West Valley Preps
GOODYEAR – In the end, the 2018 Centennial volleyball team had nothing left to give against its latest elite foe.
Goodyear Millennium closed out the fourth set of Thursday’s 5A playoff quarterfinal match with six of the final seven points. That run clinched a 25-21, 25-23, 17-25, 25-16 victory for the Tigers.
The Coyotes did not make it easy, extending points with their scurrying defense only to watch Millennium do the same thing on its side of the net.
No. 2 Millennium just had a little bit more of everything, from defensive saves to attacking options. This juggernaut is now 43-1 on the season and entered the week at No. 5 nationally in the MaxPreps Xcellent 25 poll – the one put together by humans.
“They play defense in both spots, at the net and behind the block. They’re tough,” Centennial coach Cari Bauer said. “We settled down good and gave ourselves a chance. It just sucks. I feel bad for my kids.”
Millennium can’t catch a break in Arizona. Despite being undefeated against in-state teams, they lost out on the number one seed because defending champion Phoenix Sunnyslope also was undefeated in the regular season and played in a tougher region with Centennial and Sunrise Mountain.
Now they will play Monday’s semifinal at the already selected “neutral” site of Campo Verde High School in Gilbert. Their opponent? Naturally, No. 3 Campo Verde (26-16).
And Tigers head coach Julie Vastine still is shocked that Centennial (20-12) was the No. 7 seed. She considered the 2016 state champion and 2017 semifinals Coyotes one of the best teams in the draw.
“Centennial, I couldn’t believe they were a seven seed. They’re not a seven seed. When I looked at our bracket, I was like, ‘Whoo. We’ve got a really hard bracket,'” Vastine said. “I knew they were going to come in here and give us everything they had, and they did.”
Centennial proved tough to shake, taking a 16-15 lead in the first set. University of the Pacific-bound middle blocker Sedona Sherman finished the first set with a block and a tip.
In the second set, both teams had to bring out the heavy artillery to score as kills – at least in most other matches – were erased by some elite-level defense.
Millennium senior Ashley Antoniak (committed to Seattle Pacific) led the way with five second-set kills while senior Makaya Middleton added three kills.
Centennial junior outside hitter Ashley Lifgren and senior middle blocker Taleah Cooper nearly led a comeback. Lifgren posted six kills in the set while Cooper contributed four kills and a block.
“Ashley Lifgren is sicker than a dog. I’m so proud of her,” Bauer said. “They didn’t want the season to end. At some point as a coach you have to keep them in the moment because they want to win so bad.”
More seniors made sure this proud program would not be swept from the playoffs. Senior libero Ashley Lopezlira served two aces to build an 8-2 lead in the third set.
When Millennium crept close, three Sommer Kasney kills essentially put the set away. Lifgren added seven more kills.
Junior setter Kacey Stewart served two aces and sophomore outside hitter Kennedy Farley closed the third set with a block.
“I was very proud of how we came out in the third set. We didn’t lose those first two sets by a lot. That can take the sail out of you but I was very proud of how we came out in the third set. We forced them to make some mistakes,” Bauer said.
Millennium redoubled its efforts, taking an 8-4 fourth-set lead on an emphatic kill by senior middle blocker Rylee Johnson. Kasney drew the Coyotes withing one at 9-8.
But that’s as close as the visitors would get. The Tigers got contributions from nearly every player on the court, as Antoniak, Johnson, Middleton and sophomore right side Jordan Miller took turns offensively.
Vastine said following a month of easy wins without losing a set, her senior-dominated team needed to be pushed like this.
“It’s been a while. I was looking forward to it. Most of our region wasn’t like the competition we knew we’d face in state,” Vastine said. “We rely on our defense quite a bit. They give us extra opportunities to score. They know the areas they need to cover and there’s a lot of trust between all of them and they’re willing to lay it on the line.”
Bauer teared up thinking about her own seniors.
Cooper, Kasney, Lopezlira, Halle Finn, Josette Garcia, Kailee Foster, Mariah Montoya and Olivia Dow not only left their mark on the court.
They had just finished their freshman year when the program was looking for a head coach. After then-athletic director Brett Palmer announced his intent to hire prominent Valley club coach Chad Speer, the newcomers joined the community and alumni in vouching for longtime assistant Bauer.
The Peoria Unified School District board became involved and chose Bauer for the role in spring 2016.
“They went to bat for me. They’re a special group. They bought in right away, and we don’t win that title without them. On and off the court, they’re the kind of people I want in my corner,” Bauer said.