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October 31, 2012

Freshmen Sparking Volleyball as Team Eyes Big Sky Berth Thursday

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FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – Just one win away from clinching its first trip to the Big Sky Championship since 2007, the NAU volleyball team (19-4, 11-3 BSC) looks to punch its ticket to the postseason when it hosts Eastern Washington (2-23, 2-12 BSC) at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in Rolle Activity Center. The Lumberjacks are 6-0 at home this season and can secure a postseason berth on Thursday as well as just their third 20-win season in program history and the first since 1991.

"Thursday we can go ahead and talk about because it adds some value to the match and it can get us excited," said NAU head coach Craig Choate after the Lumberjacks swept Southern Utah on Monday. "If we look past (Eastern Washington) they'll take it to us because they're actually a good team that has had some incredibly bad breaks this year. I give them a lot of credit because they just keep fighting with everybody."

At 11-3 the Lumberjacks, who lead the Big Sky in hitting percentage and opponent hitting percentage, are two wins ahead of Northern Colorado for third place in the conference behind league leading Portland State (13-1) and Idaho State (12-2), which both clinched Big Sky tournament bids last weekend. The top six teams in the final conference standings will qualify for the Big Sky Championship, but under the new format the top two seeds will receive a bye into the semifinals while seeds three through six will have to win quarterfinal and semifinal matches on the first day of the tournament to advance to the finals.

NAU's three freshmen have been vital to the team's success this season. Outside hitter Janae Vander Ploeg continues to shine in her first collegiate season, as the rookie is leading NAU with 314.0 points this season behind 3.13 kills, 2.14 digs, and 0.62 blocks per set on the year. She has recorded double-digit kills in 15 matches this season with seven double-digit dig efforts and four double-doubles to shine both offensively and defensively. Over her last two matches, Vander Ploeg has totaled 38 kills (4.75 kills per set) while hitting .363 and adding 17 digs and four blocks.

Meanwhile, middle blocker Payton Bock has also made an enormous impact in hitting .341 in conference matches and leading the team with 183.0 points. Bock is also leading the team and is second in the conference with 1.44 blocks per set in Big Sky play and has hit .250 or better in 11 of 14 Big Sky matches. She totaled a career-high 10 blocks along with 10 kills to lead NAU past Idaho State, recording her first career double-double, then hit .556 with a career-high 17 kills at Sacramento State and added eight kills and six blocks vs. Southern Utah.

Trianna Henry has made her presence known defensively as she is one of five Lumberjacks to have seen action in every set this season. She has totaled 148 digs with 1.74 digs per set while adding seven assists as a key component of NAU's Big Sky-best .161 opponent hitting percentage. With the impact the three Lumberjack freshmen have made so far, the sky appears to be their limit with three more collegiate seasons ahead.

"They've been off the charts," said Choate regarding his three freshmen. "Payton is one of the top hitters and blockers in the conference, Janae is a starting outside with defensive and passing responsibilities on top of offense, and Trianna is digging as well as anybody on the floor. There's no way to overstate what they've done. It's been a fabulous class for us."

After starting the season 0-21, Eastern Washington recorded consecutive sweeps over Sacramento State and Montana before being swept by Montana State in its last match. For the season the Eagles rank second to last in the Big Sky in hitting percentage, opponent hitting percentage, assists, kills, and service aces and have been swept 16 times. NAU recorded a 3-1 win the first time the teams met in Cheney on Sept. 28 led by 16 kills and 13 assists from Kelli Dallmann and 28 digs from Anna Gott.

Eastern Washington, which has had multiple season ending injuries and had its head coach resign a month into the season, has been led this year by 2.55 kills and 3.01 digs per set from senior Cora Kellerman while Allie Schumacher and Talia Fermantez also average better than two kills per set. The teams split their season series last year as the Lumberjacks will be looking for their first season sweep of the Eagles since 1992.

Thursday's match will be televised live on FOX Sports Arizona, FOX College Sports, and NAU-TV. FOX Sports Arizona is available on basic cable and satellite (DirecTV 686, Dish 365/415) throughout Arizona as well as parts of New Mexico, Utah, and Nevada. FOX College Sports is available nationally on digital cable and NAU-TV airs on Suddenlink Flagstaff cable channels 4 and 104 in HD. Mitch Strohman, Sharon Falor, and Heather Hodgeson will have the call on Thursday and the broadcast will also stream live on Big Sky TV and NAU-TV.com with links to video and live stats above.