NAU volleyball ties for second in conference after Idaho State and Weber State victories
By Alli Jenney
In a packed Rolle Activity Center, Northern Arizona University (NAU) fans enthusiastically supported their women’s volleyball team as they competed for a chance for first place overall in the Big Sky Conference (BSC) on Oct. 20 against Idaho State University.
The Idaho State University Bengals ran a quick offensive attack; the four-set match that ensued was met just as quickly by the Lumberjacks, who secured a 3–1 victory at the end of the contest (25–23, 25–19, 23–25, 25–21).
“We’ve talked about a couple things, one is that we’ve played some road matches where we’ve played like that, but we haven’t played like that at home and we wanted to bring that,” said head coach Craig Choate. “It was kind of easy to do that tonight because it was Idaho State, the first-place team.”
Due to the momentum shifts of the match, it was important for the Lumberjacks to capitalize on the Bengals’ unforced errors. Miscommunication among players, ball handling errors and 36 hitting and six serving errors by the Bengals helped the Lumberjacks achieve the win.
Blocking, too, proved valuable on both sides of the net as both team’s hitters used their opponent’s block to tool their shots off for the kill. Just as often defensively, the blockers would end rallies preventing an attack.
Middle blockers sophomore Sydney Kemper and freshman Payton Bock both had impressive performances in each set. The team as a whole combined for a total of 17 blocks in comparison to the Bengals’ eight. Kemper hit an impressive .464 with just two errors and 15 kills on 28 attempts, posted six of the Lumberjacks blocks and had two service aces. Bock recorded first career double–double with 10 kills and 10 blocks.
“Sydney [Kemper] just got excited. She started the season fabulously and then we hit a rough patch, and she said, ‘You know what, I’m just going to take care of business. I’m just going to go hard and do it,’ and she did that I think,” Choate said. “I was so happy for her, the way she was attacking the ball. She did a great job.”
Kemper and Bock would be the deciding factors in the conclusion of each individual set as the Lumberjacks took the first set with a Bock kill off of an over-pass by the Bengals. Kemper would end set two and create a roaring crowd after a silenced rally, to take the match lead 2–0.
After the break, the Bengals returned to the court with a fire and began utilizing tips and off–speed shots to locate open spots on the Lumberjacks’ side of the net. In a tight set, with the score tied 13 times, Bock’s second hitting error of the night would give the Bengals the win and force a fourth game.
The fourth set was more than just another game, seeming more like a battle to the death, as both sides raised their level of intensity on the defensive end to keep each ball off the ground or offensively force it to the floor. Senior outside hitter Kelli Dallmann had five of her 18 digs in the last set, as did senior libero Anna Gott, who had 19 for the match.
Sophomore middle blocker Taylor Stephens came into the match on the right side to play as opposite hitter and proved to be a smart change in stopping the Bengals’ attack. The Lumberjacks posted seven blocks to aid their defense and the Bengals chances to see a set five were declining with ten hitting errors. Stephens and Kemper terminated the set and the match with a block.
“Taylor [Stephens] came in Thursday night and did a fabulous job in the middle. She came in tonight and did a fabulous job on the right,” Choate said. “One of the things that we have tried to get away from an old system is people who can only play one position. We’re trying to get kids who can play volleyball. It’s paying off, because we got people who can do things.”
Sophomore setter Kalee Kirby, the force behind running the Lumberjack offense tallied up a kill, 37 assists, five digs and contributed on four blocks. Kirby’s energy and desire to get to every ball and set up her hitters for a strong attack was a vital part of the win, especially in coming back from dropping the third set.
“We just push ourselves. We fight and we fight and we never give up as a team and it just started clicking for us again,” Kirby said.
In their first five set match of the season, the Lumberjacks demonstrated their mental toughness, overcoming the Weber State Wildcats on Oct. 18. In their first meeting this season, the Lumberjacks allowed host Wildcats to see just 40 points in their three–set sweep.
The Wildcats came to Flagstaff with redemption in sight, and the Lumberjacks received a wake-up call after dropping the first set and seeing the victorious and energetic reaction from the opposing bench.
“We got a little ticked off after they took it to us,” Choate said. “If we lose, it’s got to be because we did all the right things and the team was just better than us.”
The opportunities were there. The Wildcats had six service errors in the first set, and with serving such a large part in building momentum for one’s team, the Lumberjacks needed to capitalize on those missed serves.
After 17 ties and extending past the 25 typical end score, Kemper would miss the Lumberjack’s only serve at 27–27 and the Wildcats would respond with back to back blocks to take the set 29–27.
Offensively, the Lumberjacks would fall back into the swing of their play and take a 10–5 lead in the second set, as they showed dominance at the net by converting off of the Wildcats’ overpasses. By the time the Lumberjacks run crept its way to a commanding 21–11 advantage, the Wildcats would substitute three of their players, with hopes in creating some type of stand. Senior opposite hitter Jen Wilson, who began the set with a block and two kills, terminated the set with a tool off a Weber State block.
“It’s senior year,” Wilson said. “There’s just something about it. It’s our last chance. Everyone just has that extra push.”
The third set would favor the Wildcats as the Lumberjacks struggled with basic fundamentals. The energy from the Wildcats’ side of the net overpowered the quieted Lumberjacks and the lack of communication proved detrimental by the end of the set.
NAU’s own efforts to mix the momentum of the match came with Stephens’s appearance in the match.
“When someone’s not in all the time, the team sometimes pulls. It’s just more of an energy thing,” Choate said.
Contributing three blocks and a service ace, Stephens’ presence was noticed and with the Wildcats posting ten attacking errors and four more service errors, the Lumberjacks coasted to a 25–13 set win to force a fifth set and chance for the match.
Stephens would continue to execute in the fifth set, opening with an overpass kill and then closing the match with a kill and then a block with Dallmann in a dominating 15–4 win.
“It’s just a great feeling to finally get out there and make an impact for your team,” Stephens said. “I mean we were kind of going back and forth all night long and just going out there and being able to block, it was just great.”
Although believing the match should not have seen a fifth set, Coach Choate quoted freshman defensive specialist, Trianna Henry who said, a conference win is a conference win.
“At the end of the day, she’s right,” Choate said.
Because of a Portland State victory over Sacramento State upping its BSC record to 11–1 on Oct. 20, NAU is now tied for second with Idaho State at 10–2. NAU returns to the court on Oct. 27 at Sacramento State.