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Volleyball Outlasted by Eastern Washington but Clinches Big Sky Berth

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – Freshmen Payton Bock and Janae Vander Ploeg each recorded 20 kills but Eastern Washington got a program-record 35 kills on a .397 hitting percentage from freshman Allie Schumacher and staved off three match points in the deciding fifth set to score a 3-2 (22-25, 25-23, 25-18, 21-25, 23-21) win on Thursday night in Rolle Activity Center.

Despite the loss, NAU clinched its first trip to the Big Sky Championship since 2007 by virtue of Sacramento State's 3-2 loss to Northern Colorado. The Lumberjacks are now 11-4 in the Big Sky and 19-5 overall this season while the Eagles won for the third time in their last four matches after starting the season 0-22.

"We didn't show up to play and that's my fault," NAU head coach Craig Choate said. "We had a tough time doing a lot of things but mostly our effort wasn't there. We just had a bad night, but I don't want to take anything away from Eastern Washington.

The fact that we're going (to the Big Sky Championship) is fine but we want to have the seed that we have and we're making life harder for ourselves. We seem to play better on the road and I have no idea why that is."

In bringing a 6-0 home record into the match NAU had held its home opponents to a .107 hitting percentage this season; Eastern Washington totaled a .296 hitting percentage for the match as the Lumberjacks were held to just eight blocks and were out-dug 87-73. NAU did hit .259, as Bock hit .528, Vander Ploeg hit .276, and sophomore Sydney Kemper hit .333 with 14 kills. Sophomore Kalee Kirby added a career-high 64 assists in the loss.

There were 15 ties and six lead changes in the deciding fifth set as both teams had multiple opportunities to win the match. NAU had an early 10 -7 lead but the Eagles battled back to tie the score at 11. Tied again at 14-14, a Vander Ploeg kill gave NAU a first match point that was negated on a kill by Schumacher. NAU had another match point denied at 15-14 and then fought off EWU's first match point at 16-15. A third Lumberjack match point at 17-16 was denied and NAU would then fight off four Eastern Washington match points as the set moved to 21-21. The visitors then got a kill from Schumacher and, on their sixth match point attempt, got a kill from senior Laney Brown to take the match.

NAU hit .297 in opening the match with a first set win. The Lumberjacks took a huge 14-6 lead in the opening set and led 18-12 before the Eagles eventually leveled the set at 22-22 following a 10-4 run. After a Lumberjack timeout the home team got a pair of blocks and a kill to close out the set and take a 1-0 lead.

The Eagles opened up a 13-8 lead in the second set but a 7-2 run brought the Lumberjacks even at 15-15. NAU held a 20-19 lead before Eastern used a 4-0 spurt to take a 23-20 lead. The Eagles reached set point at 24-21, and after NAU fought off two set points Eastern Washington a Schumacher kill to terminate the set and even the match.

The third set was controlled from the onset by Eastern Washington as it turned a 4-4 tie into a 14-7 lead. The visitors hit .556 in the set with 16 kills and just a single attack error as, despite hitting .333 in the set, NAU could get no closer than a six point deficit as Eastern Washington moved to a 2-1 lead.

NAU led for most of the fourth set but never by more than five points. After holding a 14-13 lead the Lumberjacks used a 7-3 run to take a 21-16 advantage before Eastern battled back to within 21-19. Up 23-21 consecutive kills by Kemper forced a fifth set, but the Eagles would battle relentlessly to top the Lumberjacks in five.

The Lumberjacks will be back in action at 7 p.m. Saturday hosting Big Sky-leading Portland State. The Vikings improved to 14-1 in conference play with a 3-2 win at Southern Utah on Thursday.