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Young Lions get on-the-job training

Millennium Charter Academy’s volleyball team went from flying high to a trial by fire in a matter of days, but the young Lions squad still has high hopes for the 2021-22 season.

This school year marks Millennium’s second as a member of the N.C. High School Athletic Association (NCHSAA) and its first as a member of the Northwest Piedmont 1A Conference. The school spent years building a program in the Carolina Athletic Association for Schools of Choice (CAASC) and was ready to make a huge leap this year.

The Lions core is young, but most of the players already have varsity experience. This year’s team has one senior, two juniors, six sophomores and one freshman.

The team made an immediate impact in its opening match at South Stokes on August 16.

“We went to South Stokes and took the first set 25-23 and I know they were asking ‘where did this Millennium come from’ and it felt great,” said Millennium coach Angie Cullen.

Despite losing the overall match 3-1, Millennium kept the game competitive throughout – something that would’ve been unheard of just a few years ago.

The Lions went back home for its next two matches. The first match of a back-to-back was held August 19 against Triad Baptist Christian Academy, which Millennium won 3-1 (25-22, 25-19, 21-25, 25-19).

The next night, Millennium defeated Woodland Baptist Christian 3-0 (25-20, 25-16, 25-12).

“We were on fire,” Cullen said. “All of us felt like this really was our year, then we had a bit of a setback.”

The Lions’ setback that Cullen referenced happened against South Stokes on August 26. Millennium was already down one player before the match started, then another three were injured during the match against the Sauras. Despite the loss of four players, MCA kept it close but lost in three sets (15-25, 20-25, 18-25).

“They fought really hard that night when players were out,” Cullen said. “And we had kids playing positions they weren’t used to. I’m really proud of them for stepping up. We worked and worked in this program and we have almost all the pieces of the puzzle and were so close.”

The injuries were more than minor scrapes and bruises, and this left Millennium with just six players. The season continued the next week with home matches against Winston-Salem Christian and Bishop McGuinness.

Millennium battled for five sets against WSC. The Lions won the first set 26-24, dropped the next two 25-27 and 24-26, but won the fourth set 25-17. Winston-Salem Christian took the final set 7-15 to win the match.

“We’ve always competed really well with them,” Cullen said. “We did take them to five sets, but our girls were just so tired by the time that fifth set came around.”

Next up was MCA’s first conference match against Bishop McGuinness.

“They did well against Bishop,” Cullen said. “They worked really hard, but that was a hard team to play with only six players and no libero.”

Bishop McGuinness was the preseason favorite to win the NWP Conference. The Villains spent most of last season ranked No. 1 in the state by MaxPreps and reached the 1A West Regional Final. Bishop defeated Millennium 3-0 with set scores of 25-19, 25-12 and 25-9.

Despite the obstacles Millennium has faced in the first few weeks of the season, Cullen remains hopeful for the rest of the season.

“I have to tell you, I’ve really asked the group of kids we have right now to step out of their comfort zone,” Cullen said. “They’re working really, really hard and giving it their all. We’ve got girls that are relatively new to volleyball, and other that are playing all new positions – like a libero having to play outside hitter – but I’m so proud of all the work they’re putting in.”

Cullen likened the Lions’ situation to on-the-job training. They may have been thrown into the deep end, but she believes the experience her players are getting will be invaluable in the long run.

As for when her injured players will return, Cullen said there is a lot of question marks.

“These kids have fought for years and they deserve a chance to play, so I really hope they can get healthy and come back,” Cullen said. “We’re going to move forward doing the absolute best we can and I think it’ll pay off. I think the new conference we’re in is a good one for us.“

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