It's no surprise Stanford starts the NCAA volleyball season ranked No. 1, given everybody's back from last year's championship team.
Well, almost everybody.
"Except the person who led the nation in blocking and is one of the best-hitting efficiency attackers in the country," said Stanford coach Kevin Hambly, referencing Tami Alade.
Even though the Cardinal bring back a strong core, losing one of the top defensive players in the country does hurt. But Madeleine Gates is poised to ease the transition and help them win their third title in four years.
An offseason surprise, Gates transferred to Stanford after earning her bachelor's degree early at UCLA, opting to finish out her eligibility with the defending champs, ranked atop the American Volleyball Coaches Association women's preseason poll.
She and Alade, now graduated, have different strengths, from Hambly's perspective. Alade was mainly a practice player for two seasons before Hambly took over. Impressed with an elite athleticism he rarely sees from middle blockers, he encouraged her to upgrade her worth ethic, which paid off with her spectacular season.
Now the 6-foot-3 Gates (and she goes by Madeleine, not Maddie) is plenty athletic, too. Her epic move of dunking a volleyball during drills two years ago while James Harden and Chris Paul just happened to be practicing on the other side of the gym earned plaudits from them. And it went viral on YouTube.
"She's super smooth, and she's a great slide hitter; Tami couldn't hit a slide," Hambly said. "Her efficiency is attacking, especially beside the setter. That's where, I think, she can have the most impact for us."
A second-team All-American two years ago, Gates joins a group that includes two-time national and espnW player of the year Kathryn Plummer, along with All-American first-teamers Morgan Hentz and Jenna Gray and second-teamer Audriana Fitzmorris.
Gates is settling into life in Palo Alto, where navigating the sprawling campus remains a work in progress. "I know how to get from where I'm staying to the gym, and that's about it right now," she said.
Otherwise, it's been a perfect storm. Stanford was at the top of her list when the valedictorian from La Jolla High School considered colleges four years ago.
"I was a late-developing player, so I wasn't super high on Stanford's list," said Gates, whose parents were both athletes at Brown. (Younger brother Nathaniel is also Stanford-bound, joining the men's volleyball team in 2020.)
"The second I walked into the practice gym, I saw focus. Everyone wants to win the national championship, but everybody is also looking at playing volleyball and having fun every day." Madeleine Gates
Instead, Gates thrived at UCLA, particularly during her sophomore season when she was named a second-team All-American, leading the Bruins in hitting and blocking. She had her career high in kills with 22 -- against Stanford, in what is now her new home, Maples Pavilion.
"She tore us up," Hambly said. "We could not touch her."
That won't be a problem anymore. Accepted into Stanford's School of Humanities and Sciences in March, Gates was pumped when the pieces fell into place for her to continue her volleyball career there, too.
"I didn't know if it was really going to work out," Gates said. "The fact that it did -- it was the most surreal feeling."
Gates' enthusiasm for the master's program at Stanford rivals her passion for volleyball. Initially an applied math major at UCLA, she found herself buried in theorems and proofs, neither of which appealed to her. She switched to economics and added a Spanish minor for fun.
Stanford's master's in statistics allows her to tailor her class schedule to her interests. She envisions a career as an analyst, mining data to make a difference.
"I'm interested in applying math to things that can help people," Gates said.
Gates already leads Stanford volleyball in one statistical category. Since the NCAA began sponsoring volleyball in 1981, Stanford has not had a player transfer into the program.
"Pretty remarkable in this day and age," Hambly said.
She and Plummer had crossed paths playing club ball. A summer traveling with the U.S. collegiate national team in Italy introduced Gates early to two of her other new teammates, Fitzmorris and Meghan McClure.
"We had a lot of fun exploring and adventuring together on the Amalfi Coast," Fitzmorris said. "We bonded over our shared love of 'Pretty Little Liars,' too."
Gates and the Cardinal open the season Aug. 30 at the College of Charleston Classic against the hosts, followed by a match against Duke.
Also on tap for top-ranked Stanford: No. 2 Nebraska, No. 3 Minnesota, No. 4 Texas, No. 8 Penn State, No. 9 BYU and No. 10 Florida, and, of course, a stacked Pac-12 Conference slate. Oregon, Washington, USC, Washington State and Arizona are top-25 teams.
Gates can't wait.
"The people are really welcoming," she said. "The second I walked into the practice gym, I saw focus. Everyone wants to win the national championship, but everybody is also looking at playing volleyball and having fun every day. It's a really cool environment to be in."