Even the best high school girls soccer teams can play in anonymity.
That is not the case at Millennium, one of the top teams in the state — and, in an ironic twist, one that does not focus on state titles.
Instead, Tigers coach David Cameron is trying to provide his team with a unique experience. The coach leads a podcast with assistants or players after nearly every game and sets up a game every year where the Tigers attempt to draw thousands of fans to watch.
“It’s tough to do, trying to present a different kind of management over the new system. The ownership is really on the players’ and their personal development, and really focusing on the development of each individual instead of the collective having to win a championship,” Cameron said.
He is in his fifth year coaching the Tigers after other high school stops and also just finished his 15th season as the Phoenix College men’s coach. He also coached in the youth club and developmental circuit.
He said he has approached leading teams in many different fashions. Eventually, Cameron used his own high school playing experience as a template.
He played at Shadow Mountain High School in Phoenix, starring on some state title contending teams. While his career continued, he realized upon reflection that high school was more fun for him than club or even college soccer.
“Regardless of which way I’ve done it, and I’ve done it every which way, at the end of the day you’re going to lose. The chances of winning it all is so small. But the opportunity to affect each individual in a safe environment? You can definitely accomplish that. That’s where I want to be successful, impacting individual life,” Cameron said.
While the annual sell out game — where Millennium tries to set a record for high school girls soccer attendance — and the podcasts provide different opportunities, the day to day approach is what keeps players coming back.
“I think we do a lot of cool stuff like the sell out game and the podcast but I think what really set us apart is our team culture. We’re super supportive and accepting of everyone, varsity and JV. I think the positive atmosphere we create helps propel us past the other teams,” senior midfielder Maren Rice said.
The level of soccer is pretty good too. The Tigers were an upper echelon team in 6A, then moved to 5A last season and reached the state title game, losing to Gilbert Campo Verde.
This year, Millennium is ranked #2 in 5A - behind Campo Verde - with a 7-0 record. The team has shut out every regular season opponent.
Among returning players, however, is the sense that the joy from that year came in the journey more than the trophy.
“We’re not going to remember the games but what we will remember is the friendships we created and the sisterhood of the whole team,” senior forward Karis Stull said.
Cameron started the Tigers down a more typical path, but in his second year he said he went to a more positive approach.
The centerpiece of that is the annual sell out game. The goal is to increase attendance each year. So far so good.
Year one (2017) saw 1,449 attend. The crowd jumped to 2,235 in the second year and rose slightly to 2,305 last year.
“It’s so unique. We’re so blessed to have a platform like that to showcase who we are as a team. I talk to players on my club team and they totally wish they could play in a game like that. It’s totally unheard of at the high school level, even the collegiate level — that many people coming out to a game,” Rice said.
As she pointed out, a lot of the players’ careers end after high school so they get to experience a big game atmosphere they would not otherwise.
The program networks with the local business community and has a parachutist come in with game ball. Millennium brings in a national anthem singer.
The band and cheerleaders perform, almost like a football game. To drive interest, Cameron wants to give many people something to do.
“I was just asked yesterday by a school, ‘How do you do it?’ I want another school to beat it,” Cameron said. “I don’t think it’s that difficult to do a sell out game, especially if you just do one the right way. They’re all connected within the campus. We support other programs and watch their games.”
This year’s sell out game will be at 6 p.m. Feb. 7 against Willow Canyon. The Wildcats are is bringing three buses to get their fans involved.
Though that game is the highlight, the team has help making sure other highlights are captured.
“We film everything, sometimes with two cameras, to make sure they have documentation of their successes,” Cameron said.
Cameras are rolling after the games too.
Neither Rice nor Stull has been on a postgame podcast and both admitted they would be a bit nervous if they went on.
Stull said the podcast is good to promote the team.
“It’s still nerve-wracking for them. It’s always live. But all the coaches on campus love it and they all listen to it. It’s a good way to let people know what we’re doing,” Cameron said. “With any marketing you have to be constant. We now have a podcast room on campus with a backdrop and everything. It’s getting easier because so many parents support the program.”
Players said not only have the parents noticed, so have younger kids in local elementary schools.
“We really want to share that with younger girls that are going to come up to Millennium. For their club teams and middle school teams, they can do that too — replicate that and then come be a Tiger,” Stull said.
And the way Millennium approaches the sport may help the program fend off one of its biggest rivals — Olympic Development Program and club soccer. This is the only sport where the club and high school seasons overlap.
There can be pressure, particularly among younger more skilled players to raise their profile to college recruiters on the club/ODP circuit.
But in recent years, Stull said she has seen some players ditch club soccer and come back to play for Millennium.
“We’ve had opportunities to just play club, but I think what has made this season so different is that this is so much fun. Everything is so positive that I would rather play high school than club,” Rice said.