ROMEO – Gia Milana’s pace at this stage in her life is as fast-paced as the sport she plays.
Milana, a 6-1½ outside hitter at Romeo, is one of 10 finalists for the 2015 Miss Volleyball award presented by the Michigan Interscholastic Volleyball Coaches Association. There are those who contend she’s the favorite.
Ask Milana about the award and she’s a tad reserved, deflecting the attention given to an athlete who plays a team sport who’s under strong consideration for an individual honor.
“I try not to think about it,” she said. “Volleyball is a team thing for us. I really haven’t thought about it. I don’t think about it. I’d rather win and not think about an individual award.
“It would be the biggest honor. But I’m more focused on making my team better.”
Winning. That’s what Romeo did last season. The Bulldogs won the school’s first MHSAA title, downing Novi in five sets in the Class A Final, and this season they’re off to a 22-4 start and ranked No. 7.
This year’s team is different in many respects. For one, there are just four seniors. Not only did graduation put a premium on the amount of talent coming back, but it also left an opportunity for returning players to take over leadership roles that were so important in 2014.
“Last year at this time,” Milana said, “I feel last year’s team would crush us. We have the potential. Our transitional defense is horrible. To make another run we have to have the mentality that the ball won’t hit the floor.
“If we want to make another run we have to step up our game. One or two players can’t do it. Volleyball is a team-oriented sport.”
After spending six seasons as the junior varsity coach, Stacy Williams is in her 10th as varsity head coach. Williams played the sport at Sterling Heights High School and then Macomb Community College before she got into coaching. Williams credits former Romeo coach Bruce Udvari for nudging her into the profession. And she has nothing but gratitude to her former boss.
Williams also has nothing but praise for her star player.
“She’s a leader by example,” Williams said of Milana. “She’s 100 percent committed to every play. She has some pretty amazing attacks. The cool part of the team is, offensively, we have some real strong players. And then you have Gia. Teams will focus on Gia and it helps in a sense. People are looking at her, and it opens it up for others.”
Among the “others” are juniors Jodie Kelly and Payton Klein, and seniors Erica Labaere, and Nicole Nowack.
This season the libero position, often a strength for most teams, has been a bit of question mark for Williams. She’s used as many as five or six players. Recently, according to Milana, Nowack has shown steady play in that spot.
A back injury hampered Milana’s play at the start of last season. She missed the first 20 games and said it took a while for her to get back into the flow.
This season she hasn’t missed a beat. Through the first 25 games she had 315 kills. Even so, her role is different. Before high school and in her first three high school seasons, Milana was always the younger player facing girls older than her.
“I’m the core now,” she said. “It’s a different experience being the leader. It’s been quite a transition.
“We won states. We’re expected to win it again. We’re doing good in the transition. We know we have to work harder in practice.”
Finding her future
Milana committed to University of Maryland and plans to enroll in January. She chose Maryland because of its coach, Steve Aird, who is in his second season after serving as an assistant at Penn State.
Another reason Milana chose Maryland was its campus. College Park is a rural area, and for a girl from Romeo who spent her first 12 years on a farm, it has its attractions.
“I like the rural, pretty campuses,” she said. “I didn’t want to go to a college that was in the city, like Michigan.
“Maryland was horrible (when it was a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference). Now they’re in the Big Ten and … they’re better. I want to be a part of building a program.”
Maryland is 10-6 overall and 0-2 in the Big Ten.
Tom Markowski is a columnist and directs website coverage for the State Champs! Sports Network. He previously covered primarily high school sports for the The Detroit News from 1984-2014, focusing on the Detroit area and contributing to statewide coverage of football and basketball. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Gia Milana, 14, encourages her teammates during last season's Class A MHSAA Final against Novi. (Middle) Milana connects against Temperance Bedford during the Semifinal win.
Cadillac’s girls volleyball team is quite accustomed to getting flack from opposing teams’ student sections about their socks.
That’s not likely to continue much longer though, thanks to the Vikings’ performance on the court and major college teams becoming similarly equipped.
And their new warm-up shirts tell it all.
“My team has always worn knee socks,” said 23-year veteran Cadillac coach Michelle Brines. “So people will make fun of the team, or they’ll cheer ‘put your socks down’ and this kind of thing.
“This year we finally got shirts saying ‘Fear the Socks,’” she continued. “The knee socks were in back in the day, and we’ve always worn them.”
Now college powerhouse clubs like Texas and Nebraska wear knee socks. The Cornhuskers just went back to them last season — a year calumniating with an appearance in the national championship match. Nebraska and Texas regularly make runs to and beyond the NCAA Elite Eight.
Under Brines, Cadillac too is used to deep postseason runs including six MHSAA Semifinal appearances. The Vikings made their first appearance in the Division 2 Final last November, falling to North Branch.
Cadillac is off to a 17-3-2 start this fall preparing for Division 1 competition, as they moved into that division for this season. The Vikings haver their sites on another Big North Conference championship too as they prepare for District play in Grand Haven at the end of October. Cadillac is 4-1 in league play.
The Vikings have been led again this year by all-state middle hitter Carissa Musta. The 6-foot-4 senior is handling the pressure well. Teams celebrating a block of Musta’s hit are quickly shaken off, according to Brines.
“It’s got to be tough when somebody gets all crazy because they just blocked you, but Carissa is very composed,” Brines said. “She never comes off the floor.
“She’s pretty darn good in the back row,” Brines continued. “I am very impressed with her growth and composure.”
Musta topped the 1,000-kill mark earlier this season and became the school’s career leader in blocks this week in a three-set win over Petoskey.
Senior Makenzie Johns, a 6-1 outside hitter, is also an offensive powerhouse for the Vikings. Senior setter Cassie Jenema comes through regularly with kills in addition to her strong defense and serving.
“We have 11 players on our team, and they all play an important role,” Brines noted. “Even though we have a few that really, really stand out, we are not going to be successful if we’re not all doing our job.”
The Vikings also regularly feature three sophomores: Ari Bryant, Grace Zubak and Sophia Clough. All three were on the freshman team last year because of the team’s depth.
Cadillac shared the Big North championship last year with Traverse City Central. They both suffered home losses to each other but picked up road wins. That trend has continued this year as Central handed Cadillac its lone league loss in five sets on the Vikings’ court. They will play again Oct. 4 in Traverse City.
Brines is pleased with her team’s progress at midseason. The Vikings host Alpena on Wednesday and then battle in the Portage Invitational.
“I have never had a season moving people around as much as I have,” Brines said. “I expect to see a lot of growth out of my team as we go into the second half of the season.”
Brines hopes the Vikings will make a run to the Final again this fall so she can become accustomed to a new routine.
“We finally broke through and won that (Friday Semifinal) night game and got to play the next day, which had never happened,” Brines recalled. “I didn’t really know what to do because usually I was going out for dinner with my team because we lost.”
The knee socks are the Vikings' signature also at the freshman and junior varsity levels. “We have all of our levels wear them — it is kind of our thing,” Brines pointed out. “When we walk in we have knee socks, people know we’re Cadillac.
“It’s kind of fun,” she continued. “I am old school.”
Crew socks are allowed in practice, however. Brines and the Vikings seriously considered getting away from their long-standing tradition.
“I used to make them wear them in practice,” Brines said. “One of my players that went on to coach some college and be a head coach herself said ‘Coach, you can’t do (stop wearing them) because that’s what you kind of always done and nobody else wears knee socks.’”
A spokesperson for Nebraska said there’s no real reason Nebraska went back to wearing long socks beyond player preference, and that it seems like that trend is coming back in volleyball.
“Very cool,” Brines said with a smile when she learned of the Cornhuskers response. “So basically, we never went out of style.”
Tom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Cadillac's McKenzie Johns unloads on an attempt during a match. (Middle) Cassie Jenema sets for a teammate during a match. (Below) Ari Bryant keeps the ball in play. (Photos by Marc Vieau/Cadillac News).