PITTSBURGH – There were 16,290 in PPG Paints Arena on Saturday night. It’s possible that, after Stanford’s Meghan McClure passed yet another perfect ball to Jenna Gray, roughly 16,289 of them likely knew, with absolute, unequivocal certainty, that the final ball was going to Kathryn Plummer.
And, let’s be honest, how could it not?
Up to that point in the NCAA Championship between Stanford and Wisconsin, one that would be won 25-16, 25-17, 25-20 by Stanford, Plummer had reached levels not even Plummer had reached before. She had buried 22 of 37 sets hitting .459. In the past three years, a run that included two national titles, Plummer had been the face of volleyball’s most recent dynasty.
No, it was not wrong to think you knew that Gray would find Plummer. And yet the only person who didn’t know where the ball was going was the only person who had any control of it at all: Gray herself.
“Once you’re in a national championship match, you get to the point where you don’t have to think,” said Gray, who finished with 39 assists on the night. “At that point, you just let it go.”
So she did. Gray didn’t let it go cross-court to Plummer, hitting from her most successful position on the left. Instead, she tossed it back to middle Madeleine Gates, running behind on a slide.
Gates, who is as bashful as they come, admitted even she was a bit surprised that Gray turned to her.
“I was a little surprised, honestly, yeah,” she said, laughing.
But the thing is, while many would have expected Plummer to be the recipient of the final set of Gray’s surreal collegiate career, it should be no surprise that Gates put it away.
She’d done it all night. Sixteen times prior had Gray set Gates. She killed nine. Who was it that, at the end of the night, would finish with the highest hitting percentage? Gates.
“Thankful” is the word Gates chose when describing the feeling of being the one responsible for the final point of the final match of yet another storied Stanford season.
Thankful is also the one used by her teammates to describe her.
Gray practically fell over when asked to describe her reaction to learning that Gates would be transferring to Stanford in 2019 for a graduate season. For three years, Gray had to compete against the 6-foot-3 middle blocker from La Jolla, who played her first three years for Pac-12 rival UCLA and enjoyed a career-high 22 kills against — guess who? — Stanford.
“When we found out we were getting her on our team we were like ‘Oh, my God, this is a cherry on top.’ It’s the perfect ending that she got the kill, it was the cherry on top,” Gray said.
It was the cherry on top in so many ways. It was the perfect ending to a Stanford senior class that will graduate with three national championships in four years and will go down as one of the greatest senior classes in volleyball history.
And it was the perfect ending to Gates’ career. A national title is what she had been envisioning since her days at La Jolla High, where she was a four-year letter winner and a Fab 50 selection. She chose UCLA for the first act of her college career, and it was by any measure a successful three years: two 20-plus win seasons and two NCAA Tournament appearances.
But there was no national championship.
She graduated in three years, and when she began the transfer process, there were only three schools on her list. Really, though, there was only one.
If she was accepted to Stanford, she was going to Stanford.
And for how much love this Cardinal senior class will justifiably get, there was a perfect hole — a small hole, but a hole nonetheless — custom fit for Gates. The national champion team of 2018 was graduating middle blocker Tami Alade. Another 6-foot-3 middle could be useful.
“I just tried to step into that role and just do the best that I can for the team,” Gates said.
It can sound easy, transferring into a national power like Stanford, surrounded by some of the most talented players in the country. But it can be intimidating, stepping onto a team and program with the chemistry and pedigree of Stanford’s.
How could Gates, a former rival, find the alchemy that Gray had already built with Plummer, right side Audriana Fitzmorris, Meghan McClure?
You can just be Madeleine Gates, one of the few volleyball players in the United States who can somehow hit .529 in a national title match and do it quietly.
“I don’t think we would be here without her,” three-time Pac-12 libero of the year Morgan Hentz said. “We’re really happy that she joined us this season. And we love her as a teammate, but we love her even more as a person. Awesome when the middle puts the ball away for the national championship game winning point.”