By James Hemker
This article is part of a running series The Daily sports staff will be publishing on graduating seniors.
Transforming from a bench player to one of Stanford’s most valued starters, senior middle blocker Tami Alade had a major role in ushering in one of the most dominant periods of Stanford women’s volleyball. Alade is a member of two NCAA championship teams (2016, 2018), and she was named to multiple All-America teams her senior season. A wall at the net, Alade holds multiple school blocking records including second most in a game (15) and a season (200). Her blocks per set in a season (1.87) is the highest in school history and the second highest ever recorded in the NCAA. She also holds the third-highest career hitting percentage (.399) in school history. The Daily’s James Hemker sat down with Alade to reflect on her time, both on and off the court, at Stanford.
The Stanford Daily (TSD): How did you get introduced into volleyball, and what made you decide to pursue it?
Tami Alade (TA): So I played a bunch of sports when I was younger. My family wanted to make sure we had that sort of structure in our lives, so I remember being into track and field, and soccer and a little bit of basketball just because I was so tall. I was actually pursuing soccer at a competitive club level. When I got to high school, I didn’t think I could keep doing everything that I was doing, so I quit club sports and I just played in school.
I didn’t start club volleyball until junior year, which is super late, especially if you are trying to play in college. Before I knew it, I was getting offers from different schools. Playing in college had never been something that I considered, but it offered a chance to go to a really good school. I remember going to a specific tournament, and the guy in charge of the tournament called me the day after it ended. He asked where I would go if I could choose, and I was like, “You know Stanford might be pretty nice.” The next day I got an email from the assistant coach here.
As far as why volleyball specifically, it’s one of those sports where everyone has to contribute, and I’m very much a people person. I love getting to know people at a deeper level, and volleyball is just the sport for that. I loved it when it started, and I love it even more now.
TSD: Sitting here now and looking back to those moments does it feel like a blur?
TA: There are definitely moments that stick out and [that] I’ll remember for the rest of my life, but they aren’t kidding when they say that things go quickly. I remember coming in as a freshman and I was so nervous for my first practice that I just didn’t wear socks. I went through the whole practice and didn’t realize until someone told me afterwards. From that to then winning a second national championship in December — there are moments in between, but start to finish it’s been pretty crazy.
TSD: You’ve had a pretty remarkable evolution from a bench player to a big time starter. In your first two years you played 39 sets, and the last two years you played in 226 sets. What was that transformation like?
TA: Coming in, I understood that first, I wasn’t as technically sound as other players since I started late. And second, Stanford recruits the best players in the world. We were playing with superstars and All-Americans, and I was like, “There’s no way that I could even touch the court.” So I definitely had a belief system where I just wanted to contribute as a practice player as much as I could. I felt that I simply didn’t add enough on the court to warrant being in a game.
I rode that wave for a while, but then our new coach Kevin Hambly came in, and we reached a point in our season where we would need someone to step up. There had to be a huge attitude shift from me, and Kevin sat me down and said that I needed to be more competitive and he needed me to have a different mentality about what I could do for this team. I’ve had people believe in me, but he was the first where it really hit that I could be something more than I thought.
For that preseason and the first half of junior year, it was all about working on that attitude shift and believing that there was something more for me to contribute. There was a role that needed to be filled and I was forced to step up, and Kevin really encouraged me to step into that role.
TSD: What are some of your high points and what other favorite moments have you had?
TA: Definitely the championships are moments where there are really no words to describe them, but there are also so many small moments that happen on the day to day that I really appreciate. This senior year, I wanted to remember it forever, so I made a list of different moments that really made me happy. When I looked back on it, it was filled with the smallest things from sharing inside jokes to being in the locker room with my teammates.
One game that will stick with me forever was when we played against Wisconsin in the Elite Eight during my sophomore year. We came in as the underdogs. We had had a rough season, and no one expected us to go as far as we did. We were down in sets, 2-0, and it was in front of one of the rowdiest crowds I’ve ever played in front of. It was not looking good heading into the locker room. Our senior leader Inky Ajanaku took over that locker room and really inspired us to come out and win those three sets. It showed us that we did in fact have what it takes, and it was a very tangible moment about the power of mindset.
TSD: Was it different winning the second title compared to the first one?
TA: It was in the sense that in sophomore year, we all had that underdog mentality, and we just weren’t doing great until suddenly we were. Now this past year we were just dominant throughout, and while we did have to strive to play our best, there was more comfort. We were more sure of ourselves, and we had played together more. That chemistry that was there.
TSD: What were some challenges that you had to face both on and off the court?
TA: You have a lot on your plate, even as a normal student, which I am now finding out since I don’t have to go to practice 20 hours a week anymore. I’ve found that I am just as busy as I was before. It’s a challenge knowing that you are going to miss out on some opportunities that other students will have. They don’t have practice when a really cool speaker is coming, or they do get to go on their dorm’s snow trip.
I think freshman year is especially tough because you’re never in your dorm, and you often miss out on those friend groups that are made in first quarter just because you gotta go to volleyball practice.
But at the same time, volleyball has provided me with so many opportunities. We got to go to Europe this past summer, and I got to go to four different countries that I would have never been to otherwise. Its opened so many doors for me, but it is a bit of a double-edged sword since you miss out on some of the many resources and opportunities that Stanford has.
TSD: I know athletes don’t like to talk about themselves, but if you were to try and take a serious look at yourself, what do you think made yourself stand out among other middles that have come through here?
TA: To be honest, I really don’t know, I wish I could tell you. I guess I have had incredible coaches that have invested a bunch of time in me, but I’m sure they’ve done that in other players too. I don’t think I could pinpoint one thing, but maybe it goes back to the mindset. Especially in terms of blocking, I believe that every ball I go up for should be a block, and just striving for excellence, [laughing] and … I don’t know.
TSD: Do you have any game-day superstitions?
TA: [laughing] Oh god, yeah that’s my favorite part of volleyball. Part of the superstition was that I actually couldn’t talk about it, but I’ll go through them. Our socks say “left” and “right” on them, and I would have to look at the left sock before I looked at the right sock, and then I would need to put the left one on before the right one. I did the same thing with my contacts since I have two different strength contacts. I had to see the 2.25 first before I saw the 1.75 one, and then put them in in that order.
I would delete Snapchat since I didn’t want that distraction all day. I would have to listen to a certain playlist and hear a certain song at the right time. During the national anthem, I couldn’t look at the singer until they finished singing. I couldn’t step on the court when we were getting announced before a certain point.
While we were shaking hands before the match, I would say good luck but I wouldn’t look anyone in the eyes. After the game when we would go into a circle, I would have to clap a certain amount of times. [laughing] I couldn’t eat a bagel on the day of the game. There were a bunch of others, and I realize it doesn’t make sense and it’s irrational, but it’s really not.
TSD: In your final quarter as a Stanford undergraduate, do you have an bucket list items that you want to make sure get done now that you no longer have athletic obligations?
TA: I had never ridden the Marguerite, and I finally did that, which was a big deal. I’ve never done Bay to Breakers, so I really want to do that before I graduate. I had never walked the Dish, and I did that the other day, which was really nice. I don’t like walking, but not as bad as I thought it was going to be. I really want to do a big weekend trip to Big Sur or Yosemite. I’ve also never been fountain hopping, so I want to do that as well. Those are the big ones.
TSD: Do you have a favorite place on campus that you’ll miss?
TA: I’ll miss the locker room. As weird as it sounds, it’s such a central spot in my life. I’ve had naps there. I’ve had sleepovers with teammates there because they were up until 3 a.m. studying CS. It has food. It has like half my closet there. I know it will always be available to me, and it has everything I need. For a more normal spot, I really like the McMurtry Library. It is so beautiful and just a gorgeous building.
TSD: What are your plans for the future? Do you have anything set yet?
TA: [laughing] Oh that’s everyone’s favorite question for a senior. It’s still TBD. I know I eventually want to go to medical school, so that is very much a fixed part of the plan. I know I really like kids so I say pediatrics, but people go into medical school with set ideas until they do rotations and then everything changes. I want to do a couple of gap years to explore and figure myself out a bit more. I got into a coterm here, so that is also an option, but I think I still need a break from school, so I might defer that for a year and do some community health work.
Contact James Hemker at jahemker ‘at’ stanford.edu.