the court, but that wasn’t really why she stood out.
She was also the only girl on an all-boys team.
Ijiwoye and her brother began playing at the YMCA before their coach introduced them to club basketball. But once she left the Y, she was placed on the boys team with her brother and played with them for two years.
Being the only girl competing amid the rough style of play that comes with boys basketball gave her a perspective that most girls will never get. It helped her find dominance on the court early on.
Eight years and more than 45 scholarship offers from Division I college programs later, the 5-foot-6 Desert Vista point guard is no longer the tallest player on the court, but she might be the best.
And she has found her home for the next four years – at Stanford, a women’s basketball and academic powerhouse.
Ijiwoye played at Arizona Elite Prep during her freshman and sophomore years before transferring to Desert Vista last season. She is the only Arizona high school player in the ESPNW 2024 rankings, ranking 44th, and was No. 1 on The Arizona Republic’s Elite 50 player rankings for the 2022-23 season.
During Ijiwoye’s sophomore year, she averaged 18 points per game, 6.2 rebounds and 4.3 assists. As a junior and in her first season playing on a talented Desert Vista team, she shot 73% from the field and averaged 13.3 points, 2.3 assists, three rebounds and three steals per game.
At only 17 years old, she has shown herself to be an assertive player on the court, perhaps a product of those early matchups against boys teams.
Growing up in her Nigerian heritage, her parents Brenda and James Ijiwoye had always pushed academics before sports. But once Shay and her brother told them they wanted to play basketball, their parents gave them their full support.
“I think that’s what kind of made her strong and be as aggressive as she is today,” Brenda said. “Starting off playing with the boys and at that time she was kind of the tallest one out of all the boys, so they would put her in the post to get rebounds.”
It wasn’t until Shay was in sixth grade that she finally made the move to the girls team at AZ Elite Prep, a non-profit organization that aids in providing opportunities for female basketball players, helping them perfect their talents in the hope of the chance to play at the college level.
It was at this basketball club where she fell in love with the sport.
But her talents were always lightyears ahead of those her age. In sixth grade, she played on an 8th-grade team. The next year, as a seventh grader, she was placed on the 17 youth team.
“We were hesitant about that,” James said. “We were like, ‘No, no, no, she’s too young, she’s 12 years old.’ And they were like, ‘No, she’s good. We’ll take care of her,’ and she picked up her first college offer then. That was when we kind of realized, Okay, maybe she can do something with this.’”
The Ijiwoye family was constantly approached about Shay’s talents as she progressed. Supporters would offer to pay her travel ball costs to get her on their team. With college offers coming in as a 12-year-old, it seemed as though Shay was destined for big things in basketball.
Although supportive, her parents never pressured her to play. Rather, her ambition motivated her to push this far.
“It’s not my journey, it’s not my wife’s journey,” James said. “It’s always been something they want to do. For her, she has always been the driving force. We just kind of side with it and watch.”
As Shay enters her senior year, she describes the feeling as bittersweet but is trying to be present and enjoy the time she has left.
Last season the Desert Vista girls basketball team was ranked 18th in the nation with a 28-3 record while going undefeated at home and winning the state championship. The Thunder were invited to the State Champions Invitational Tournament, which features teams that win their respective state championships, and made it to the semifinals before being eliminated.
“It’s come by really fast,” Shay said. “But I’m just really excited for it. I mean we have a great team, we’re looking to repeat again in the Open Division, but also compete nationally and just show people what we’re about and end on a bang.”
Desert Vista girls basketball coach Erin O’Bryan commends Shay for her talents and her experience with playing in high-pressure situations, both being crucial to the team.
O’Bryan said Shay is a “natural leader” as people are drawn to her through her nice, outgoing personality, supportiveness and inclusivity, both on and off the court.
“She loves to facilitate and get others involved,” O’Bryan said. “I’m sure if you asked her she would rather have assists than points any day of the week. She can create for other people because of the ball handling and her intelligence and just her ability to really get to the rim and finish.”
For Shay, academics played a key role in choosing Stanford.
“It’s just the prestige of the school,” Shay said. “It’s a world-class education and historically great basketball program, so you know you’re going to be surrounded by people, like teammates, that want to excel both on and off the court.”
The networking opportunities and being closer to home are additional reasons she committed to play for the Cardinal.
“It’s an opportunity you can’t really say no to,” Shay said.
Some of her other offers included academic and basketball heavyweights such as Yale, Columbia, Harvard, Penn State, Princeton, Villanova, Michigan, Cal, North Carolina and about 30 others.
“She always talked about wanting to play both high academics and highly competitive basketball,” James said. “So choosing Stanford was a no-brainer … to be able to have a convergence of those two in one school was a great deal for us.”
Shay said she has dreamed about college since middle school and looks forward to playing at a high level on national TV so her family can watch in the United States and Nigeria.
“I think just impacting a lot of people, that’s really been my goal,” Shay said. “Using the platform I’ve been given by God just to glorify his name and tell people the good news that comes in Jesus Christ.”
Ijiwoye’s mindset for games is inspired by her Christian faith and she plays for an audience of one, rather than looking for the approval of others.
“It’s been written since before I was even born,” Shay said. “Just knowing that I can control what I can control; my attitude, my effort, my approach to the game. Remembering why I’m playing, who I’m playing for and then just kind of having fun with it.”
Shay was recently one of two Arizona high school basketball players invited to play at New York’s infamous Holcombe Rucker Park in Rucker Park’s 4 Tha Culture Blacktop Battle Girls Tournament. She was selected to play for Jason Kidd’s under-17 AAU team and was nicknamed “Point Goddess,” according to the Arizona Republic.
“You would never know how talented and how gifted she is,” James added. “She’s so humble, she doesn’t walk around like, ‘Oh I’m the best in the state’… she carries herself like she wants to be able to help as many people as she can, her heart is open to people.”
Shay hopes to major in kinesiology, but isn’t looking to leave basketball behind in the future, whether she’s on the court or on the sidelines.
“I want to coach when I’m done,” Shay said. “So having that opportunity to mentor young women at the college level, that’s what I’m looking forward to the most.”
Shay has a bright future ahead of her, being coached by Tara VanDerveer – the winningest coach in women’s college basketball with 1,186 wins.
Last season, Stanford finished second in the Pac-12 with an overall record of 29-6, and only lost two games at home.
Ijiwoye will likely look to replace the void left by senior standout Cameron Brink, who averaged 15.1 points, 9.6 rebounds and shot 48% from the field last season. Freshman Courtney Ogden, who was selected for the 2023 McDonald’s All-American game and averaged 22.1 points and 8.8 rebounds last season will have the opportunity to showcase her talents for the Cardinal this upcoming season.
Stanford’s 2023-24 roster is a young team, with over half of the dozen being underclassmen. As the Cardinal closes their Pac-12 journey this season and will be a part of the ACC next season, Ijiwoye is excited about what’s to come.
“All this conference realignment has been crazy to watch, but to land in the ACC is awesome,” Ijiwoye said. “To have the opportunity to play against some of the best teams in the country night in and night out is a great thing.”
Brenda said since Shay has always played in classes ahead of her own, she’s curious to see how she will match up with other girls at the collegiate level.
“I’m excited to see her growth both on and off the court,” Brenda said. “Playing under the coaching of Tara who’s a legend in her own world and in basketball, she’s a Hall of Fame coach. I want to see how she will grow under that coaching style and see how she just transforms in Stanford both academically and in sports.”
“We’re excited for her to grow up and live her dream,” James said. “And be the Shay that we know she can be, this next journey’s going to be a real discovery for us to see how she matures and how she becomes herself.”
Who knew that starting off playing on the boy’s basketball team would eventually lead her to playing for one of the top women’s basketball programs. With her faith, aspirations and the support of her family, the only way to go is up.