In all four seasons since moving down to the 5A conference, Millennium volleyball earned a trip to the state final.
The fourth trip, clinched Nov. 11, was by far the most difficult. In each of the previous three years the Tigers lost one set total en route to state.
In the 2021 semifinal at Millennium, visiting Gilbert took the first set and thorougly dominated the fourth. But #2 seed stopped their momentum cold, as sophomore Anne Brauckmiller hit six kills in the fifth set of the 21-25, 25-15, 25-19, 15-25, 15-8 victory.
"We just needed to keep them on their toes and exposed. We needed to get them out of their system and get the ball back so we could put it away," Brauckmiller said. "Every time we play Gilbert it's really intense and a good match. It was intense when we played them at their place earlier."
The youngest of these four Millennium finalists will play for the title at 5 p.m. Saturday in Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum, 1826 W. McDowell Road, Phoenix. And the 34-7 will be decided underdogs for the first time against top seed Scottsdale Horizon (37-5).
The junior- and senior-filled Huskies dominated the Tigers 25-20, 25-19, 25-18 in their regular season match Sept. 2. But that was only the second match of the season for both teams.
"It makes me proud that the kids buy into our program and believe in each other. It doesn't take much for me to have to coach them. They intrinsically want to get out there and get better," Millennium coach Julie Vastine said. "It's a totally different team. We played Horizon the first week of the season. Morgan (Stewart) wasn't playing and the new players didn't really know their roles. We didn't really have a set lineup because we were still figuring things out."
At times Thursday night, it looked like Millennium would not get a second crack at Horizon. Gilbert fell behind 12-6 in the first set, largely because of its night-long problem of long serves out of bounds.
The Tigers from the East Valley hit their way back into command. Junior middle blocker Sydney Mahon hit five kills in Gilbert's comeback (a match high 16 kills overall) and she had support from senior outside hitter Naia Stewart junior outside hitter Becca King.
While Gilbert ended the first set with a 14-6 run, Millennium almost immediately took command of the second set, grabbing an 8-3 lead and holding it throughout.
Brauckmiller and freshman Sa'mya Dorsey each had three kills in Millennium's easiest set.
"We dealt with COVID, concussions and injuries. It was only in the last week that we had a full lineup for practices," Vastine said. "I'm really proud of them for rallying together. The leadership on our team and the young kids believing in our leadership makes it work."
But the home Tigers would not have survived for set five if they did not wipe out a 9-4 deficit in the third set. Millennium tied the game at 12, then 15.
Senior libero Morgan Stewart kept a rally going at 16-15 Millennium, running nearly the length of her side to get a ball. Brauckmiller eventually put the point away for 17-15 and Gilbert could not get closer the rest of the set.
"Sometimes if you can win a long rally it takes the wind out of the other team's sails and then they start changing what they do. It makes their hitters change when you can stop on a long rally like that," Vastine said. "It comes down to serving our passing."
The first half if the fourth set was back and forth until junior Eryn Jones' kill made it 15-14 Gilbert. Millennium only scored one more point the rest of the set.
Jones established a fifth-set lead Millennium would never surrender with kills on the first two points.
Brauckmiller took over from there offensively and built her team's lead to 10-3. The closest Gilbert got after that was 13-8.
"We just needed to redirect our energy and make it more positive, support each other," Brauckmiller said.
Jones, senior setter Bianca Perez and to a lesser extent junior middle blocker Olivia Pavelchik are the only rotation players back from Millennium's 2020 5A state final victory over Cave Creek Cactus Shadows.
Brauckmiller, Dorsey, sophomore Talea Mitchell and Stewart are among the newcomers looking to add to the program's legacy Saturday.
"It feels great knowing these girls have been there and I can be a part of it this year. I hope we can continue it," Brauckmiller said.
#WestValleyPreps Gilbert fought back but @MillenniumVball is heading to its fourth straight 5A state title match with this block 15-8, 3-2 overall. Sophomore Anne Brauckmiller 6 kills in the set. Eryn Jones 3 kills, an ace and 6 points on her serve pic.twitter.com/eFOyI5NYnv— Richard Smith (@RsmithYWV) November 12, 2021
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