Girls Volleyball
Miller has UMBC set-up for first NCAA Tournament in 23 years

Aysia Miller may not have expected to excel so early on in her collegiate athletic career, but she was prepared for it nonetheless.

Less than a full year removed from her senior year of high school at Mililani, Miller has proven to be quite the quick study for the University of Maryland, Baltimore County women's volleyball team.

And others have taken notice, too.

Miller, a 5-foot-10 freshman setter and class of 2020 Mililani alumna, is in the midst of a stellar rookie season for the Retrievers, who have put together an 11-3 overall record this spring and will take part in their first NCAA Tournament in 23 years this week.

UMBC, the champions of the America East Conference, will face 20th-ranked Pepperdine in Wednesday's first round of the 48-team tournament.

"We're all excited to play," Miller said during a video call Tuesday afternoon, two days after her team's match-up against the Waves was revealed during Selection Sunday.

The teams will play at 6 a.m. Hawaii time. The winner advances to meet 12th-seeded Baylor in Thursday's second round.

"Everyone just wants to work hard again. I think for all of us this is our first NCAA Tournament and we just want to play hard and do our best," added Miller, whose 10.8 assists per set ranks 25th best in the country.

Miller has been part of quite the turnaround for UMBC, which posted a 7-16 record in 2019 — its second season under coach Cristina Robertson — including a 4-6 mark in conference. In her first year there, the Retrievers went 7-19 overall (3-9 America East).

Prior to being hired by UMBC in February of 2018, Robertson was an assistant at Duke. It was during her first season with the program that Robertson recruited Miller to the school.

"They watched my video online and they saw me play at one of my tournaments," Miller recalled. "I was actually being recruited by multiple schools in the area around here on the east coast and so I visited in the middle of my junior year, after my (high school) volleyball season. I visited the campus, met all the girls and the coaches and I really liked the environment and the team atmosphere, as well as the facilities and the academics. I felt like I was at home and I felt like I could fit in at this school."

Miller has done more standing out than fitting in in her first year with the team.

Despite being recruited to UMBC as an outside hitter and defensive specialist, Miller has seemingly navigated an unexpected position change rather seamlessly.

Both setters that Robertson had expected to contend for the starting job this season did not end up playing this year.

"We had two setters coming in when I was going to play DS or outside, but then one of the seniors decided to opt out of playing this season due to COVID, so we only had one other setter on the team," Miller explained.

That was when Robertson approached her with an idea.

"My coach knew that I had setting experience from high school and so she asked me if I could set since we're limited on people and I was like, ‘Yeah, of course. No matter where I play, I just want to be on the court somehow,' " explained Miller, who played setter, outside hitter and opposite while at Mililani and earned All-Hawaii First Team honors as a senior in 2019.

While Miller was working toward regaining her confidence as a full-time setter, however, UMBC's only other setter left the team.

"So I was the only setter and I'm still the only setter left on our team and it just kind of ended up that I was here to be in that role. It was definitely a tough ride. I mean, I haven't set in a while — since my senior year of high school — and I just wanted to get better every day and improve my footwork, my coordination, my location on where I was setting and I just kept on working," Miller said.

In her very first collegiate match, Miller recorded 40 assists, six digs and a kill to lead UMBC to a sweep of Coppin State. With Miller at the controls, the Retrievers hit .276 as a team that night, with three different players logging nine-or-more kills apiece.

The following weekend UMBC posted a pair of five-set wins at Stony Brook, in which Miller had 55 assists, 10 digs, one kill and an ace and 47 assists, a season-high 23 digs, five kills and three aces, respectively.

Despite their youth — which may have worked to their advantage, Miller notes — the Retrievers won their first four matches to get off to their best start in more than a dozen years.

"My team is pretty young. There's five freshmen, three sophomores, one grad student, one senior and one junior, so we're all pretty much new and we all just met each other this past fall and I mean, we all just wanted to compete," Miller said. "You can tell with the group of girls that I play with that everybody just wants to play volleyball, everyone just wants to work hard and everyone just wants to win and our coach has definitely put us towards that goal. They have that mindset as well and they expect a lot out of us and I mean, we all have experience being on good teams and everyone just knows how to play."


UCLA — HC Mike Sealy/former UH women’s asst.
 • opens vs. Rider on Wednesday, 4:30 p.m. HST; winner advances to play No. 16 seed BYU Thursday, 4:30 p.m. HST

Missouri — HC Joshua Taylor/Punahou ’10
 • opens vs. South Dakota on Wednesday, 6 a.m. HST; winner advances to play No. 9 seed Ohio State Thursday, 6 a.m. HST

Creighton — Mahina Puaa, Sr., S, Punahou ’17
 • opens vs. Morehead State Wednesday, 9:30 a.m. HST; winner advances to play No. 8 seed Florida Thursday, 9:30 a.m. HST

UMBC — Aysia Miller, Fr., S, Mililani ’20
 • opens vs. Pepperdine Wednesday, 6 a.m. HST; winner advances to play No. 12 seed Baylor Thursday, 6 a.m. HST

Pepperdine — HC Scott Wong/Punahou ’97 and former associate coach at UH; Asst. Tara Hittle/former Rainbow Wahine player; Savana Greene, Jr., OH, Punahou ’18
 • opens vs. UMBC Wednesday, 6 a.m. HST; winner advances to play No. 12 seed Baylor Thursday, 6 a.m. HST

Pittsburgh — Lexis Akeo, Jr., S, Kamehameha ’18; volunteer asst. Kamalani Akeo/KSK ’15
 • opens vs. LIU Wednesday, 4:30 p.m. HST; winner advances to play No. 14 seed Utah Thursday, 4:30 p.m. HST

San Diego — Associate HC Alfred Reft/former UH men’s VB player (’04-’06)
 • opens vs. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi Wednesday, 6 a.m. HST; winner advances to play No. 11 seed Louisville Thursday, 6 a.m. HST

Army West Point — Ana Oglivie, Sr., L, Iolani ’17
 • opens vs. Notre Dame Wednesday, 6 a.m. HST; winner advances to play No. 10 seed Oregon Thursday, 6 a.m. HST

Illinois State — Paige Hilliard, RS So., OH, Punahou ’18
 • opens vs. UNLV Wednesday, 1 p.m. HST; winner advances to play No. 2 seed Kentucky Thursday, 1 p.m. HST

UNLV — Shelby Capllonch, So., OH, Damien ’19; Paris Oliveira, So., L, Kamehameha ’19
 • opens vs. Illinois State Wednesday, 1 p.m. HST; winner advances to play No. 2 seed Kentucky Thursday, 1 p.m. HST

No. 16 seed BYU — Grace Wee, So., L, Iolani ’19
 • plays Rider-UCLA winner Thursday, 4:30 p.m. HST

No. 5 seed Nebraska — Keonilei Akana, Fr., DS/L, Kamehameha ’20
 • plays Texas State-Utah Valley winner Thursday, 9:30 a.m. HST

No. 4 seed Texas — Jhenna Gabriel, Jr., S, Maryknoll ’18
 • plays Samford-Wright State winner Thursday, 1 p.m. HST

No. 14 seed Utah — Saige Kaahaaina-Torres, Jr., S., Iolani ’18; Phoebe Grace, RS Jr., MB, Kahuku ’17; Naya Dong, RS Fr., L/DS, Iolani ’19; Associate HC Malia Shoji/niece of Dave Shoji; Dir. of Ops Sheldon Carvalho/Kauai ’96, coached at Kahuku
 • plays LIU-Pittsburgh winner Thursday, 4:30 p.m. HST

No. 15 seed Washington State — Aria McComber, RS So., DS/L, Punahou ’18
 • plays Western Kentucky-Jackson State winner Thursday, 4:30 p.m. HST

UMBC suffered their first losses of the season in consecutive matches against UAlbany — albeit a week apart. This season, teams in the America East Conference played in three-team pods, which meant two matches per day, for the most part, and at times, up to four matches in two days.

The Retrievers lost in four the first time against UAlbany — the preseason favorite amongst league coaches in the seven-team America East — and five the next, with the fifth set going the way of the Great Danes, 16-14.

"That motivated us to work harder and want to beat them even more. When we lost to Albany the first game it was our first loss of the season and we were just so motivated to beat them again and it was good to know their personnel as well, because all of us didn't know who they had, who was playing, who was starting and it was good to know how they played and how to adjust to that," Miller said.

The weekend after the second Albany loss, UMBC took its only other defeat this season when it was swept by New Hampshire, a team that it had beat in four sets just one day prior.

"That match was definitely tough. It was a big weekend, we played four matches in two days and that was our fourth match, I believe, of the weekend," Miller pointed out.

She added, "I think it was just more mental, honestly, like everyone was not completely into it, one of our middles kind of injured herself, we were switching rotations a lot and we weren't adjusting to certain things in that match when we should've, but I mean, afterwards we promised to never let that happen again because we knew it was just not something that was good or necessary. It was definitely a hard match and we all felt, and even our coaches felt like we could have done better."

UMBC bounced back with back-to-back sweeps of Hartford to set-up a third meeting against UAlbany, but this time with the conference title and an automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament at stake.

The Retrievers twice rallied from a one-set deficit to win it in five, 23-25, 25-23, 21-25, 25-22 and 15-13. Miller recorded a season-high 58 assists, along with 12 digs, seven kills and a block assist for her sixth double-double of the year.

"Our season was so condensed that because we would play two games a day, for the most part, that it not only put a strain on our body, but the mental part and the mental toughness that you have to build during matches definitely helped us when we played Albany both times in the regular season and that translated to the championship match, because we knew we could beat them and we knew we could play hard," said Miller, whose previous season-high in kills was four (twice).

It was the third straight match that she hit .500 or better.

"Honestly, thought the season I've been kind of timid with my dumping and attacking, but I saw opportunities during the match and I just took it. I think it was more of just like, ‘Oh, it's there' and I didn't really think about it, but the assists were definitely all my teammates," she said. "All my teammates — not even me — they played their hearts out and I give them all the glory because they just played amazing."

The reward for the Retrievers, who were voted fifth in the preseason conference coaches' poll, will be their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1998.

Miller, meanwhile, has corralled a slew of hardware for herself with her play on the court. She was named Setter of the Week a conference-best four times over the course of the season and Rookie of the Week thrice.

Just two days before the America East championship match, Miller was honored as conference Setter of the Year — just the second UMBC player to do so — as well as a Second Team All-Conference selection and a member of the All-Rookie Team.

"It's definitely nice. I'm very grateful and I'm very blessed to have received those awards and it's definitely a team effort. Like my coaches always say, we all get individual awards, but it's always a team effort and I truly believe that as well," said Miller, who helped the Retrievers hit a league-leading .228 this season.

"I'm gonna be honest, I was shocked when I've been receiving all these awards because I mean, I come in as a freshman, I was recruited as an outside and DS and then transitioning into that setter role, you just want to play good. You don't expect anything out of it and it's really nice that people kind of recognize me for my efforts and I mean, like I said, it's always a team effort and I'm grateful to be having the opportunity to play volleyball," she added.

Miller's perspective on volleyball — and just about everything else — has changed with the far-reaching effects of the pandemic. As successful as she was on the court, the three-time All-OIA West First Team selection was just as good, if not better, in the classroom. Miller earned the distinction of being a class valedictorian at Mililani, but was resigned to a drive-thru graduation ceremony.

At the time it was a tough pill to swallow, but in hindsight Miller is appreciative of the adversity.

"I was lucky enough that my volleyball season happened right before COVID and that I even had a senior night, we were able to be successful during season and I'm very grateful that we were able to play volleyball and yeah, that last quarter of my senior year was definitely very unexpected. I was not prepared for that, I guess, but at the same time it teaches you to be grateful for what you have and luckily my friends and family were able to drive-by my house and give me lei and that's what I was grateful for the most, was being able to just see people and have them support me still even though graduation was different that year," Miller said. "I guess I learned from COVID that there are things everyone takes for granted."

As for her volleyball successes, Miller says she owes a lot to her club coach at Spike and Serve, Pono Maa, as well as her high school coach at Mililani, Val Crabbe.

In fact, it was Crabbe who was the first to push Miller into the role of setter. With the graduation of All-OIA West Player of the Year Hope Carter following Miller's freshman year, the Trojans were in need of a setter to succeed her.

"At first I was hesitant because I had never set before, but she kept saying, ‘No, you can do it, you can do it,' " Miller recalled.

It wasn't the first time that Crabbe pushed a player out of her comfort zone. Or the second.

"She actually did that with Hope Carter and Jordyn Keamo as well," Miller said of her fellow former Mililani standout outside hitters-turned-setters.

"When I first was starting to set it was definitely difficult because I did not like it at first. It was a different change from being an outside because I mean, as an outside you tell the setter you want these kinds of sets and as a setter you have to be very selfless and very ‘team, team, team.' A lot of people say the setter is like the quarterback of the team. It was a difficult change for me, but I learned to appreciate it and by the end of my sophomore year I ended up loving setting," she said.

Miller, needless to say, is full of gratitude toward Crabbe and more than appreciative of the foresight she had to push her toward setting.

"I'm so grateful that coach Val put her faith in me and trusted in me to fill that role, because obviously I wouldn't be where I am right now without that and having that kind of all-around skill-set builds on my experience as a player and my resume, kind of," expressed Miller, who shared All-OIA West Player of the Year honors as a senior with teammate Falanika Danielson.

The support of her parents and siblings have been instrumental in Miller's success. She can appreciate the tough love that mom, Tessie, and dad, Bernal Tumbaga, provided and she passes some of that along to younger sister, Aria, as well as younger brother, Nainoa.

"My dad would say, ‘I know I'm tough on you, but I'm just trying to make you better,' and I'm grateful that he does that because it makes me mentally tough and a better person, a better player and my mom is always saying the same things as well. My sister, I try to push her to try to be better since she plays volleyball as well," Miller said. "I just want to thank them, honestly, my parents and my family. They've brought me to where I am today. Without them I wouldn't be the person I am today."

Miller is one of more than a dozen players from Hawaii who will be taking part in the NCAA Tournament. One of them, junior Savana Greene (Punahou '18) will be on the Pepperdine team that Miller and UMBC will face Wednesday.

The head coach of the Waves is Scott Wong (Punahou '97), whose brother Kevin is the director of Miller's club team, Spike And Serve.

Furthermore, there is a connection with Pepperdine assistant Tara Hittle — a former University of Hawaii Rainbow Wahine outside hitter — and Robertson. When the latter was hired away from Duke for the UMBC job, the Blue Devils replaced her with the former, then an assistant at Portland State.

"It'll be interesting," Miller said of Wednesday's first-round match. "I'm excited to play Pepperdine and it's nice to know that there's some local people at Pepperdine as well."

Aside from Miller and the Retrievers, there are four other teams with players from Hawaii who start or split the setting duties: No. 4 seed Texas (Jhenna Gabriel, Maryknoll '18), No. 14 seed Utah (Saige Kaahaaina-Torres, Iolani '18), Pittsburgh (Lexis Akeo, Kamehameha '18) and Creighton (Mahina Puaa, Punahou '17).

For Miller, to be included in the group is something she wears as a badge of honor.

"Of course these girls that are in the tournament are amazing setters and it's good to see that Hawaii girls aren't only recruited as liberos and (defensive specialists) because they're shorter, but that these girls are athletic and they have skills as setter and they help their team succeed," Miller said. "It feels amazing that there's not only me, but the rest of the girls that are in this tournament are so successful in volleyball Hawaii volleyball is something special. Hawaii girls are usually on the shorter side, but it goes to show that you can't look down on Hawaii girls because we're good as well and we can work, too."

The NCAA tournament begins Wednesday and concludes with the national championship match on Apr. 24. Due to COVID-19 health and safety protocols, the entire tournament is being held in Omaha, Nebraska.

Reach Kalani Takase at [email protected].

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