Gia Milana is the No. 1-ranked volleyball player in the state and one of the top players in the country, but she should be all of that and more.
After all, this is her seventh year of playing high school varsity volleyball.
Really, it is. And there is more.
“When I was in the fifth grade, I played varsity volleyball, softball and basketball,” she said. “In South Carolina, it’s legal. Technically, I’m a 13-letter athlete. I’m not kidding.”
Milana, 6 feet 2, isn’t kidding about playing varsity sports while still in elementary school, and she won’t be kidding next week when she leads No. 5 Romeo in its pursuit of a second consecutive Class A volleyball state championship.
When Milana was in fifth grade, her family moved from Romeo to Greenville, S.C., and that is when she became a varsity athlete.
“But it was a joke,” she insisted. “There were about 200 kids in the school, and it was K through 12. It was like elementary volleyball. I don’t even count that as when I started volleyball.”
She began playing volleyball in earnest as a seventh-grader when she joined a regional team and decided that was her life’s passion.
“I just loved it so much that I had a coach of the club I was at and we worked all summer,” she said. “We worked on ball-handling and technique and everything. Before being on that team I hit the ball with my fist. I didn’t know what top spin was. I didn’t know what anything was.”
The journey continued the next year when her family moved back to Romeo and she joined the Oakland Elite Volleyball club and played on its national team.
That is when she began the progression to becoming the best player in her class.
“When I got on my first national team in Michigan is when I started to improve drastically every year,” she said. “Over four years they just transformed me.”
Milana first made a splash as a sophomore when the outside sitter sparked Romeo to an upset of defending state champ Macomb Dakota, which featured Miss Volleyball Carli Snyder.
But it was two years before that, when Milana was an eighth-grader, that Romeo varsity coach Stacy Williams realized she was going to be coaching a potential all-stater.
“Right away I knew — kids don’t play like that in eighth grade,” Williams said. “She was a tall eighth-grader, and you knew there was potential there. Just the natural skills that she had and the natural touch she had with the volleyball, you knew that she was going to be something special.”
Milana is special all right and was pursued by the top volleyball programs in the country.
But Milana did not elevate to the elite level by accident. While she is a happy-go-lucky youngster, she is a supremely dedicated athlete who has devoted an immeasurable amount of time to becoming a dominant player.
“She jumps really well, but she works to jump well,” Williams said. “She hits the ball well, but she works to hit the ball well. She’s a naturally gifted athlete when it comes to understanding and seeing the game, but she works at it really hard, too. God gave her the opportunity, and she is working hard and making sure she takes advantage of what she was given. She’s got the body for it, but she’s got the work ethic as well.”
She committed to Maryland and second-year coach Steve Aird, who had been recruiting Milana when he was an assistant at six-time national champ Penn State.
It turned out that Milana liked Aird more than she liked Penn State, and she was still searching for a school when Aird took over at Maryland in February 2014.
“I visited, and I literally just fell in love with everything Maryland stood for,” she said. “There’s just so much pride involved with the big picture. It just inspired me. I wanted to be a part of building something. I wanted to go and work for something that I knew meant more than myself as an athlete.”
That is why winning last year’s state championship was so meaningful for Milana.
Every girl on last year’s team lived in Romeo, and in this day and age of school of choice, that is rare.
Winning the state title wasn’t easy, although the Bulldogs appeared to be on their way to a rout after they won the first two sets, 25-23 and 25-22. But then Novi won the next two sets, 14-25 and 25-7, which set up the final set.
“The last set we kind of pulled together as a team,” Milana said. “We said we have worked all season for this set — this set right now. All we have to do is win three sets of five and that’s it — and then we have it.”
Milana also had another message for her teammates.
“She said, ‘Give me the ball,’” recalled junior outside hitter Jodie Kelly. “We were like, ‘OK, if you want the ball, you can have it.’”
That is when Milana went all Alisha Glass on Novi.
Glass is the Leland legend who led her 2006 team to victory after dropping the first two sets to powerhouse Battle Creek St. Philip.
Now a starter on the U.S. national team, Glass set a state record with 48 kills in that championship match.
In the final set last November, Milana had six of her 29 kills to carry Romeo to a 15-7 victory for the state title.
“We had talked about winning three games to five,” Kelly said. “Well, her six kills were already a game to five and plus-one. Done — just because that’s Gia.”
Kelly and her teammates were almost in awe as they watched Milana take control of the last set.
“It was amazing; she was so good,” Kelly said. “She’s good in the front and back row. No matter what, we have someone on the court to go to. We call her our go-to, because any time anything’s confusing, you can always just give it to Gia.”
It was the set that set Milana apart from the other players in the state, but it had nothing to do with Milana’s desire to establish herself as the best player in the state.
She just wanted to be part of a state championship team.
“I just wanted to do anything I could for my team to finish,” she said. “The whole season I had such a great team behind me. They picked me up and backed me up on anything. I told myself, ‘I’m doing this for my team. I’m doing this for the win.’”
Milana’s teammates certainly admire her phenomenal athletic ability, but there is something else that makes her so endearing to her teammates.
“The best thing about Gia off court is her dry humor and personality,” Williams said. “She’s a funny kid. As good of a player as she is, she’s just Gia with her teammates. She’s as real as can be. She’s a fantastic athlete, but she’s just another goofball on the team.”
Above everything else, Milana wanted the state championship for the town of Romeo and the team picture that hangs in the ridiculously old gym with the bleachers that appear to be from the 1940s.
And Milana wouldn’t want it any other way.
“When I think about what I wear on my chest, the name Romeo means so much to me,” she explained. “It’s where I was born. It’s where I grew up. This gym signifies the small community. Everyone pulls in together. We don’t have a lot, but it’s the people that matter. It really helped us to win the state championship knowing we had such an amazing community backing us up.
“Just the feeling of bringing some recognition to this town really helped to motivate us.”
Contact Mick McCabe: 313-223-4744 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @mickmccabe1.
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