Texas sophomore setter Jhenna Gabriel went viral last weekend.
While participating in a volleyball tournament in Wichita, Kan., the Longhorns met BYU on Friday in a redo of a 2018 postseason match that ended UT’s season. Texas won this time, 3-1, and in the final set, Gabriel tracked down a ball at the net and stuffed if past BYU’s Kennedy Eschenberg. With her team up 19-14, the usually enthusiastic Gabriel gave BYU a stare-down as cold as an overworked air-conditioner in July.
It should be noted that Gabriel stands 5-feet, 8 inches. Eschenberg is a 6-5 middle blocker.
“When I’m on the court, I’m competing, (a) completely different person. Whatever it takes to get the win,” Gabriel said. “That’s the funnest part about playing a sport, is competing against somebody and getting fired up and looking somebody across the net and knowing I beat you on that play. It’s a good feeling.”
— Texas Volleyball (@TexasVolleyball) September 14, 2019
Texas quickly ensured that a slow-motion video of Gabriel’s only kill against BYU made its rounds on social media. UT has shined a spotlight on her before — last year, videos were published on Twitter of the Hawaii native singing while strumming a ukulele and attempting to spin a volleyball on her finger — but this one garnered more attention. The video solicited more than 355,000 views on Twitter and nearly 100,000 views on Instagram. “Our girls got a lot of kicks out of it,” UT coach Jerritt Elliott said.
In less than a week, Gabriel has gained 2,200 Instagram followers. Another thousand have added her on Twitter. Younger players lacking height have reached out to express their admiration. Fellow athletes have stopped her in the dining hall to say they didn’t know she had that in her. Gabriel’s good friend, Texas Tech defensive specialist Kiari Gier, has even heard about the play from her own teammates.
“I didn’t even know it looked like that in slow motion,” Gabriel said. “We watched in real-time when we were watching film a couple days later and you couldn’t really tell. When our videographer showed me that video the first time, I was definitely kind of in shock.”
Why does Rice play Texas?
Sound On. pic.twitter.com/ubHJGIGCMa
— Rice Athletics (@RiceAthletics) September 19, 2019
Fame on the internet can be both fleeting and fickle, however. On Wednesday night, third-ranked Texas found itself on the other end of another much-viewed clip. Following a five-set home win over the Longhorns, Rice took to Twitter to re-ask President John F. Kennedy’s 1962 question, “Why does Rice play Texas?” Embedded on the tweet was a video of the final point, which was viewed more than 16,000 times by Thursday afternoon.
The loss was UT’s first to an opponent that was neither ranked nor a conference rival in four years. Aside from that loss to unranked BYU in the 2014 NCAA semifinals, Texas hadn’t lost to a non-ranked, non-Power Five program since 2006. And Texas (5-2) was 36-0 all-time against Rice.
“Everyone is going to give us their best game when they play us,” freshman Asjia O’Neal noted after the match. “We have to come out from the start, going hard and executing on the small, little things. We’re just going to bounce back on Friday against A&M.”
Texas welcomes Texas A&M to a sold-out Gregory Gym on Friday night, their first match against each other in two years. Six of the 13 players on the UT roster have never faced the Aggies on the court, including Gabriel, who’s averaging 11.04 assists per set this season.
Gabriel has been UT’s primary setter since she came off the bench to rally Texas past TCU last Halloween. When Texas recruited her, it was possible that she’d set or contend for reps as a back-row specialist. But she said this week that leading an offense has long been her “bread and butter. I’m a setter, through and through.”
Having Gabriel on the court does create a defensive liability at the net, however. But Elliott noted earlier this year that Japan won the 2019 FIVB U20 world championship with a 5-2 setter. And Chloe Collins, who was 5-7, led Texas to NCAA title matches in 2015 and 2016.
“I think the most common misconception is that you can hit right over us,” said Gabriel, who’s a cousin of Central Florida quarterback Dillon Gabriel. “We haven’t really seen somebody that’s been getting out there just bouncing balls right over me. Our defense has been doing an amazing job playing defense behind me, getting balls up so that we can still run our offense.”
In addition to Gabriel, Texas also has senior setter Riley Fisbeck. Ashley Shook, a 6-1 junior who has started 49 matches in her career, is back after an ankle injury delayed the start of her season. Elliott said it is possible that the Longhorns could put two setters on the court and run a 6-2 offense during some rotations.
“I would imagine that Tom (Herman) has the same situation with quarterbacks and managing that,” Elliott said. “A head coach’s job is to manage the personnel that they have and to make sure that everybody’s on the same page and creating some unity with that. We have that with the setters.”
No. 3 Texas vs. Texas A&M
7 p.m. Friday, Longhorn Network