After a bumpy ride, a group of juniors appreciate playing Stanford men’s volleyball

By Leigh Quitinsky for

There is nothing traditional about the college experience for the junior class of the No. 15 Stanford men’s volleyball team.

Covid was there of course. But at Stanford, the school announced in July 2020 that it was scrapping 11 sports, including men’s volleyball. That meant 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 government announced the austerity measures. But that didn’t stop them from thinking about their future at university.

“I couldn’t imagine getting a degree anywhere else,” said Nathaniel Gates, a six-foot center blocker from La Jolla, California. “There were a few of us who decided that last season we would stay together to play together and then graduate early to go play volleyball somewhere else.”

Gates, Nathan Lietzke, Will Rottman, Kevin Lamp, Gabriel Miranda and Adam Chang all believed that getting a degree from Stanford was more important than going elsewhere to play volleyball.

The decision worked out well for them, as the program survived.

Lietzke is a 6-foot-6 setter from Austin, Texas, and Stanford will be playing in his hometown in two weeks. But first, the Cardinal (3-2) will be home against Vanguard on Friday and against UC Santa Cruz on Saturday. Then, on February 4, they play Kentucky State of the SIAC, in their first year of volleyball, and then the highest-ranking Hawai’i.

That’s a long way from the fall of 2020, when Stanford thought it was not just losing men’s volleyball, but dealing with COVID while practicing. School officials would not allow the team on campus.

“We organized a house in San Diego to prepare for the season, since we weren’t allowed to go back to the Stanford campus,” Lietzke said. “We even traveled to Austin so we could all train together for a week.”

After months of improvised practice, the Cardinal was on the field for a week at the start of the spring 2021 season.

“We’ve all become a lot closer because we realized that this would probably be our last chance and that we might be representing the last generation of the men’s volleyball program,” Lietzke said. “There were struggles and it was difficult, but we never gave up and kept pushing even though things were difficult.”

Nathan Lietzke of Stanford puts Adam Chang down. Karen Hickey, Stanford Athletics

By the end of April, the team finished the season with this roster of six, some great graduating seniors, and what they believe was the end of men’s volleyball at Stanford. The final game was a heavy, emotional loss for Pepperdine, and Stanford finished 3-14 overall and 3-13 in the MPSF.

But it wasn’t the end.

In a Zoom call with athletic director Bernard Muir in May 2021, before the end of the school year, the team learned that the program was no longer being cut. The whole team had their own floor in the dorms at Stanford, and after the conversation ended, you can imagine what happened next.

“We heard rumblings before (the Zoom call), but we didn’t know if it really happened,” Gates said. “After the call, we all ran into the hallway and started jumping up and down. My plan was to work it out last year and go elsewhere to enjoy my time at Stanford even more now.”

“We all ran out of our (Zoom) classes into the hallway and started hugging him,” Lietzke said. “It was a really cool moment. It was a great sigh of relief and elation at the same time that we could continue. We also talked about how good it was to be back, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.”

The dreams the six had as freshmen to graduate as student athletes from Stanford 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.

Nathaniel Gates attacks for Stanford Karen Hickey, Stanford Athletics

For Gates, it even helps him to continue the rivalry with his sister Madeleine. She was a star in the middle of UCLA, graduating and then transferring to Stanford for graduate school for her final season of eligibility in 2019. It paid off in the form of a national championship.

“She came to college and decided to win a national championship,” said Gates, who won a state title in high school. “I’m definitely trying to compete with that and win one here. It would just be great for the team, and I could do that against her.”

A national title may be a bull’s eye, but after what this group has been through….

“I really feel like everyone on the team is real friends outside of volleyball, and I think you can see that in the way we interact with each other and the way we do everything,” said Lietzke.

“There are so many crazy things that have never happened to any other collegiate men’s volleyball athlete that has happened to us, that gives us such a unique, shared experience that will last for a long time to come. I really can’t say enough about the guys in my class, and I wouldn’t have done this with anyone else.”

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