Eagles enter state tournament with 'one of the top setters in the state'

Montgomery Academy senior Millie Stevenson, coach Julie Gordon confer during a timeout in the area tournament.

Is this Montgomery Academy team a different squad than the one that cruised through the competition on the way to the 2018 Class 3A state volleyball title?

It depends on who you ask.

“Actually, they’re fairly similar,” Montgomery Academy coach Julie Gordon said, “and the similarity is, there is no one dominant hitter. We’ve got multiple hitters who can score points, kill the ball or strategically place the ball and when you’ve got seven or eight players who can do that, it’s hard to defend.”

“It’s a different team from last year,” said senior setter Millie Stevenson. “Our defense, with our libero (Grace Jackson), is so much more intense. We don’t let any balls drop. Last year, we finally got (a state title), we finally got here and won but we know it’s not going to get handed to us (again). There are a couple of teams that are coming for us and they want to beat us, but this is our last year and we want to just give it all.”

The Eagles open defense of their 2018 title on Wednesday at 8 a.m. against Westminster Christian. A win in the quarterfinals would send Montgomery Academy into the semifinals at 2 p.m. against the winner of the Lexington-St. Luke’s Episcopal match, facing either the team they defeated in the 2018 state semifinals (Lexington) or the team they defeated in the 2019 South Super Regional semifinals (St. Luke’s).

The finals are set for Thursday at 8 a.m.

And if this is a different team, a lot of the credit goes to seniors Mary Gray Turner, Brooke Horne, Jackson, Stevenson, Susannah Blount, Sally Shegon and Sarah Campbell Hughes. It all starts on defense, where the backline defense of Shegon, Stevenson and Jackson, among others, keeps the ball in play.

“Me and Millie have been playing with each other since we were 12,” Jackson said, “so our relationship is very special where I know what ball she’s going to take and she knows what ball I’m going to take. That’s really important for us as a team. That’s why it makes it so smooth for us and why we’re so strong because we’ve all been playing with each other for a long time.”

On the front, there is no Kayla White or a Caroline Kirkham, the dominant hitters that piled up kills on opponents in recent years.

“When somebody scouts us, what do they stop?” Gordon said. “OK, stop her, but then there’s five other players we’re going to go to. That’s very hard to defend. Mentally, for one player not having all that pressure on their shoulders – if I don’t do it, we’re not going to win – we equally spread it out so no one player is taking that pressure on themselves.”

When it comes to setters, however, there’s only one.

“I couldn’t do without Millie,” Gordon said. “She’s one of the top setters in the state of Alabama.”

On the court, off the court, during a timeout or going through warmups, it’s pretty clear who is the leader of the Montgomery Academy volleyball team.

“She’s an intense athlete,” Gordon said. “You ought to see her play basketball, you ought to see her play soccer. When we had the dodgeball game, you would’ve thought it was the Olympics. Whatever she’s going to do, she’s a competitor. That’s the kind of intensity you want on your team and she leads our team that way. She demands it of herself, she demands it of her teammates.”

What’s almost as amazing is to watch Gordon, a 41-year coaching veteran who has forgotten more volleyball than most people could learn, step into a private huddle with Stevenson during a timeout before talking to the rest of the team.

“I trust her opinion,” Gordon said. “I have my perspective from the outside looking in, then she has a perspective on the court. I trust her and we have a good working relationship.”

Stevenson shrugs off the “coach on the court” title and said Gordon trusts her because she’s one of the veterans on the team.

“I’ve known her for three years now so it’s kind of different between (talking to) me and younger girls,” Stevenson said. “She knows she can talk to me about anything. We talk about what can be better, what can be worse, who we need to put in. She depends on me for so much, she’s so hard on me, but we’ve learned each other so we know how to react to each other. I’m going to miss it.”

She’s just doing her job, Stevenson repeats over and over. It’s the team’s motto. Doing her job has the Eagles aiming for their sixth state volleyball title.

“We don’t a dominant hitter so that means every hitter has to be held responsible for what they need to do,” Stevenson said. “You really have to do your job. That’s our little motto, ‘Do your job,’ so that just helps every hitter, everyone, move up a level. So if one girl is having a bad day, we have another one who can hit just as well. It’s helped us in a much better way. We’re a completely different team than we were three or four years ago.”