By Leigh Quitinsky for VolleyballMag.com
There has been nothing traditional about the college experience for the junior class of No. 15 Stanford men’s volleyball team.
There was COVID, of course. But at Stanford, the school announced in July 2020 that it was cutting 11 sports, including men’s volleyball. That meant that the 2021 spring season would be the Cardinal’s last.
The announcement hit hard for the six players who are now juniors. They were all freshmen when the the administration announced the cuts. But that didn’t stop them from thinking about their future with the university.
“I couldn’t imagine getting a degree from somewhere else,” said Nathaniel Gates, a 6-foot-8 middle blocker from La Jolla, California. “There were a couple of us that decided that we would stay to play this last season together and then graduate early to go play volleyball somewhere else.”
Gates, Nathan Lietzke, Will Rottman, Kevin Lamp, Gabriel Miranda, and Adam Chang all decided that the degree from Stanford was more important than leaving to play volleyball elsewhere.
The decision worked out well for them, because the program survived.
Lietzke is a 6-foot-6 setter from Austin, Texas, and Stanford is going to play in his hometown in two weeks. First, though, the Cardinal (3-2) are home Friday against Vanguard and Saturday against UC Santa Cruz. Then on February 4, they’ll play Kentucky State of the SIAC, in its first year of volleyball, and then top-ranked Hawai’i.
That’s a long way from the fall of 2020, when Stanford thought it was not only losing men’s volleyball, but also dealing with COVID while trying to practice. School officials wouldn’t allow the team on campus.
“We organized a house in San Diego to try and prepare for the season, since we weren’t allowed back onto Stanford’s campus,” Lietzke said. “We even traveled to Austin so we could all train together for a week.”
After months of improvised practice, the Cardinal hit its home court for one week the start of the spring 2021 season.
“All of us became a lot closer because we realized that this was probably going to be our last opportunity and that we were representing perhaps the last generation of the men’s volleyball program,” Lietzke said. “There were struggles, and it was hard, but we never gave up and continued to push even though things were tough.”
By the end of April, the team wrapped up the season with this core of six, some stellar graduating seniors, and what they thought was the end of men’s volleyball at Stanford. The last match was a tough, emotional loss to Pepperdine, and Stanford finished 3-14 overall and 3-13 in the MPSF.
But it wasn’t the end.
In a Zoom call with Athletics Director Bernard Muir in May 2021, before the end of the school year, the team found out the program was no longer being cut. The whole team had its own floor in the dorms at Stanford, and after the call ended, you can imagine what happened next.
“We heard rumblings before (the Zoom call), but we didn’t know if it was actually happening,” Gates said. “After the call, we all ran out in the hallway and started jumping up and down. My plan went from grinding it out this last year and going somewhere else to now getting to enjoy my time at Stanford even more.”
“We all just ran out of our (Zoom) classes into the hallway and started hugging it out,” Lietzke said. “It was a really cool moment. It was a big sigh of relief and elation all at the same time that we got to continue. We also talked about how good it was to be back, but there is still a lot of work to be done.”
The dreams the six had as freshmen of graduating as Stanford student-athletes were still a reality. The men’s volleyball team was reinstated, and this group that stuck with the Cardinal through thick and thin could get the best of both worlds: their sport and their degrees.
For Gates, it even helps him continue the rivalry with his sister, Madeleine. She was a star middle at UCLA, graduated, and then transferred for grad school to Stanford for her final season of eligibility in 2019. It paid off in the form of national championship.
“She came over in college and decided to win a national championship,” said Gates, who won a state title in high school. “I am definitely trying to compete with that and win one here. It would just be great for the team, and I could also put that one against her, too.”
A national title might be a long shot, but after what this group has been through….
“I truly feel like everyone on the team is really solid friends outside of volleyball, and I think you can see that just by the way we interact and the way we do everything,” Lietzke said.
“There are just so many crazy things that haven’t happened to any other collegiate men’s volleyball athlete that have happened to us that gives us such a unique, shared experience that will carry over for a long time. I really can’t say enough about the guys in my class, and I wouldn’t want to have done this with anyone else.”
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