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Millennium moving on without two stars

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Ashley Antoniak of Millennium practices before the team’s first game on August 29. (West Valley View photo by Ray Thomas)

By Casey Pritchard

The start of the volleyball season will have a different feel for Millennium. Losing a pair of four-year starters will do that.

The Lady Tigers lost Jessica Vastine and Bailey Smith to graduation, and their 758 combined kills last year. Their departures have meant a different look to the lineup, but coach Julie Vastine is excited to see who will step up this year.

“It’s pretty difficult to replace them because they both had size and both had strong arms,” Julie Vastine said. “We have tall girls, but not with the same experience they had. It’s going to be different, but I still think it’s going to be good. I think we’re going to be able to compete well, it’s just having younger kids step into those bigger roles of leadership. That’s going to be the biggest difference for us.”

Vastine said the team works, believes in each other and is relentless in practice.

“I think we’re going to do well, it’s just going to be different,” she said. “We’re pretty good in the backcourt for defense. So, we’re going to be able to extend plays and give our hitters opportunities. I still think we’re going to compete at a high level. I’m excited about that.”

Despite the two key losses, the Lady Tigers are returning four girls who started last year. One of those is senior setter Alyssa Avitia, who is emerging as the leader of the team, Vastine said.

“She’s never had to play that role before, and she’s doing a great job,” Vastine said. “She sets the tempo and gives the ball to the hitters well. She knows who’s on and who’s off. I think she mixes up our offense well and runs a pretty good tempo.”

Avitia had 623 assists last year.

Junior Nicole Hoff is the libero. She led the team with 620 digs last year.

“She has very good ball control and court awareness,” Vastine said. “She extends a lot of plays for us defensively, she’s a great serve receiver. She’s our bread and butter in the back row. She keeps us alive.”

Terayah Stukes and Ashley Antoniak return the most experience in the front row. Stukes, a senior, had 246 kills last year, while Antoniak had 184. She’s a junior.

“She’s stepping up in an outside hitter role, which is going to be a little bit newer for her, but I’m excited to see what she’s going to bring to the table,” Vastine said.

Stukes is very athletic and very versatile, Vastine said. Stukes led the team with 47 aces last year, and had the second most digs with 328.

“She can pretty much do anything I ask her to do,” Vastine said. “Even though she’s 5-6, she plays much bigger than a 5-6 player. I expect her to have a really good year.”

In addition to the four returning starters, a few other girls have stepped up that had lesser roles last year. Two of those players are juniors Sedona Sherman and Rylee Johnson, who are middle blockers.

“They did some great development over the club season,” Vastine said.

Another emerging player is Hannah Waters. She was a freshman on the JV team last year, and will be another setter with Avitia.

Millennium opened the season Tuesday against Mesa. The result was unavailable at press time. The Lady Tigers play in their first of three tournaments starting Friday when they compete in the two-day Barry Goldwater Volleyball Festival. Millennium is the back-to-back defending champion of that event.

“The girls really want to go back and defend our title,” Vastine said.

Millennium is also playing in the Tournament of Champions, which is hosted by four East Valley schools September 22-23, and the Nike Tournament of Champions at the Salvation Army KROC Center September 29-30.

“It will be some really good experience,” Vastine said of the tournaments. “The Nike tournament is going to bring in some top teams in the country, and the (Tournament of Champions) usually fields top teams in the state, so we’re looking forward to that.”

The Lady Tigers’ team goal this year is to win region, which they’ve done each of the three years Vastine has coached, and get into the top half of the 6A state tournament bracket so they can host a playoff game. Vastine said she thinks her team, despite losing the two big stars, has the potential to accomplish those goals.

“We’re pretty solid in the backcourt, and I have girls that can play,” Vastine said. “I don’t see us having any big weaknesses, or anything that’s going to be glaring, but I have solid kids that know how to play volleyball, so I’m pretty excited to see this new group roll out this year.”

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