Gray, Hentz hope for repeat “so badly” as Stanford begins NCAA title defense

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Jenna Gray sets on the run/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

There have to be some other setters around the country who look at Stanford sophomore Jenna Gray and think she has a really easy job.

After all, the Pac-12 setter of the year gets to put the ball up there for, among others, 6-foot-6 Pac-12 player of the year Kathryn Plummer, 6-6 sophomore middle Audriana Fitzmorris and 6-8 right side Merete Lutz. Not that others are lacking in height, either, like 6-2 junior middle Tami Alade and 6-foot freshman outside Meghan McClure.

No wonder, at 5-9, sophomore libero Morgan Hentz — the Pac-12 libero of the year — looks tiny on the Stanford court.

“I was talking about that the other day with Morgan about how lucky I am, not only to have those incredible hitters, but just really great passing,” said Gray, herself 6-1. “The past two years it’s made my job so much easier.

“But, yeah, I can never go wrong with any hitter I choose. That definitely helps me out so much.”

Stanford is hitting .312 as a team after rolling to the Pac-12 regular-season title. The Cardinal are 26-3 overall and went 19-1 in the Pac-12, losing only to Washington, which finished tied with USC for second place — five games back.

Stanford, the No. 3 seed in the tournament after winning it all a year ago, opens NCAA Tournament play at home Friday against CSU Bakersfield. The winner moves on to play the Colorado State-Michigan winner.

The Cardinal won last year with four freshmen. Now, Plummer, Hentz, Gray and Fitzmorris are sophomores, with the latter two more than ever hoping for a final-four appearance.

That’s because it’s in Kansas City, Mo., not far from where Gray grew up in the suburb of Shawnee, Kansas, or from the home town of Fitzmorris, who is from suburban Overland Park, Kansas.

“There’s pressure, yeah, but for me there’s that added desire of wanting to go back home and play in front of my friends and family,” Gray said. “But I think pressure is something you can control in how much you put on yourself and how much outside pressure you let get to you.

“So I think right now we’re just focusing on each other and getting better every day. We’re definitely still looking at the national championship — we want that so badly — but we’re focusing on each other so we don’t feel that every single day.”

Last year, when Stanford won in Columbus, Ohio, Hentz was just 113 miles from home.

“There’s definitely been pressure because we all want it so badly,” Hentz said. “Every team wants it really badly, but knowing that feeling of winning and doing less would be a disappointment.”

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Morgan Hentz lunges for a pass/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

Hentz, from Lakeside Park, Ky., is averaging 4.07 digs per set and also has 81 assists and exactly one kill. Getting kills, of course, is not her job. Getting to balls that others simply can’t is.

“Morgan is ridiculous,” Gray said. “Ridiculous might even be an understatement.”

She’s a big reason Stanford stays in system.

“This year especially Morgan has been covering an insane amount of court, stepping front of people,” Gray said. “But we just have so much trust in her. Honestly, a lot of our game plan is to funnel it Morgan. And we’ll be like, ‘That’s a lot of court for her to cover.’ But then we’ll be like, ‘Yeah, it’s Morgan. She can do it.’ She is absolutely incredible. 

“We put so much trust in her. She’s so driven and she drives the entire team. Yeah, she’s great.”

For her part, Hentz, who wants to work with kids who have disabilities when she’s done with volleyball, has picked right up where she left off last year. When Stanford won the title just less than a year ago, she was playing as well as any libero in the country. And whereas you could argue about the benefits that Gray has with such big hitters, Hentz benefits from being behind such big blockers.

“”Our block is really big and they’re doing a great job of working their butts off to close and get touches on it,” Hentz said. “So it might be different for me running down different types of touches because they’re doing a great job of getting up. I have to make sure I’m really, really balanced and ready to run down stuff.

“We have to communicate in the back court based on what we see. Maybe we have to move into a different spot if Merete is blocking versus if Jenna’s blocking. We have to be on our toes all the time.”

Gray averages 12.12 assists per set, has 63 kills (.62 per set) and averaged .69 blocks.

“Jenna’s great,” Hentz said. “She’s one of my best friends. On the court she’s a great leader, always positive and we know she’s always working hard.”

Gray, whose father played baseball at Kansas and whose sister, Rachel, played volleyball at Virginia, has a sport in common with her mother, who ran track at Kansas State. Gray threw the javelin for Stanford last spring, with a best of 165 feet, and finished 16th in the NCAA Championships. Teammate Mackenzie Little finished fourth as Stanford took 13th among women’s teams.

“There’s a lot of crossover in the volleyball approach and the javelin approach,” said Gray, who added that she’ll throw again in the spring if her body holds up.

In the meantime, she hopes there are six more volleyball matches to play.

“There’s always room for improvement,” Gray said, “but I like where we are so far.”

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