Ian Billings/Staff Photographer

Senior guard Nwamaka Ofodu averages 4.0 points per game this season, and has emerged as one of Cal Poly’s top defensive players.

Evan Morter

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In 2010, Nwamaka Ofodu was studying biology as a freshman at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga, Calif.

Although Ofodu was an academic standout, her love for basketball is what brought her to the Catholic-affiliated private school in the first place. But something had to change.

The high cost of attendance and her rigorous academic schedule at Saint Mary’s impeded her ability to continue her passion for the sport.

“My younger brother had gotten into certain colleges, and my parents looked at me and said, ‘There is no way we can pay full tuition again if both of you aren’t getting any financial aid,’” Ofodu said. “From there, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to go back to Saint Mary’s.”

Ofodu had always dreamed of playing Division I basketball, and in pursuit of that goal she sent out more than 50 emails to top-tier coaches, explaining her situation and desire to try out for their team via the walk-on process.

“There was no way I was going home,” she said. “I was only going to go home if I heard 50 no’s from my parents.”

Few schools responded, but Cal Poly head coach Faith Mimnaugh was one of them.

“She was an answer from God, in my opinion,” Ofodu said. “I never thought I’d end up at Cal Poly. I felt like I had a second chance.”

Though Ofodu’s journey to Division I play was all but solidified, she was confident in her ability to play well during the walk-on process.

“I’m one of those hustle players,” she said. “I’m in your face. I’m all over the court. I knew if I had the chance to run with the team, I’d fit in.”

However, the tryout was much different than she expected. The test illuminated some of her weaknesses and ignored her strengths, she said.

“I’ve never been a fancy player,” Ofodu said. “I’ve always been kind of straightforward. I wish that on top of those tests they would have given me the opportunity to run with the team.”

Her dreams of suiting up for a Division I team were nearly dashed when she was cut from the pool of walk-ons.

“I came here for a purpose,” she said. “I came here to play. So I felt like my dream had been smashed.”

Ofodu, devastated, approached Mimnaugh and pleaded for an opportunity to display her ability during a full team practice. Tears were shed in the conversation, but the objective was reached.

“She just told me, ‘We have a 6 a.m. workout on Monday. Be there,’” Ofodu said. “From that point, there was no turning back.”

The 5-foot-8 guard is now the Mustangs’ best defensive stopper, and while she doesn’t garner much media attention through her stat line, the team considers Ofodu one of its most valuable players, Mimnaugh said.

“It’s pretty hard to find someone who actually loves to play defense,” Mimnaugh said. “She’s by far the best on our team at doing the little things.”

Ofodu’s work ethic was instilled in her as a child. She grew up with two parents who stressed the importance of academic excellence, Ofodu said.

“A lot of my upbringing was not necessarily sports-based,” she said. “They kind of highlighted the importance of my education. I think it’s part of my Nigerian culture that my parents instilled in me. I’ve just always had to work hard to get things in life, and this is nothing new.”

She first discovered her love for basketball when she began play pick-up games with her brother in elementary school.

She continued her new-found love playing for Heritage High School while also running track and field. Ofodu was a three-time letter winner in each sport, but ultimately chose hoops. Many coaches criticized her decision to discontinue her track career, but she has now validated her decision through her success in her Cal Poly career.

At the end of Ofodu’s sophomore year, she was awarded a full-ride scholarship.

“I was shocked when (Mimnaugh) told me,” Ofodu said. “I knew if I worked really hard, in my opinion, it was going to be God’s plan for me to earn a scholarship.”

“I knew that it would mean the world to my parents,” she said. “That’s who I did it for. I did it for them, to just say thank you.”

Now, Ofodu, who is known as “Maka” by her teammates, has a new parent-like figure in Mimnaugh. Their bond is tied to their devotion to Catholicism, Mimnaugh said.

“I’ve spent a lot of time praying for her and I’m sure she has done the same for me,” Mimnaugh said.

Ofodu attributes much of her growth as a player and as a person to Mimnaugh’s mentality.

“Honestly, I love her to death,” Ofodu said. “She is probably one of the most caring, incredible women I’ve ever met in my life.”

Ofodu’s growth as a player has shown this year, as she has started in 21 of the Mustangs’ 24 games this season.

She began the season on the bench because of the size of Cal Poly’s preseason foes, but she quickly earned a spot in the starting five.

Ofodu netted a career-high 17 point against Cal State Fullerton this past month. It was the first time Ofodu scored more than nine points in a game, and since that date, she has produced two more games with nine or more points.

Ofodu has always been recognized for her defensive prowess, but now she is seeing success on the other side of the floor, which has given her more confidence, she said.

 “I just feel more confident in my ability to shoot the ball,” Ofodu said. “I never felt like that was what I was on the court for. Now I can score.”

The addition of the guard’s scoring input has made the Mustangs one of the best offenses in the Big West. Many Cal Poly opponents this season have keyed on defending the other Mustangs, especially Cal Poly’s big three: senior guard Jonae Ervin, junior guard Ariana Elegado and senior center Molly Schlemer. But with Ofodu’s recent production on offense, opponents can no longer ignore her.

“You never know what you’re going to get from us every night,” Ofodu said. “Anybody can go off in a game.”

The Mustangs are 8-3 in Big West play this year, currently in second place, and the team expects nothing less than a trip back to the NCAA Tournament, Ofodu said.

With a difficult slate of games to end the season, the Mustangs will have to rely on their defensive anchor to neutralize upcoming opponents, Ervin said.

“She’s always guarding the opponent’s best player,” she said. “Whenever she turns up on defense, we’re in it. It’s contagious.”

Off the court, Ofodu’s personality has been a source of electrifying positive energy, Mimnaugh said.

“She has a way of illuminating whatever environment she is in with her energy,” she said. “She’s an energizer bunny. If you turned off the electricity, she would light up the room with her energy.”

Ervin says the same of the senior guard.

“She’s like the mom of the team,” Ervin said. “She’s really positive, always happy and just a really good person to be around.”

Ofodu’s job is simple: Don’t let the other team’s best player score and shoot every open shot — a job the hyper-energized guard has mastered.

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