Millennium volleyball overwhelms Centennial for return to finals


GOODYEAR — Millennium girls volleyball made sure not to give Centennial an opportunity to dig deep for a comeback in the 5A state semifinal Nov. 9.

The Tigers saw the Coyotes making a run in the second and third sets and shut both down to win in straight sets (25-13, 25-20, 25-19).

That sets up a 5A state final rematch at 5:30 Tuesday night at Desert Financial Arena on the ASU campus. But top-seed Millennium (35-8) is a vastly different team than the one that beat No. 6 Phoenix Sunnyslope (27-12) a year ago.

"They had a lot of pressure coming in from outside sources asking, 'Can you do what they did last year.' That's been our goal all year, we are a new group and we are different than we were last year," Millennium coach Julie Vastine said.

Junior outside hitter Jordan Miller, senior setter Hannah Waters, senior defensive specialist Kylie Waters and senior right side Kaylee LoPresto were the only returning rotation players. And all played secondary roles to the Tighers' dominant 2019 class.

While this group may not be 45-1, it is peaking at the right time. In sweeping Centennial in the playoffs, the 2019 Tigers accomplished something the 2018 team could not — Millennium beat Centennial in four sets in last year's quarterfinals.

"There are times when our intensity lacks. We're not always consistent but we've gotten better at it as the season has gone along. They know at this point they have no choice but to play their very best," Vastine said.

The home team was missing injured junior middle blocker Vivian Pham. But unlike the teams' first meeting in September, Avondale Agua Fria transfer Olivia Flanagan was eligible.

Flanagan finished the match with eight kills and three total blocks.

"They have a different middle that was playing and their outsides were playing in the back row, which I think helped them offensively too. We couldn't get comfortable with just their front row. They were definitely a faster team too. We gave them free balls and had a lot of unforced errors," Centennial coach Cari Bauer said.

Those outside hitters, junior Jordan Miller (16 kills) and freshman Eryn Jones (14 kills), simply took over the match.

Jones has started from her first match with the Tigers and is only getting stronger  in the playoffs. She had 14 kills in the four-set quarterfinal win against Buckeye Verrado.

"We put a lot of pressure on her and she came through. She shined in the big moments. She's very versatile and loves to complete and she's a team player," Vastine said.

While the Coyotes had their full eight-player rotation available, only about half the players were close to full strength. Seniors Ashley Lifgren and Nyjha Marcelin played on badly sprained ankles  while junior Kennedy Farley had a broken wrist.

The Coyotes hobbled through five-set wars with Marana and Sunrise Mountain earlier in the week and did not appear to have much fuel left.

"It's hard because you can't practice with a lot of intensity when you're trying tmifinal  get healthy. When we go to five sets Tuesday and Thursday, the kids are out of gas. It definitely changed our mindset of how we could prepare physically," Bauer said. "But I'm so proud of them. You wouldn't know they were hurt. Those kids rose up and never used an excuse."

The coach said she'll miss this class, which came in the same season Bauer was chosen head coach  and the Coyotes won the 5A title.

Lifgren and Marcelin started. Setter Kacey Stewart came up her sophomore year  while libero Diana Lozano  and right side Trinity Weidinger moved into the starting lineup this season.

"They put the team first always. They are such great role models for the two freshmen we have right now. We have so many injuries because of the way we play. We're relentless," Bauer said. "Ashley id duct-taped together head to toe. They are special kids, great teammates who made my job easy. It's going to be fun to watch them play at the next level."

Freshman middle blocker Raeli Smith and freshman defensive specialist Kira Federico were on the court during some big moments.

But Bauer doesn't sugar coat how difficult of a transition year looms. 

"The two freshmen got on the court a lot. It's going to be a different look, 100 percent. You can't take those kids with you.  But those new kids will rise up because of their role models,"