Girls Volleyball
Top-ranked Longhorns rolling with Gabriel at the controls




Jhenna Gabriel isn't taking this for granted.

Not by a long shot.

After all, it was just three years ago that Gabriel, a two-time All-Hawaii setter while at Maryknoll, was in the midst of her senior year of high school and remained uncommitted to any collegiate volleyball program.

Fast forward to the present day and the 2018 Maryknoll graduate finds herself as the starting setter for the top-ranked University of Texas.

"Sometimes I sit back and think about the fact that that's actually something I'm doing right now," said Gabriel, a junior and second-year starter for the Longhorns, who improved to 12-0 on the season with a pair of wins over second-ranked Baylor last week.

Gabriel ranks fourth nationally in assists per set (11.65), while Texas is third in the country in hitting percentage (.337).

"I definitely think that this is the best volleyball we've been playing since my class has gotten here, but at the same time it's really cool to still be able to kind of nit-pick and figure out where we can get better in all of these different areas, so this team is amazing," she said. "We talk about how special it is and our bond that we have with each other and then on top of it we kind of see how much better we can and I think that's the most exciting part about it."

To be sure, the Longhorns passed a big test last week by taking both matches from the Bears, who they shared the Big 12 Conference title with last year. The teams split their two meetings in 2019; Baylor's second-round win over Texas proved pivotal toward it clinching a share of its first Big 12 volleyball title in school history.

This time around, the Longhorns swept the season from the Bears with five-set victories on back-to-back nights.

"We're feeling really good, obviously," said Gabriel, who had 51 assists Thursday night and another 44 Friday.

"We really look forward to our Baylor matches. Last year was so fun and especially after losing to them the last time we played them last season, we were kind of really excited to just come into this past weekend and really do our best to try and leave this weekend two-and-oh, so it definitely feels good knowing that we accomplished that."

But it didn't come easy.

On night one, Texas rallied after dropping the first two sets to take the next three. The set scores were 23-25, 24-26, 25-23, 25-13 and 15-9. The following evening, it was Baylor who stormed back after down 0-2 to push it to a fifth set. Ultimately, however, Texas held on for the 25-22, 26-24, 27-29, 14-25 and 15-6 win.

Gabriel, who said she "didn't move" the following day, said playing on back-to-back nights — which Big 12 teams are doing this season due to a rescheduling of the conference schedule as a result of the COVID pandemic — has both its benefits and its detriments.

"It's really different this year playing everybody back-to-back the way we do. One, it's really taxing on your body, you're just not used to going that hard for two nights in a row and this was obviously the first time that we played two back-to-back five-set matches and they were very different." She continued, "It's really hard, but at the same time it's really fun because you kind of get the best scouting report of all-time on night one when you see exactly how they want to play you and how they want to defend you and then next night you go and watch your film and stuff and you base it off of that and it's really fun to go back out there on night two and change what we're doing a little bit, just to figure out a different way to beat them, so that's definitely the funnest part about it, but it's not fun playing back-to-back five-set matches, I'll tell you that."

The pair of wins gave the Longhorns a two-game cushion on the Bears (11-3). They are the lone remaining unbeaten team in the Big 12 and collected 47 of 49 first-place votes in this week's AVCA Division I Coaches Poll.

Gabriel said sweeping the Bears last week was huge.

"I mean, we talk a lot about trying to treat each game the same way, but obviously when you go into these really big matches and you know it's number one versus number two, you approach those games a little differently and whether or not you try to change that, you really can't," she said. "You're going to be a little bit more amped up, you're going to be a little bit more excited and trying to prepare for it maybe a little bit differently than other opponents and so just knowing that we prepared for them the right way and we were able to go back-to-back nights playing five-set matches and come out on top on both of those nights, ‘redeeming' is definitely a good word to describe it."

This season — and the entire experience of collegiate volleyball — has been redeeming in more ways than one for Gabriel. She pointed out that during her time at Maryknoll, Gabriel — who is the school's career leader in both assists and digs — didn't exactly get to experience the type of success that she is now.

Not that she didn't enjoy herself as a Spartan. Quite the opposite, actually.

"I absolutely loved everything about Maryknoll and I loved playing there. … I didn't come out of Maryknoll with a winning record — not once — and I didn't ever make the state tournament and I was completely fine with that because it was so much fun and it was competitive at the same time," said Gabriel, who recalled the rigors of the ultra-competitive Interscholastic League of Honolulu.

"I just think that playing in the ILH especially was really special, just because it was such an interesting schedule of playing everybody three times and going best-of-three for a couple rounds and then best-of-five after that and you were just kind of going head-to-head with, in my opinion, everyone that was playing in the ILH, they were the best volleyball teams in the state."

She added, "Every single match we played in the ILH was huge and you were playing against the best girls in the state and I think that kind of helped build everybody up into the players that they are today and I think it goes to show why we have so many girls playing D1 volleyball now, is because that conference was so strong."

Gabriel said she draws her mental toughness from her parents, especially her dad (Darryl), as well as Luis Ramirez, her coach at both Maryknoll and the Rainbows Volleyball Club.

"I definitely think that growing up my parents really helped instill that in me. I mean, my dad coached for over twenty-five years and so growing up, he was my dad and he was my coach and so helped me a lot with that and then coach Luis, he coached me in high school and club and anybody that plays for him or anybody that has seen him coach knows that he is tough and if you want to play for him and if you want to get better playing for him, then you're going to have to figure it out, you're going to have to buck up and you're going to have to get tough and so I definitely think that growing up playing for coach Luis and growing up with my dad as my dad has definitely helped me get here today," she explained.

Gabriel's fortitude was put to the test early with the Longhorns. In her first season with the program, Gabriel served as the back-up setter in addition to a role as a back-row specialist.

"I didn't play a single game as a libero or a defensive specialist as long as I've played volleyball and so that was so weird trying to figure out how to pass and be a good passer and doing all of these things that a libero and a defensive specialist have to do," Gabriel said.

There was a steep learning curve — and some moments of frustration — for Gabriel, but in hindsight she is appreciative of the perspective she gained from the experience.

"I think it definitely helped me get better defensively and I mean, it was fun. I will say, I don't like to pass, I don't like it at all, but it was definitely a really good test of my mental strength, for sure, just because it's hard walking into one of the top programs in the nation and trying to learn to be a different player and play a whole different position at one of the highest levels of volleyball and so that was something that I struggled with a little bit when I was training to be a defensive specialist — I was like, ‘How am I supposed to do this when there's girls I'm playing with that have been doing this their whole lives — but I definitely think that it helped me build into a stronger player, especially mentally, and now that I'm back to just setting, it's so fun," she said.

Gabriel said returning to full-time setting — her "bread and butter" — has been worth the wait.

"Once I got the opportunity to set it was just like, ‘Oh, thank God,' like, ‘I'm back … This is what I've worked all my years of volleyball for,' so it was really fun to just kind of be able to get to go show that off again and train as a full-time setter again, that was definitely my favorite part about all of it."

In her mind, however, ‘sacrifice' probably isn't the right word to describe what she went through. After all, she had made a promise to Longhorns coach Jerritt Elliott upon signing with the program.

"I was just like, ‘You know, I'll do anything it takes to get on the court,' and that's something I've lived by after the day I said it," Gabriel explained. "I was just like, ‘Okay, every single time you step on to the court, you go into practice, I was just gonna try to get one percent better at whatever I was doing that day — whether it was passing or setting or digging balls, serving balls — I was going to try and get a little bit better at any single part of it just to give myself a bigger opportunity to get on the court."

She has certainly done that. In her first season as a starter last year, Gabriel collected All-Big 12 Second Team honors. But the way the season ended left a bitter taste in her mouth. Texas, which was the No. 2 overall seed in the 2019 NCAA Tournament, suffered a third-round loss to Louisville. It was the Longhorns' earliest exit from the tourney since 2005.

To say that the Sweet 16-defeat at the hands of the Cardinals has served as motivation for Gabriel and her teammates this season would be a vast understatement.

"Oh yeah. There is not a day that goes by that I don't think about that game and there's not a day that goes by that I'm not mad about losing that game," Gabriel said. "So I mean, that's what pushed us all through quarantine, like every single day I thought about that loss and that's why every day after I finished my zoom classes, I got my butt out of bed, off my desk and I was out there working out and trying to play as much volleyball as I could in a pandemic and it is definitely something that pushes us every single day."

The pandemic forced Gabriel to return to Honolulu for spring break. She ended up staying home for four months. Still, she stayed ready.

"I had to go and find my new routine and make it for myself because it's just me now and it's hard because you really had to find a way to compete against yourself and find a way to make yourself better in your house," Gabriel said.

In lieu of traditional volleyball workouts, Gabriel was forced to get creative. She worked out daily in her garage, ran sprints up and down her cul-de-sac and would go to a park near her home with her dad to set volleyballs into a basketball hoop.

"It was kind of crazy and I realized how spoiled we are here, because we have this beautiful weight room, this beautiful gym, like all these different things and then you're kind of humbled a little bit and taken back, but honestly it was amazing," Gabriel said. "At first you obviously get a little stir-crazy and stuff, but I enjoyed my time at home so much and I was so sad when it was time to come back, but I mean, the biggest thing that you could do during quarantine was just try to make the most of it instead of just being sad about it and I came back really tan, so there's that, too; that was definitely a plus."

Despite all the changes that have come with 2020, the Longhorns' goals remain unaltered.

"I think that the goal for us in this short Big 12 season right now is just to finish strong and to continue winning and obviously we want to win the Big 12 championship this year outright. Obviously we won last year, but we don't want to share it this year and then after that it's we get to go home for a little bit, we get to decompress before coming back and it doesn't matter when the championship is going to be — whether it's in the fall or like this year they're moving it to the spring — we want to win it and we know that we're good enough to do so, so that is definitely the goal at the end of the day is to win it all," Gabriel stated.

Texas has four matches remaining in its fall slate: two at No. 13 West Virginia (7-5) this week, followed by a pair at TCU (1-5) next week.

Not that Gabriel is looking ahead; She's doing her best to enjoy every moment.

"I really do just sit back and think about it sometimes, like, I can't even believe it because it's definitely a dream that I never thought would ever happen, but here we are, so it's pretty amazing."



Reach Kalani Takase at [email protected].


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