Michael Sealy said when he first met Madeleine Gates, she seemed shy.
“When she first came here, sometimes she wouldn’t make eye contact, or she’d be a little bit nervous in conversations,” said Sealy, the UCLA women’s volleyball coach.
Gates may be reserved, but her performance on the court has been far from quiet.
The sophomore middle blocker leads No. 18 UCLA in total blocks and hitting percentage, and claims bragging rights to having dunked in front of NBA star James Harden when the two were both using UCLA’s Student Activities Center for offseason training in July.
Gates’ mother, Amy Randel, said Gates appears shy because she focuses all of her attention on the game.
“She puts a lot of attention into the game, she’s not looking around and trying to think about what people are seeing about her,” Randel said. “There is a shy side, but it’s not a complete description. … Blocking out everything and focusing on what’s happening, that has helped her a lot as an athlete.”
Gates said she made her first major improvement in ninth grade through playing club volleyball – she learned how to do slides and quick attacks, which she had barely practiced before.
Sealy said when he first saw Gates play, he knew she was going to be a late bloomer.
“You can tell that she was going to be really good one day, but she was raw the first time we saw her,” he said. “By the time the end of her junior year (in high school) came around, she was very talented and very good.”
Gates went on to average more than three kills and one block per set with a hitting percentage higher than .500 as a high school senior. In addition, she led La Jolla High School to the semifinals of the CIF San Diego Section Open Division Championships in 2015 and was named in Volleyball Magazine’s Fab 50 list.
When Gates was a freshman at UCLA, then-seniors Claire Felix and Jennie Frager held the two middle blockers’ starting spots. When she did get some playing time early in the season against Pacific in Hawaii, she committed two service errors, an attacking error and a ball handling error before being subbed out.
When she finally secured her starting position against San Diego in August this season, she posted a then-career-high of nine kills and 10 blocks. But she hadn’t forgotten about her errant play in Hawaii nearly a year earlier.
“I got to play a few points but I didn’t play very well at Hawaii (last season), so I definitely wanted to redeem myself,” Gates said. “I was trying to be as aggressive as I could and be a big blocking presence.”
This season, she registered 17 kills in the game against No. 16 Oregon, her highest ever.
Sealy said Gates’ physicality makes her a special player.
“She anchors the middle, she’s our most physical player, she’s our most physical attacker,” Sealy said. “The opponents always have to worry about her, they send two blockers with her a lot of the time – she’s definitely a focal point of our offense.”
Sealy also described Gates as a perfectionist, even while dealing with an injury to her abdominal muscles in training.
“When we’re managing her ab strain, we only let her tip and if it’s just tipping, there’s no way to win that drill,” Sealy said. “Still, she’ll get so emotionally invested or angry or upset when she doesn’t win.”
Gates said she has gained confidence from competing well despite the injury.
“If it’s not hurting super bad, I’ll just ignore it and try to play the way I would if it wasn’t hurting,” Gates said. “If it’s really hurting bad, I will focus on my blocking because that typically doesn’t hurt as much, making more tip plays and smarter hitting locations if I can’t hit it as hard.”
Randel said Gates’ competitive streak was already evident in high school. She recalled having to persuade Gates to leave club practice early to keep her from studying late into the night.
“I would have to go help signal to the coach that I had to take her, but she would want to stay. … She would say, ‘A little bit more, just a little bit more,’” Randel said. “She definitely sets very high standards for herself and is not happy with anything but her best.”
Gates’ competitiveness spills over to academics and extracurriculars. She was the valedictorian of her high school class and is now an applied math student who worked at an anthropology professor’s lab and participated in the athletic leadership council her freshman year.
But despite her accomplishments both on and off the court, Sealy said Gates is extremely modest, sometimes to a fault.
“It’s kind of funny because she’ll be like, ‘I’m sorry,’ and we’ll be like, ‘That was really good, what are you talking about?’” said freshman outside hitter Jenny Mosser.
Mosser said she didn’t speak much with Gates in their first meeting at the UCLA camp for recruits.
But over time, Mosser got to know Gates’ sarcastic personality and her interesting quirks such as liking samples and mixing food, and they started joking around with each other.
“She’s really quiet so at first, it was kind of hard to get to know her,” Mosser said. “But after being here for a couple of months she’s actually super funny.”
Mosser added Gates’ quiet side helps anchor other players on the court.
“She’s just really stable on the court, never too high, never too low,” Mosser said. “You can always trust her to do her job.”
Sealy also said he has taken pleasure in watching Gates open up since she joined the team.
“I just enjoy the opportunities to have conversations with her … she’s really smart, really funny,” Sealy said. “It’s nice watching her coming out of her shell, and just become more confident and more comfortable in her own skin.”