By Jerry Hill
Baylor Bear Foundation
Paul Jobson calls senior Precious Akanyirige “the cleaner.” When everything else breaks down and an opposing player is able to somehow get through the defense, Jobson knows that his senior center back will be there to “clean up any loose pieces.”
“If you’re a center back, you have to be willing to do the dirty work,” Jobson said. “You’ve got to be able to stick your neck out and stick your head into a crowd to try to win a head ball. You have to be brave, and I think that definitely defines Precious. She’s brave, she’s courageous and she puts everything she has on the line for her team.”
After making the rounds at forward and defensive midfielder, the Pleasanton, Calif., native was finally back in her natural position as a defender this season. Akanyirige was one of a program-record three first-team All-Big 12 selections, rewarded for a defense that led the league and ranked among the best nationally with 11 shutouts in 20 games and a 0.522 goals-against average.
“I was so excited,” Akanyirige said of her move to defender in the spring. “I had played marking back a little bit my sophomore and junior year, but I was excited to be just center back and primarily playing defense.”
What else defines Akanyirige’s Baylor career is her willingness to do whatever the team has needed.
“She always wanted to be in the back, but willing to do whatever,” Jobson said. “Whatever she was called upon, whatever position she was playing, she was willing to do extra work to get better at the skills that would make her better in that position for the team.”
A four-year letter winner in soccer and track at Foothill High School, Akanyirige said Baylor “wasn’t really on my radar” at first.
“One of my mentors back home told me that Baylor was a great school,” she said. “I didn’t want to go to Texas because I thought it was too hot there, but I emailed the coaches anyway and they came and watched me a few times. In one of the last few games where they saw me, my coach put me up at forward, and they liked the way I played. So, we were in contact and I came down here for a visit and just fell in love with the team and the coaches and just the atmosphere here.”
Jobson said it “sounds silly now,” but they had wanted to take a look at her at the forward position for the Pleasanton Rage Futbol Club team, because “we had some questions about how fast is she and how does she move.”
One look was enough. “We saw her speed, and we were like, ‘OK, she’s perfect for us.’ No question.” “When she came in, she really became a player that filled holes for us. She could, and did, play anywhere,” Jobson said. “She is a center back and she’s finished her career in the position she’s best at, but she’s a kid who was willing to do whatever the team needed to make us better. So, she played up front, she played in the midfield. And the girls call her ‘the brick wall.’ Just nothing gets by her.”
A defender as far back as she can remember, Akanyirige said the move to forward as a freshman at Baylor was a difficult transition, but she ranked among the team leaders that season with three goals and an assist.
“It was a hard adjustment, being put at center forward, but I had so much support and guidance from my teammates and the coaches,” she said. “I know it wasn’t my strongest position, but I was just grateful to be here and have an opportunity to play.”
Playing all the different positions throughout her career has made it easier for Akanyirige to direct traffic from center back, “because I’ve been in different positions and I kind of know what needs to be done there.”
“It’s just so important to be close as a back line, just because you have to move together, you have to work together,” she said. “You’re usually covering for each other. Sometimes, a midfielder or forward will find themselves in the back line, but it’s usually someone in the original back four covering for you. So, we’re tight in that way, but there’s no exclusion.”
Akanyirige is also the ultimate STUDENT-athlete. A biology major who plans to start medical school next summer, she is a four-time Academic All-Big 12 selection and has been on the Big 12 Commissioner’s Honor Roll in each of her previous six semesters.
“My parents have always just ingrained in me how important education is,” she said. “You definitely have to know how to prioritize and maybe accept that you’re going to lose some sleep. But, there’s a bunch of people on our team who like to study, so I love getting to spend more time with my teammates studying. It’s a little bit of a challenge, but we have tons of people who are going through the same thing.”
Coming off the program’s second Big 12 Championship title, the 23rd-ranked Bears (13-5-2) will host Rice (12-3-2) in the first round of the NCAA Championships at 5 p.m. Friday at Betty Lou Mays Field.
“We’re going for the national championship, that’s the end goal,” Akanyirige said. “We just want to take one game at a time, but I’m just excited and really grateful to have another chance to play with my team again. Our coaches like to say, ‘Just keep your head underground.’ We’re just working, working, working. Obviously, we have that championship in sight, but we have to take one game at a time and just continue to work hard.”
Tickets for Friday’s game are $10 for adults, $5 for youth and children and free for Baylor students with an ID.