There's a special final four connection for Stanford's Jenna Gray and Audriana Fitzmorris
The Stanford volleyball team didn't make it to the 2010 final four in Kansas City. The career of four-time All-American Alix Klineman ended without a national title with a heartbreaking loss -- 26-24 in the fourth set and 16-14 in the fifth -- to rival USC in the regional final.
But there were two 12-year-olds at Sprint Center that year who would go on to become part of Stanford lore.
"I remember lining up afterwards to get autographs," Stanford middle blocker Audriana Fitzmorris says. "It was an incredible experience. It was a motivator, for sure. I'd already started to fall in love with the sport, and being in that environment really pushed me toward the path of playing collegiate volleyball."
Stanford setter Jenna Gray, a native of greater Kansas City like Fitzmorris, recalls that final four seven years ago -- plus a couple of others that she attended as a fan -- with the same appreciation.
"When the confetti fell after match point, I would get chills every time," Gray says. "I would say, 'That could be me one day.'"
And last year, it was. For both of them.
Gray and Fitzmorris, former high school and club teammates, were freshman standouts on the Cardinal's 2016 national championship team. Stanford was the No. 7 seed and had been through growing pains while depending on so many young players. Then everything came together at the final four, with the Cardinal winning the program's seventh NCAA volleyball title, and its first since 2004.
This season, Stanford is a threat to repeat. If the Cardinal do that, it would come at a very special place for Gray and Fitzmorris: back at Sprint Center in their hometown, which again is hosting the final four.
No one with the Cardinal is thinking about that now, though. No. 3 seed Stanford is focused on just starting strong in the NCAA volleyball tournament Friday, at home in Maples Pavilion against CSU Bakersfield.
But what a delight it would be for Gray and Fitzmorris if they get the chance to show teammates their home.
"If it happened, I'd want them to come to my house so they can meet my pets, because I always talk about them," says Gray, an animal lover who has six cats and a dog that she misses a ton.
And Fitzmorris? "If we made it, it would be incredible. The main thing I'd want to show everyone is the pride that people from Kansas City have about their city."
Suffice to say, the city has much pride in these two players, too. Gray and Fitzmorris describe each other as opposites who strike a nice balance.
"Fitz is so mature and so focused, and sometimes I can be the goofier one," Gray says. "I'm pretty high-energy and superloud, and Fitz is more the quiet one who's so sweet. But I think there's a lot of trust between us."
Both grew up in the suburbs on the Kansas side of the Kansas City metro area, and they also went to high school there, at St. James Academy in Lenexa. And both are from very athletic families.
Gray's mom, Debbie, ran track at Kansas State. Her dad, Brian, played baseball at Kansas. And her older sister, Rachel, played volleyball at Virginia. Add in brother Tanner, who loves soccer, and a cousin who plays minor league baseball, and Gray acknowledges that any kind of game at a family gathering becomes "absurdly competitive."
Both of Fitzmorris' parents, Michael and Maria Luisa, played professional basketball and met in South America, where Maria Luisa is from. Maria Luisa competed on the national teams for basketball and volleyball in her native Peru.
Fitzmorris' older sister, Alexandra, is about the same age as Gray's sister and also played college volleyball. And Fitzmorris' younger brother, Keenan, will join her at Stanford next year, as he'll play for the Cardinal's men's basketball team. Keenan Fitzmorris is 7 feet tall; Audriana is 6-foot-6.
The 6-foot-2 Maria Luisa jokes that next to her children and her husband, Michael, who's 6-foot-7, she's the little one of the family.
"In South America, I'm really tall," she says. "Here at home? Forget it."
Gray and Fitzmorris first got to know each other in their early teens, playing on the same high school and club teams. Both independently made the decision to go to Stanford, one of the gold-standard programs in volleyball.
"They always got along well, but they didn't start off thinking, 'We're going to go to college together,'" Debbie Gray says. "But it's worked out that way."
Fitzmorris' father is from Northern California originally, and she had visited the Bay Area before attending school there.
"She got it in her mind at a pretty young age that she was going to Stanford," Maria Luisa says. "And nothing was going to change that."
Meanwhile, Gray recalls as a kid getting a realistic assessment from both her mom and sister about the challenges of being a high-level college athlete.
"And so I thought, 'Maybe I can at least get a Division I scholarship,'" Gray says.
She's done a lot more than that. The 6-foot-1 Gray became one of the few freshman setters to lead a team to an NCAA championship. This season, she's been named the Pac-12's setter of the year, joining fellow sophomore teammates Kathryn Plummer (player of the year) and Morgan Hentz (libero of the year) in conference honors for the league champions.
"Jenna's worked really hard and wants to be great," first-year Stanford coach Kevin Hambly says. "From a leadership standpoint, she really stands out to me. She was reluctant at first to believe she was that person; it took a while to convince her.
"But she's one of the most natural leaders I've ever been around. A lot of setters just want to do one thing; she's very flexible and wants to do what's best for each individual hitter."
Fitzmorris is one of the players who has helped make up for the graduation of Inky Ajanaku, who was the final four's most outstanding player last year. Fitzmorris is second on the team in points (305) to Plummer (548.5).
"You could argue that Audriana is one of our best all-around players: She can pass, serve, play defense, block and hit," Hambly says. "We're still trying to figure out how to use her best, how to give her more swings, because she's a really good offensive player.
"The thing that has improved the most is her slide attack, where she's become a weapon. We also asked her to make a few changes in blocking, and she's really embraced that."
The biggest change, though, was Hambly himself. He left Illinois to take over at Stanford when John Dunning retired after the championship. Hambly installed a quicker-tempo offense and credits the Cardinal with buying in.
"They could have been like, 'Look, we just won a national championship without you, and now you want to change things?'" Hambly says. "But they were all willing to embrace new things.
"We rely on Jenna to keep everyone involved. Every leader is different; her strength is she has a tremendous feel for what the team needs -- not just as a group, but each individual. She has great empathy and awareness."
Fitzmorris said the players understood this season would be a different journey, even if they want it to end the same way.
"I feel like we got to the point last year where we were playing our best by the championship," she says, "and I'm so thankful for that."
And yet, they were a set away from that not happening. Down 2-0 to Wisconsin on the Badgers' home court in a regional final last year, the Cardinal were in dire straits. The Gray and Fitzmorris families were there, and Debbie Gray remembers thinking, "Come on, at least don't get swept."
Chemistry came in the nick of time.
"When they beat Minnesota [in the semifinals]," Maria Luisa says, "I thought, 'They're really going to do it. They're going to win a championship.'"
Now it's time to try to do it again. The Gray and Fitzmorris parents have traveled all over the country to watch. Now they might have a chance to see their daughters get a title on their home turf. And if so, who knows what dreams they may inspire in the minds of the girls who are watching.
"I remember Audriana being so excited to see the final four here," Maria Luisa says of 2010. "She was analyzing it. She was so impressed. She knew she wanted to do this."