FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – Winners of six of their last seven matches, the NAU Volleyball team (14-3, 6-2 BSC) closes out the first half of Big Sky play this week at Northern Colorado (13-4, 6-2 BSC) at 6 p.m. Thursday and North Dakota (9-10, 4-4 BSC) at 5 p.m. Saturday. NAU makes its longest road trip of the season, in terms of distance, and begins the week tied with Northern Colorado, the two-time defending Big Sky champion, for third place in the conference.
"It's advantage them since its at their place and they draw well and have been winning for a couple of years now," said NAU head coach Craig Choate regarding the battle with the Bears. "We've got nothing to lose and know we are as good as they are. Nobody has traveled more than we have so if we're not (prepared) it's our own fault. There's no way we can use the travel as an excuse and we need to just go do our best and see what happens."
Following two dominant sweeps at home last week NAU now leads the Big Sky in both hitting percentage (.252) and opponent hitting percentage (.163). The Lumberjacks outhit their opponents by an astounding margin of .340 to .095 in sweeping both Montana State and Montana last week to ascend to the top of the conference ranks for the season, a strong indicator of the team's place among the elite of the Big Sky.
Individually NAU has three of the top seven players in the Big Sky in terms of season hitting percentage as sophomore Sydney Kemper leads the conference at .364 while freshman Payton Bock is fifth (.306) and senior Jen Wilson is seventh (.289). Defensively the team has held six of its eight Big Sky opponents to hitting percentages below .200 with three sub-.100 opponent percentages.
NAU faces another tough road trip this week but has already demonstrated its superb ability to win on the road. In winning 11 matches this year away from Flagstaff (five road wins, six neutral site wins), NAU has already combined for the most road and neutral site wins in a season since the 1991 team won 16 matches outside of Flagstaff and advanced to the NIVC national championship.
The team has also already recorded as many Big Sky road wins (three) as they have totaled in any season since winning four conference road matches in 2001. The Lumberjacks have clinched an overall winning record in matches away from Flagstaff and will have an opportunity to post the first winning road record since the 2000 team went 5-4 on the road and was the Big Sky Co-Champion.
NAU's 3-0 (25-8, 25-11, 25-20) sweep of Montana last Saturday was, statistically, the most dominant win in program history. The 39 total points allowed by the Lumberjacks were the fewest allowed in a match all-time, breaking the record of 40 points allowed by NAU on Sept. 15 of this season at Weber State. Additionally, the eight points allowed by NAU in the opening set tied a record low set by the team against Rider in 2010, while its .652 hitting percentage in the set was the second best set mark in team history since rally scoring began in 2001. NAU's .471 hitting percentage for the match equaled the second best mark in team history recorded vs Tulsa in 1996, as only a .481 NAU hitting percentage vs Montana State in 1994 was better than what the Lumberjacks hit against the Grizzlies.
The start to Northern Colorado's Big Sky season has been almost identical to the Lumberjacks as the Bears are also 6-2 and have similarly only lost at Portland State and Idaho State. Northern Colorado earned nine of 11 first place votes in the preseason Big Sky coaches' poll as the squad lost just one starter from last year's team which went 22-9 and won the Big Sky championship. UNC is second in the Big Sky in opponent hitting percentage and is also in the top four in the conference in hitting percentage, assists, kills and digs. Northern Colorado has won six consecutive meetings with the Lumberjacks and has an 11-6 all-time series advantage.
NAU will face new Big Sky member North Dakota for the first time in program history on Saturday in what will also be its first ever match in the state of North Dakota. After a 4-6 start to the season in nonconference play North Dakota has gone 4-4 thus far in conference play with a 2-2 record in Big Sky home matches. North Dakota joined the Big Sky after winning three consecutive Great West conference titles while totaling a 31-3 conference mark during that time. The team begins the week third in the Big Sky with 1.39 service aces per set and ranks in the middle of the conference in most other statistical categories, though it is ninth in both opponent hitting percentage and blocks. Setter Nikki Husfeldt ranks fourth with 10.73 assists per set and freshman Lauren Clarke is fourth with 4.28 digs per set.