Millennium volleyball comes achingly close to repeat title

Sunnyslope scores nine of final 10 points in miraculous 5th set comeback


TEMPE — Millennium volleyball had scuffled all night but was a mere two points away from a second straight 5A state title.

About five minutes later the Tigers could only watch in shock as Phoenix Sunnyslope celebrated a comeback of the ages. The Vikings erased a 13-7 fifth-set deficit, fended off a match point and scored two more points to win their ninth championship.

The rematch of the calmer 2018 5A final on the Arizona State University campus (in renamed Desert Financial Arena) featured violent momentum swings. And veteran Sunnylope coach Amber LeTarte even thought her team's 14-25, 25-21, 25-18, 14-25, 16-14 win was out of reach.

"I was looking at the score going, 'Dang it. We're done.' Our girls never gave up. And it was unreal. In the state championship game, to be down that much and come back, you don't see that very often,"  LeTarte said. "At 13-7 we didn't look like we had fight in us. And they were on, and everything was clicking. That's hard to do."

The coach's youngest daughter, Blayke, added to the storybook feel in her final high school match. The Vikings picked up a side out, but still trailed 13-8 before LeTarte's serve led included one ace and resulted in five straight points.

Junior middle blocker Michelle Jung tied the decisive set at 13 with a kill.

"(Blayke) has always been such a consistent server. I was confident in her getting over some aggressive serves. She hit them in the right areas and the defense was backing them up. It was beautiful," LeTarte said. "And of course this is our last kid out on the court, the last time we'll ever see her play here. It was sweet. I love being around these girls. This is such a tight-knit team."

Sunnyslope's next attack sailed long and Millennium (35-9) served for the trophy. Junior right side Avery Kronholm's block tied the set at 14.

A hitting error and a kill attempt off the left pin left Millennium players with a numb feeling.

"Right now it's hard for them to lock back and realize what they did to get back here. It's hard to get back to the finals," Millennium coach Julie Vastine said. "I think in a few days, maybe a week or so they'll look back and understand. Right now it stings. We weren't able to put enough positive plays together at the end, and Sunnyslope did. They're a great team."

It was toughest for junior outside hitter Jordan Miller, whose final attack bounced off the net and pin. But an uncharacteristically inconsistent Tigers team would not have been in position to win without its best attacker.

After her team staggered through the middle sets, Miller took over. Her seven kills defined the fourth set.

Then she built Millennium's fifth-set lead with five kills in the Tigers' first seven points.

"The fourth set we controlled things better. We were aggressive on  serves and aggressive at the net, particularly Jordan," Vastine said. "Those last couple of points we remained aggressive at the net and it just didn't work out."

Miller and junior middle blocker Olivia Flanagan helped snap the top seed out of a two-set funk. The defending champs crused 25-14 in the opening set but quickly learned another sweep of Sunnyslope was not in the offing.

Sophomore Laylah Daniel led the way with two kills and an ace, but Sunnyslope (28-12) was content to let Millennium make its own mistakes.

"In the second and third set we definitely did not control the tempo," Vastine said. 

Third set statistics showed the Vikings with one block. But the ability of their front wall to deflect the Tigers' attack up and back effectively neutralized a Millennium offense that had hummed throughout the playoffs.

Daniel added four kills and the underdog sixth seed never was threatened in the third set.

This team has battled back all season, since losing senior captain Maddie Shepston to a preseason injury.

"We've battled ups and downs all season so for them to get into the state and get past Horizon (in the quarterfinals) that was huge. That's when it became real," LeTarte said. "In the second and third set, we kept getting touches off the block. We've been working on that all week."

It was the Vikings fifth title in 5A/Division II since moving up in 2011. The program picked up four more in 4A under LeTarte's direction between 2006 and 2010.

Now this growing old school in central Phoenix moves up to 6A. Unfortunately for the rest of 5A, Millennium will not.

With Canyon View High continuing to grow nearby, Millennium's enrollment stabilized on the high end of 5A. And a quick glance at the Tigers' roster portends a return to a third straight state final.

Of the 11 players to play in Tuesday's final, only four are seniors. Miller and Flanagan are back, along with freshman outside hitter Eryn Jones, junior libero Calli Johnson and sophomore setter Bianca Perez.

Junior middle blocker Vivian Pham missed the finals with a leg  injury but had rotated in with senior Amberly Blowers for most of the season.

"I told them life is about a collection of experiences and what you do with those experiences the next time you're there," Vastine said. "We're kinda young and have a lot of kids that have not been here before. So it's positive going forward that they know what it feels like to  be on the big stage."

Blowers and her younger sister Annabella moved in from Mississippi in the offseason.

Amberly and six fellow seniors made sure the program did not slip after watching six college-level players graduate. Seniors Hannah and Kylie Waters and Kaylee LoPresto played their final match for Millennium Tuesday night.

"They learned from the previous girls the legacy that we're not going to give up. Every year my seniors leave that behind and it's up to the juniors to pick it up," Vastine said. "Probably the last six years, that torch has been passed. You can't ask for anything more as a coach. They had the desire to work hard and left a legacy with this program."