If Jordan Miller could rub her eyes (and it's 2020 so she really shouldn't) Nov. 21 she might have thought she was still playing on the 2018 Millennium team.
During its 5A state volleyball final Saturday afternoon, #4 Millennium (17-1) played at the level of that 45-1 nationally-ranked 2018 state champion - and Miller is the only remaining rotation player from that squad. The Tigers regained the 5A crown in a dominant sweep.
"We heard a lot of people, like refs and other people say, 'You're not even close to that team. You don't have the talent.' I would think, 'Are we speaking the same language?' We just had to put the pieces together. We have young kids," Millennium coach Julie Vastine said. "Finally it started coming together at the end, which is the goal, right?"
Millennium avenged its lone regular-season loss in beating #7 Cave Creek Cactus Shadows (15-5) 25-22, 25-17, 25-20 at Mesquite High School in Gilbert.
It also erased any memories of the 2019 5A final loss to Sunnyslope 16-14 in the fifth set.
"This team has done astounding things. Our motto going into the year was, 'When we play together, we have the ability to move mountains. We moved mountains tonight," Miller said.
Vastine's team played at full throttle in the final, with sophomore outside hitter Eryn Jones leading the way. She blasted eight kills in the opening set - which was the most competitive.
Cactus Shadows sophomore middle blocker Kamryn Gibadlo and senior outside hitter Lauren Wamsley hit back-to-back kills to draw the Falcons within 22-21. But a back-row kill from Jones and a follow-up bomb from Miller put the set away.
"The energy is what did it. When you're in a group of girls that just constantly feeds off each other, the energy is unlike no other. It really helps you be on your game no matter who is on the court with you," Jones said.
Millennium sophomore outside hitter Eryn Jones (12) celebrates a point against Cactus Shadows during the 5A state championship volleyball match on Saturday Nov. 21, 2020 at Mesquite High School in Gilbert. [Ralph Freso/For West Valley Preps]
The Falcons took a quick 9-6 lead in the second set. But with Jones and Miller already humming, senior middle blocker Olivia Flanagan joined the fray with a kill.
Then Flanagan served four straight Tigers points, finishing off the mini-run with two of her match-high five aces.
"We got lucky in that this was our second chance against this team. It gave us a little extra motivation. We knew we were a different team from that first time," Flanagan said. "We work on serving almost every day at practice. The emotion that feeds off an ace goes into the enxt serve."
With the set tied at 13, Miller stepped up to close it. She hit four kills and one ace in the final 12 points.
Fellow senior Calli Johnson closed the set with an ace.
"Their serve-receive was good, which meant they were able to stay in system and we had to guess a lot," first-year Cactus Shadows coach Chris Brown said. "When Eryn goes in the back row you have Jordan coming up. They were just on a different level today."
After the Tigers broke out to a 5-0 third-set lead, the Falcons - led by Wamsley's four kills - stormed back to tie it at 7.
Cactus Shadows battled to stay alive for most of the set and were tied as late as 17-all.
"We want to be solid on defense and give ourselves extended opportunities, and that's what the girls did. Defensively, we battled as much as we could but when you have a team on that side with multiple ways to score, it keeps you on your heels," Brown said.
Flanagan served two more aces and Millennium was in the clear. Junior setter Bianca Perez pushed the lead to 21-17 with a dump - fake set and over on the second hit.
Fittingly, Jones and Miller brought it home scoring on three of their team's final four points. Jones finished with a match-high 16 kills, while Miller added 13.
And both Tigers' bombers hit two kills from the back row. Rather than an occasional change up, Millennium can set up a back row attacker as a regular feature of its offense.
"Being able to have someone in the front who can put the ball away and someone in the back who can put the ball away - and when we rotate the same thing - allows the person in the front row to have a different outlet," Miller said. "It helps Bianca."
Millennium's Bianca Perez (5) celebrates with teammates Eryn Jones, left, Calli Johnson (7), Olivia Pavelchik (4) and Olivia Flanagan (11) after a point against Cactus Shadows during the 5A state championship volleyball match on Saturday Nov. 21, 2020. (Ralph Freso/For West Valley Preps)
Flanagan added five kills in the final two sets.
More than the sheer amount of kills in those situations, what made Millennium hum in this year's final was, as Brown said, its unpredictability. Vastine created Perez for mixing up her set distribution between the outside hitters, back row bombs and middles.
"We do take our time to practice setting to the back, so that we can use it when we need to. We've probably used it more lately than we normally do because it diversifies our offense," Vastine said. "Bianca is a very smart kid. She knows the game and understands how to get hitters isolated with a one-on-one situation. She's really good at that. We'll have conversations about it, but a lot of it is initiated on her own because she's such a student of the game."
Senior libero Jocelyn Chaves-Rivas became the starter as Johnson missed the first 11 matches of the year with an injury. She marshalled the back row defense and Cactus Shadows never went on a run of more than four consecutive points all night.
Mix in the contributions of senior right side Annabella Blowers and sophomore middle blocker Olivia Pavelchick and the result was Millennium's most complete performance of the season - at the perfect time.
"It was incredible. I know how much each and every one of those girls wanted it. We wanted it for our freshmen, our seniors - for everyone," Jones said. "Jocelyn played a big part. Whenever there's a big defensive play, we're going to get this kill for her. She put herself in the way of that ball."