By James Hemker
This article is part of a running series The Daily sports staff will be publishing on seniors.
Through her first three years on the Farm, Jenna Gray has emerged as one of the top multi-sport athletes in college athletics. As the starting setter of the women’s volleyball team, Gray helped lead the Cardinal to two conference championships (2017, 2018) and two NCAA titles (2016, 2018). For her efforts she earned AVCA First Team All-America honors (2017, 2018) and was twice named the Pac-12 Setter of the Year (2017, 2018). During the volleyball offseason, Gray cemented herself as one of the greatest javelin throwers in Stanford history, earning three All-America honors, including a second place finish at the 2018 NCAA championships. Her personal best of 187-11 (57.29m) ranks second in school history. The Daily’s James Hemker sat down with Gray to discuss the upcoming volleyball season, juggling two sports, and her time on the court and field at Stanford.
The Stanford Daily (TSD): Do you remember your first Stanford practice? Was it nerve-racking or harder than you expected?
Jenna Gray (JG): It was a little bit easier in terms of conditioning than I was expecting. But I was so nervous. And it was really hard because literally everyone was so good. I remember just being super, super nervous for a serve and pass practice, which was supposed to be really easy and simple. We were all freaking out a little bit.
TSD: How did you first get into volleyball? And when did Stanford come into the picture?
JG: I started playing volleyball probably when I was four or five. My sister is seven years older than me, and she played volleyball so I was dragged along to her tournaments and practices. I would just take a ball and pepper with a parent or hit it against the wall, so I had my hand on it pretty young.
Stanford came into the picture around freshman year of high school. I never ever expected Stanford to want me, so it was just like a dream come true. The whole process was really interesting. I figured I would come out on a visit and it would be a cool place to see, like a mini vacation, but I didn’t think they were that serious about me. After talking with the coaches it was clear they were serious about me and I was shocked and surprised. The whole process kind of felt like a dream, like someone needed to pinch me.
TSD: Has it hasn’t really dawned on you yet that this is your senior year?
JG: Not at all. No, I feel like it flies by so fast. From them recruiting me and then getting to even play here and see court time and then winning two national championships has been absolutely surreal. So it’s even weird to think that it is almost over.
TSD: How are you trying to serve the team as one of the senior leaders this year?
JG: Yeah, I think there’s just so much. I think we’re trying to not let there be a lot of outside pressure, but it is hard to not let that get to you. Right now we’re trying to focus on just the team. It is kind of nice being a little bit more relaxed compared to my first practice. We know what’s going on, and we have handled a lot more situations so we are more comfortable going in this year.
TSD: This is now the second time you’ve been in the position of being the defending champion, so are you dealing with those expectations differently?
JG: Yeah, definitely. The first time around, we tried to do everything exactly the same because we were like, “Well it worked once and it should work again.” But we’re definitely approaching this season knowing that it’s going to be different. We lost some seniors and we have five freshmen and one transfer so it’s going to be different no matter what. We are embracing the difference and trying to reinvent ourselves to make it more fun and not so monotonous.
TSD: Looking at the whole senior class, you guys are one of the most impressive classes to come through the program, and it seems obvious with all the talent you have. But it’s also pretty easy to imagine that that big talent and big egos could clash. How have you guys avoided those issues?
JG: It is so weird because we never really think of ourselves as all that. I just think of them as my best friends. I think what really helps is we worked really hard together, and we were pretty much inseparable freshman year. We have at least made more friends than each other since then, but the trust was definitely built from the start. I think knowing each other and being able to communicate well off the court has translated well for us on the court.
TSD: Do you have any personal goals that you’re trying to achieve in your final year here?
JG: The one thing I want to do is win, and I want to be able to contribute to us winning in whatever way possible. So I think if I can help the team and help others get better, then I’ve absolutely achieved my goal.
TSD: You have a better opportunity than most to do that since you are in that quarterback role which contributes on essentially every play. What drew you to being a setter?
JG: I really enjoy being a setter because I am the only person that gets to touch the ball every single time it crosses the net. I just really appreciate that since I am the middleman, I get to communicate and get to know everyone really well. I work with both the passers and the hitters, and I’m really glad I have that connection with every single person on the court.
TSD: For you, volleyball is only half of your athletic picture. How did you decide to throw javelin in college, and what is it like being a multi-sport athlete?
JG: Yeah freshman year, like a week or two before track season started, I decided I would ask [volleyball head coach] Kevin [Hambly]. I figured he would probably say no, but I wanted to shoot my shot, but then a week later I was on the track team. It’s definitely been interesting. Right now I’m all volleyball, I never really touch a javelin in the fall, but then from January to July, I’ll practice a couple times a week with the track team.
It’s just been really fun getting to be outside because I’m always locked up in a gym and really pale. I’ve been trying to count all the different teammates I’ve had because there are eighty-plus people on the track team and seventeen on the volleyball team so I’ve had lots and lots of teammates and coaches. It has been really fun getting to know so many different people.
TSD: What has it been like bouncing around between different coaches and all their ideas about how to run things?
JG: Yeah, it’s definitely taught me how to be flexible and how to embrace change. I think it is good to be able to be uncomfortable. I’ve had, I think, three different setting coaches, three different throwing coaches and then two sets of whole new coaching staffs for both teams. Definitely learning how to figure out the communication with coaches very early on and get it down pretty quickly has been important.
TSD: Even though javelin and volleyball are very different, are there things that you can take from one sport to the other?
JG: Thank god I’m not a hitter because my shoulder would be shredded, but the last three steps of the javelin approach is exactly the same as in volleyball. Left, right, left and then snap it high. So I think that translated and helped me pick it up in javelin pretty quickly. I also realized that whenever I go back to volleyball after track, my serve just feels a lot easier and mechanically better because I work so much on throwing mechanics. They both definitely help each other a little bit.
TSD: Would you give me a straight answer if I asked which one was your favorite?
JG: Yeah, volleyball will always have my heart. I’ve been playing it for so long. I love my teammates for track, but there’s something different about being on the court. I think volleyball is the epitome of a team sport where everyone contributes to the play.
TSD: Do you think you’re a superstitious player? Do you have any routines that you go through before each match or meet?
JG: Yes. I’ve gotten a lot better about it, but I still always do left sock, right sock, left knee pad, right knee pad, and on the ankle braces I always go left to right also. While I get ready for the match, I always listen to the same playlist that I make at the beginning of the year. [Libero] Morgan [Hentz] always braids my hair. I think I’ve been wearing the same hairstyle in volleyball for nine or ten years. I can’t stray from it.
TSD: You guys beat up on everyone last year, so how are you looking at the volleyball schedule this year? Are there any matchups that you are really looking forward to?
JG: Yeah, I think our preseason is gonna be really, really challenging. I think the one I’m most excited about is Nebraska because they have this pretty new stadium which is huge and they always sell out. I think that’s really fun and a really good experience to play in because it’s a sold-out arena full of fans that are against you. That will be a really cool match.
Contact James Hemker at jahemker ‘at’ stanford.edu.