Two-sport Stanford star Jenna Gray setting herself up for NCAA volleyball title, Olympic pursuit

Jenna Gray is among the top setters in Stanford volleyball history, and she also has Olympic prospects when it comes to javelin. ISIPhotos.com

STANFORD, Calif. -- For most everyone else, it was a perk. For Stanford setter Jenna Gray, it felt like a punishment.

When there's an uneven number in the Stanford volleyball traveling party, one of the upper-class players usually gets a hotel room to herself. Last year, Gray got that, um, privilege.

"We were like, 'You're so lucky, you're going to get so much work done.' And she was like, 'Oh ... yeah,'" teammate Morgan Hentz said, laughing. "And then later when everyone came out for dinner, she was like, 'Please, don't ever put me in a room by myself again. I feel like I'm in social isolation.'"

For the gregarious Gray, silence is not golden. An All-American in both volleyball and track and field (javelin), she is a communicator by nature. It's part of what makes her such a good setter for the defending national champion.

"There's one thing I hate the most: the silent treatment," Gray said. "I'm very talkative, and if you're mad, I'm probably going to try to get you to laugh your way out of it. So to mess with me, sometimes the team will all get in on it and say, 'Just don't laugh at Jenna's jokes; even if they're funny, don't respond to her at all.'

"And then they'll watch me just spiral and keep trying, and I'll be losing my mind."

Gray laughs as she says this, because nobody appreciates the power of humor more than she does. But she's also adept at staying even-keel no matter how tight the match is, knowing how much teams look to their setter, volleyball's version of a quarterback, to remain calm.

No. 3 seed Stanford (26-4) hosts an NCAA regional this Friday-Saturday, when Gray and her fellow seniors will play at Maples Pavilion for the last time. Their class stands out even in a star-studded history of an eight-time national champion. These seniors won NCAA titles as freshmen and juniors, and are hoping for third later this month.

Kathryn Plummer is the "hammer," No. 5 on Stanford's career kill list at 1,874. Audriana Fitzmorris is 6-foot-6 like Plummer, with the versatility to play both outside hitter and middle blocker, and is fifth at Stanford in total blocks (602). Hentz is the libero known for gasp-inducing saves; she's Stanford's career leader in digs (2,233).

Then there's Gray, who is second all-time at Stanford in assists (5,307), an expert at the setter dump kill, and nearly unbeatable on jousts at the net. She's also the team's master prankster (she always gets the last laugh), crazy cat lady (she has five back home in Kansas) and resident analyst (she instantly can tell teammates' moods by the briefest of body-language or eye-contact cues).

"She reads the room well, and individuals well. Her emotional quotient is really high," Stanford coach Kevin Hambly said. "She also knows how to respond to that, to get the right behavior out of the people around her. When to make someone laugh, or to fire them up."

A track standout, too

Even though javelin is an individual pursuit, Gray makes it feel communal as well.

Her track practices start once volleyball season is over. They're typically short and productive, usually two days a week and -- to fit around continuing volleyball workouts and classes -- often at different hours of the day than the rest of the track team.

"But then when we'd go to meets and add the dynamic of the other team members, you could tell for sure she made other people around her comfortable," said Zeb Sion, who is now assistant track coach at Texas but coached Gray at Stanford her first two seasons. "She made it more relaxed and more enjoyable for them; she took the edge off in a way."

Gray had a different throws coach last season, and then a new track staff took over for this school year. So they haven't had a chance to work with Gray yet. That will come in January or February, when she will focus on building toward the NCAA championships -- where she has finished 16th, second and fourth the past three years -- and the U.S. Olympic trials. Her personal best is 187 feet, 11 inches (57.29 meters), which she has hit twice, including while finishing third last year in the U.S. Track and Field Championships.

The Olympic qualifying standard for women is 64 meters, and that would take a large leap forward for Gray. But she's had big improvements before, like from her freshman to sophomore performances, and she may be capable of more.

Gray started javelin in high school. Like most young throwers, she had little technique, which is paramount in the sport. Sion joked that she looked like a baby deer on the runway.

"Her coordination was just funky for a while. But then, over time, that improved significantly," Sion said. "And she has a cannon, right? Her arm is live; it's amazing. So she could be in these weird positions to throw and still just smack it. But then it got much cleaner, much crisper."

Her freshman year at Stanford, the 6-foot-1 Gray, a human biology major, also played beach volleyball. But she realized competing in three sports was too much, even for her. In an age with fewer two-sport athletes in college -- and an even smaller group that are elite in both sports in a Power 5 conference -- what is the key to Gray's success?

"The athleticism for volleyball -- to be quick, be reactive, explosive in terms of plyometric concepts -- those things probably complement her natural arm in track," Sion said. "But I also think because she's such a fun kid, people probably don't give her enough credit in terms of how competitive she actually is. Because she's also super feisty and competitive, and has a belief in herself that's at a high level."

Right fit at Stanford

When she took her volleyball recruiting visit to Stanford, Gray at first suspected the coaches were just "being nice." She was high school (St. James Academy) and club teammates with Fitzmorris in suburban Kansas City. Gray figured that Fitzmorris, with her size and hitting/blocking skills, had to be the focus of all the college coaches who came to watch their matches.

"I [thought] I was kind of along for the ride," Gray said.

In fact, then-Stanford coach John Dunning wanted -- and got -- them both. During their freshman season, in the middle of a match where Stanford was struggling, Dunning handed Gray the keys. He switched from a 6-2 system of two setters to a 5-1, with Gray on the court all six rotations.

"We had never spoken about going to a 5-1," Gray said. "But I was starting the third set. I thought, 'Oh, gosh, they're putting a lot of trust in me right now.'"

Gray thrived, helping the program end a 12-year NCAA championship drought in 2016. Dunning retired, Hambly took over in 2017 and the Cardinal made it back to the final four, this time in Kansas City. It was crushing to Gray and Fitzmorris to lose in the semifinals to Florida in their hometown, but Stanford bounced back with a five-set NCAA final win over Nebraska last year. Now the Cardinal are going for a third title in four years .

Gray aspires to play volleyball professionally, and Hambly thinks she has a shot at working with the U.S. national team at some point if she pursues that. How far can she get in javelin? At what point might she have to stop throwing to go further in volleyball?

"Sometimes I want to kick myself for getting so into jav," Gray said. "It's going to be really hard to give it up, because I really love it now, too."

Ultimately, the team nature of volleyball makes it her greatest love. For now, she can still put off making difficult choices. She thinks back on how she didn't even know she would throw javelin in college until she went into Hambly's office when he took over in January 2017 and asked if she'd be allowed to do it. She fully expected he'd say no. But Hambly immediately said yes and offered to call the track staff to work together on a training schedule.

"For me it was this: You've got one shot at college," Hambly said. "And whatever you want to make out of the experience, you should do. I didn't have any doubt she was going to be the best she could be at both sports, because she's just wired like that."

There's really only one thing Gray hasn't done well while at Stanford.

"Whatever you do," Hambly said with a grin, "don't put her in a room all by herself."