Jenna Gray on helping Stanford volleyball to Final Four in KC
Audriana Fitzmorris and Jenna Gray walked inside the Stanford volleyball locker room at the Sprint Center on Wednesday, laughing at a joke that only the two of them appreciated. It’s been this way for awhile now, Fitzmorris later explained. The joke was actually a reference from high school.
Their friendship formed there, as ninth graders, when they first shared a volleyball court together. They won state championships with St. James Academy and finished one season as the No. 1-ranked high school team in the country. Years later, they are college All-Americans and starters on the defending NCAA Division I national championship team.
Much has changed. But much hasn’t.
“When you get to college and it’s a new experience, it’s fun to still have somebody who you can talk about the past with,” Fitzmorris said. “There’s still so many things we’ll bring up to each other. Remember that time when … ”
The memories are particularly plentiful this weekend. Stanford is in town for the NCAA Final Four, ready to try to defend its title. The No. 3 Cardinal (30-3) will face No. 2 Florida (29-1) in the national semifinals at 8 p.m. Thursday at the Sprint Center. Top-ranked Penn State and fifth-ranked Nebraska will play in the opening semifinal at 6 p.m.
It’s the first NCAA Division I volleyball Final Four to take place in Kansas City since 2010. And wouldn’t you know it, Fitzmorris and Gray were spectators for that event, each of them wondering what it might be like to be participants instead.
It was another two years before they played their first match as teammates.
“I just remember that I had never set anyone as tall as Audriana,” Gray said. “So I had to adjust a little bit to that.
“I was really excited for the future — I didn’t even know that we were gonna play in college together.”
They insist they arrived at the decision to attend Stanford separately, though they admit it seems more than coincidental. There’s a bond there, and it most publicly appears on the court.
For the last six years, the two have played together. St. James. Club volleyball. And now college.
“It makes the transition so much smoother on the volleyball aspect,” Fitzmorris said. “Going in and playing volleyball at Stanford is an incredible opportunity, and I was really excited to be playing with a teammate from high school and club.”
The two navigated similar paths to Stanford, but their attributes — and even personalities — are quite different, according to those who know them best.
Gray, a 6-1 setter, is a first-team All-America selection by the American Volleyball Coaches Association. She was selected the Pac-12 setter of the year this season.
Fitzmorris, a 6-6 middle blocker, is a second team All-American. She leads the team in blocks.
And then there’s the personalities …
“They’re very different, so I’ll talk about them individually,” first-year Stanford coach Kevin Hambly said. “Audriana is one of the best learners I’ve ever been around. Every single day at practice, she just wants to know what (she) can work on individually.
“Jenna, she’s very athletic, and she’s a great setter and she can block and she can serve and she can do all these things. But the thing I had no idea until you start working with her is what a great leader she is.
“The more Jenna embraced that, the better we got as a team, and I think that’s a huge key. Her emotional quotient and her awareness of what the team needs in each moment is as good as I’ve been around. She’s special that way.”
They have played critical but unique roles in helping Stanford to another appearance in the Final Four. This one carries added significance — it will take place less than 30 minutes from each of their childhood homes.
They expect to have many friends and family members in attendance at the Sprint Center. Two months ago, some of Gray’s family and friends already bought tickets, expecting Stanford to make the return trip.
They have served as tour guides, of sorts, for their teammates, most of whom grew up in California and have a certain impression of life in Kansas City.
“We did get to go to the Plaza and eat there,” Gray said. “All of my teammates said Kansas was just a farm, and I kept saying it’s not. They saw the Plaza, the Christmas lights and everything, and they said, ‘This is actually really pretty and really cool.’ I tried to tell them.”
That’s about as close to home as Gray and Fitzmorris will travel this weekend. The focus lies with the volleyball team and a collection of final exams this week. They just so happen to share the same classes.
“I think the distraction (and busy schedule) has been a little nice,” Gray said. “It’s kind of easy to want to go see your friends and family, but right now we are more focused on the team, because obviously we have much bigger things on our plate.
“I can always go and hang out with them afterward.”