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The Amanda Gates Story is your classic Nebraska success story.
“She just came out of nowhere, worked as hard as you can possibly work and became this year’s Female Student-Athlete of the Year – one of the best success stories we’ve ever had here,” said Dennis Leblanc, Nebraska’s senior associate athletic director for academics.
“Amanda represents everything good about Nebraska. She has that intense focus and blue-collar work ethic that exemplifies so many middle-class families in this state,” Leblanc said. “She has a never-give-up attitude, a selfless team spirit and an unbelievable passion to excel both athletically and academically. To top it off, she’s shown incredible humility no matter how many individual honors came her way, including the first-team academic All-America honor or the NCAA Postgraduate scholarships she received.”
Nebraska Volleyball Coach John Cook has similar praise. "Amanda is the hardest worker in our program,” he said. “In the 10 years I’ve been here, I don’t know if there’s ever been a player in our program more motivated to get on the court and compete.”
That’s what makes the Amanda Gates Story so special. She got on the court earlier than she ever imagined, becoming a last-minute freshman starter at middle blocker when top-ranked Nebraska swept fourth-ranked Hawaii, then third-ranked Stanford in front of record-setting crowds at the Qwest Center in Omaha in 2005.
“All three of our freshmen that year played in those games,” Gates recalled. “I remember thinking to myself: ‘We have four years to make an impact, and here we are, already getting the chance to play. Those games still rank as some of the most memorable moments I had at Nebraska.”
Once Tracy Stalls recovered from a knee injury that season, Gates went back to the bench as the Huskers rolled to a Big 12 championship and an NCAA runner-up finish.
Blocks Were Crucial in National Championship Season
As a sophomore, Gates made 11 starts. “We won the national championship,” she recalled. “It was a tough year for me because I was completely devastated when I lost my starting position. I felt like I had fallen, and there was no way to get back up. But I battled through the adversity. I never quit working hard, and I finally got on the court at a huge moment for the whole team.”
Gates came off the bench in the third set of Nebraska’s national championship win over second-ranked Stanford and delivered three blocks, including two that helped the Huskers overcome a 27-25 deficit. “It was humbling for me to get that very important chance,” she said. “It helped me understand why you never quit working hard every single day in practice. Getting that opportunity to make an impact is a feeling I’ll never forget.”
The experience “helped me learn the meaning of trust – the trust my coaches had in putting me in such a clutch situation, and the trust I had in my teammates and in myself,” Gates said. “That’s when I learned to trust God’s plan for me. During this struggling time in my life, my relationship with Him really grew. I can thank athletics for showing me more about God’s power and love.”
As a sophomore, “I had to give up my sense of self for the greater good,” Gates said. “I learned what it meant to be a giver, to make sacrifices. That season was my bumpiest ride, and I had so many doubts about my ability that I wanted to quit. But I never let myself give in because I knew I had to keep working hard and trust God’s plan for me. It wasn’t easy, but I knew I had to fight.”
Gates credits Nebraska Athletic Director Tom Osborne for the words that helped get her through a junior season on the bench as the backup for Stalls and Kori Cooper at middle blocker.
The 2007 team may have been Nebraska’s most talented group ever, but it was the only team in Gates’ four years that did not reach the final four of the NCAA Tournament.
“I remember Coach Osborne coming and talking to our team, and I was able to take his words and apply them to my hardships and struggles,” Gates said. “He explained that we have three choices when we’re faced with obstacles, struggles or setbacks. We can quit. We can blame others. Or we can take the situation and embrace it and learn from our actions.”
Disappointments Only Made Her Fight Harder
Gates remembers thinking how easy it would have been to blame others for her lack of playing time or for an attitude that had become less than inspiring. “I could have stopped working, even quit,” she said. “However, because of everything we’d all been through, I found myself fighting harder than ever to get the results I wanted and the results we wanted as a team.”
Because her playing time was drastically cut, Gates concentrated more than ever on her performance in the classroom. “I was heart-broken when I didn’t receive an important academic honor that most of my teammates had received my junior season,” she said. “Only later did I realize that I needed two more appearances on the court to quality for the award.”
Cook and his coaching staff helped Gates understand the concepts of self-worth and recognition. “They explained to me that awards and praise do not determine self-worth,” she said. “They told me I had so much to offer that no award could reflect my worth to the team.”
It was one of the biggest lessons Amanda Gates learned in college. “It made me thankful for what I had to offer and made me realize that I didn’t need other people to tell me how great I was,” she said. “My confidence grew from that basic understanding. Awards are nice, but no one should get wrapped up in them. When you evaluate yourself and your performance on the basis of awards, you operate with the wrong intentions.
“When your best isn’t award-winning, you still need to keep maxing out your own potential,” she said. “Giving 100 percent every day is more meaningful than anything else you can do. Awards will never define me or reflect what I’m worth. Nobody remembers a plaque or a piece of paper in the years to come. They remember you for your character, your personality – for who you are and what you have to offer.”
An amazing thing happened in Gates’ first three years of relative obscurity in Division I athletics. She and two fellow seniors decided that there would be only two words that would describe how their Nebraska volleyball experience would end – belief and love.
“Before our last season began, we realized that the best kind of leadership we could bring was to be ourselves,” Gates said.
Seniors Agreed Leadership Needed to be Authentic
Jordan Larson, Rachel Schwartz and Amanda Gates made a mutual vow to be one thing in their final season in a Husker uniform. “We all realized we had to be authentic,” Gates said. “Being true to yourself allows you to be a real person to the people you’re trying to lead. We all believed that if we each brought our own unique characteristics to our team, our teammates would follow. Through our own trials and tribulations, we were convinced that the best leaders are constantly being formed and shaped through our own experiences.”
Belief and love became the mantra for the team and the theme for the season. “We believed in our coaches and our teammates, and we all loved each other and trusted each other,” Gates said. “We knew our last season brought a lot of doubt. So many thought our team wouldn’t succeed because we’d experienced so many setbacks and lost so much talent.”
Cook and his staff were at their motivational best when expectations were at their uncharacteristic worst. Perennial champions of the Big Eight and Big 12 Conferences, Nebraska was virtually no one’s choice to win another championship in 2008.
No one, that is, except a coaching staff and a group of players who bonded perhaps like no other team in Nebraska volleyball history.
“Our team believed we could do the unexpected. We set our minds to achieving the ultimate,” Gates said. “We were determined to reach our goals, even though people felt we could never do it. We believed in each other. We supported each other. We loved the journey, but, more importantly, we loved each other. Operating out of love and belief gave us the intangibles that made our team special.”
Belief fuels a burning passion to dream the impossible dream, but “I learned that love is the greatest motivator in life,” Gates said. “The power of love allows amazing things to happen. It turns dreams into reality.”
Nebraska didn’t win a national championship last December, but the Huskers won the respect of their home state and the admiration of volleyball fans across the country when they pushed unbeaten national champion Penn State to the brink in a classic NCAA semifinal before a packed house in Omaha and a national television audience.
Osborne Thought Effort Was Championship Caliber
Osborne was just as proud of the Huskers in losing to Penn State as he would have been with a win. “I think every Nebraskan was just as proud of their skill and their effort as I was,” he said.
Gates, who had worked part time in Osborne’s office while representing the volleyball program on Nebraska’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, will forever cherish that opportunity.
“The most memorable moment we experienced as a team was being down 2-0 to Washington and down 9-3 in the fifth set, but coming back to win the Seattle regional,” Gates said, admitting she’d like to think the effort matched some of Osborne’s fondest football memories.
Not surprisingly, Gates – a first-team Academic All-American and team captain in 2008, the Husker Power Lifter of the Year in 2007, eight-time Big 12 Commissioner’s Academic Honor Roll recipient and four-time Big 12 champion – continues to set goals for herself after playing professional volleyball for nine weeks in Spain.
She will work Nebraska’s summer volleyball camps and also work camps in Hastings, York, Oxford, Shelby and in her hometown of Columbus.
This fall, she will complete the final nine hours of her bachelor’s degree, then use her NCAA post-graduate scholarships to earn a master’s degree.
That should put her in position to pursue her next dream. “My career goal is to advance into athletic administration,” she said. “I’d like to develop the leadership skills to be a senior women’s administrator or maybe even an athletic director.”
Few would doubt that Amanda Gates has the skills to impact the lives of aspiring student-athletes.“She truly is one of the best success stories we’ve ever had here,” Leblanc said. “She’s proven that she can do pretty much what she sets her mind to do.”
Count on belief and love being part of her formula to succeed. “I’ve had a once-in-a-lifetime experience here at Nebraska,” she said. “If I’ve learned one thing about opportunities and relationships, it’s this – give your best every day and don’t ever settle for anything less.”
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