Just over a year ago, Audriana Fitzmorris and Jenna Gray were leading St. James Academy to a 2015 Kansas Class 5A state championship.
Now, the two are teaming up again in the hunt for another trophy — an NCAA championship at Stanford. The Cardinal will play No. 2 seeded Minnesota at 6 p.m. Thursday at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, for a spot in the national title game. Next year, the national semifinals and final will be Dec. 14 and 16 at the Sprint Center.
The St. James grads are just freshmen for Stanford this season, but have played integral roles. Gray leads the team in assists (1,073), while Fitzmorris has been instrumental in the middle, averaging 2.4 kills per set (third on the team).
“You don’t know what every high school player will be when they get to college,” Stanford head coach John Dunning said. “But I don’t think either of them were surprised by the transition. They were completely prepared but also had the openness to learning more.”
Both have not only had to adjust to the speed of the college game, but also remain flexible in terms of their positions. Fitzmorris, primarily a middle blocker, was moved around to the left and right this season before coming back to the middle. Gray was operating in a two-setter system for the first part of the season, until Dunning began counting on her to lead a one-setter attack.
But having high expectations at Stanford was something both players were used to.
“They were both so good so young, so someone was always watching them and assessing them,” St. James head coach Nancy Dorsey said. “They’ve been kind of under a certain level of pressure for a long time, and they’ve always been looked at to be the game-winners and the go-to girls.”
And, according to Gray, making a state championship run at St. James created an extra level of poise for her and Fitzmorris before they even stepped on Stanford’s campus.
“I learned a lot about high-pressure situations in high school,” she said. “Of course nothing really compares to the atmosphere against Wisconsin Saturday (in the regional finals). But there have been times that I played in packed gyms, and it’s about keeping your cool and staying calm.”
Now, both players will take that mind-set into the chase for another pinnacle in their careers: an NCAA championship. It’s a venture that’s been rewarding for both — but even more so because Gray and Fitzmorris are at each other’s side again.
“It’s a very unique opportunity, to have a familiar face halfway across the country to kind of make that adjustment easier,” Fitzmorris said. “We can reminisce about old stories and old teammates. It’s nice that we know each other so well, and that we can be there for each other for the next chapter.”
This year is at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.
2017 volleyball Final Four: Dec. 14 and 16 at the Sprint Center