LAKEWOOD RANCH — Every district title has its own special meaning.
The first one was the first of its kind in school history.
The second one resulted in an eventual berth in the state semifinals.
And the third one — well, that’s one in which Lakewood Ranch High senior setter Ali Milbourn wasn’t even sure she would be back in time to play.
After spending most of the season on the bench with a back injury, Milbourn finally returned to the court a couple of weeks ago, just in time to close out the regular season and lead the top-seeded Mustangs into the Class 7A-District 10 tournament.
After knocking off North Port in the district semifinals Oct. 22, Milbourn helped lead Lakewood to its third-consecutive district title Oct. 24. The host Mustangs held on to beat No. 2 seed Sarasota 25-23, 25-15, 23-25, 25-22 in the 7A-10 championship.
Milbourn recorded 47 assists, seven digs and two aces in the match.
“It’s great,” Milbourn says. “I didn’t know if I was going to be back or not, so to be able to come back for these last few games and then the district and getting in the district finals is great. I’m just ready to move forward.
“The first one definitely stands out because it was the first one in school history and it was great to be a part of that, but this means a lot, too, because it’s my last year,” Milbourn says.
Milbourn’s senior season didn’t start off the way she had hoped. As she spent the better part of the season on the bench, Milbourn could only watch as her team tried to adjust to a slower-paced offense.
She continually offered words of encouragement and did her best to lead from the bench, but there were times when Milbourn felt that simply wasn’t enough.
“Just not leading this team from the court was probably the hardest part,” Milbourn says. “I led it from the bench as much as I could, but not being in there and not being involved in the game as much as I am with my position — it was just really hard.”
The four-year varsity starter returned for the final four games of the regular season, allowing Lakewood to showcase its high-powered offense while preparing for the district tournament at the same time.
Milbourn admits it took some getting used to at first, but it appears as if the Mustangs are clicking at the right time.
“The offense is completely faster,” Milbourn says. “They had to get back to running fast as opposed to running slow. It took awhile, but we’re back now.”
“It makes our offense a lot more complex,” coach Perri Hankins says of having Milbourn back out on the court. “We can set a lot of different types of sets in different spots on the net. And the hitters are really used to her setting.”
But it’s not just for her athleticism and knowledge of the game that Lakewood is happy to finally have back out on the court.
“Her personality on the court — she’s very upbeat and very calm,” Hankins says. “It’s the exact personality you need for a setter. You want someone who’s competitive and going to be a good leader.”
As the district champions, the Mustangs played host to Seminole in the Class 7A-Region 3 quarterfinals Oct. 29. The winner will play the winner of the other regional quarterfinal match between Sarasota and Clearwater in the regional semifinals Nov. 5.
“I think this team is capable of going farther than we did last year,” Milbourn says. “We have a lot of youth on this team, which is a good thing but also a bad thing because of the experience; but I think we can pull
it together and get (at least) as far as we did last year.”
Contact Jen Blanco at [email protected].