The Hamilton High girls’ volleyball team had already beaten Xavier Prep twice during the regular season. But the Gators stepped up when it mattered most to turn the tables and clear the path to a second consecutive 6A state championship.
Xavier dropped its first two matches during the season to Hamilton, the No. 3 seed in the state tournament, by just a single set. But when the two teams met up in the semifinals, Xavier left no room for failure, sweeping the Huskies in three straight sets to earn a shot at Corona de Sol High School in Wednesday’s final.
The No. 2-seeded Gators held off Hamilton in the first set to claim a slim 25-22 victory, then took control in the last two sets with 25-20 and 25-18 decisions. That set up a showdown with No. 4 Corona, which had just upset top-seeded Perry High School to get to the finals.
But for Corona, the championship game was just a repeat of last year’s nightmare. Last season, the Gators beat Corona twice in the regular season and then took four sets to keep the Aztecs from back-to-back title wins. Again this year, Xavier beat Corona both times they met in the regular season, but didn’t need a fourth set to earn the state championship.
The second straight title loss to Xavier was particularly frustrating for the Aztecs, who won the 6A title in 2016, its first in 25 years. Xavier has blocked its path to a repeat two years straight.
On the other hand, Xavier has had little trouble with repeats over the years. The all-girls school in central Phoenix has won 13 titles in the past two decades, but it hit a four-year dry spell before taking home last year’s gold ball. Now it appears they have found their rhythm once again. Xavier head coach Lamar-Renee Bryant took over the tradition-rich program from Tim McHale in 2013 and now has added three titles of her own to the trophy case.
Xavier lost Lanie Wagner, who averaged 4.5 kills per set last season, to graduation. But there were others stepping up this season to fill that void. In the finals, it was a couple of juniors that led the offensive assault. Outside hitter Briana McKnight had 20 kills and 13 digs, while middle hitter Jasmine Knight added 12 kills.
And a couple of seniors made their final contributions before heading off to college. Setter Shannon Shields wrapped up her prep career with 40 assists and 12 digs against the Aztecs and libero Ashley Yeung led the team in digs with 17.
In the 5A finals… a newcomer crashed the party.
Millennium High School, which had never won a state title in girls’ volleyball, not only picked up its first by beating the defending champion and perennial power, Sunnyslope High, but the Goodyear school tied a state record by posting 45 wins. It’s only loss of the season came in late September when it dropped a 2-1 decision to a California school in the Nike Tournament of Champions. But it also beat five other out-of-state teams during that national tourney.
And that’s when its stock really rose and it became obvious that Millennium had to be considered a favorite to push through the remainder of the season and go on to claim its first state championship.
However, if there was going to be a team to be the first in-state program to upend the Tigers, it would likely be Sunnyslope, the top seed in the state tournament. Sunnyslope, which piled up 35 wins this season, has been a dominant force in 5A for some time. The Vikings have won seven titles over the last 11 years.
But Millennium wasn’t to be denied this year. The Tigers lost just one set in four games to claim the 2018 title.
They took early leads in the first two sets and went on to record identical 25-18 wins, and then pulled away from an 18-18 tie in the final set to wrap up a 25-19 win, and the championship.
Millennium’s Ashley Antoniak led the attack at the net with 11 kills and teammate Makaya Middleton was right behind with 10 kills. Sunnyslope was led by Jazmyn Wheeler, with 15 kills, and Michelle Jung with 13.