GREELEY, Colo. – The NAU volleyball team won the first set before Idaho State took set two and won sets three and four in extra points for a 3-1 (20-25, 25-19, 26-24, 29-27) win in the semifinal round of the Banner Health NCMC Big Sky Volleyball Championship. The Lumberjacks ended their season with a 24-7 record, recording the best winning percentage (.774) and the second most wins in a season in program history.
"I thought this was the single most competitive match that we played in all year," NAU head coach Craig Choate said. "I thought the volleyball out there was fabulous; I thought the defense was off the charts for both teams and unfortunately we just came up too short but it was a great match. In the blink of an eye those two points (at the end of the fourth set) could have been ours so I thought they played a great match but I thought we played a great match too."
NAU senior Kelli Dallmann capped her standout career with 16 kills and 20 digs on a .286 hitting percentage while fellow senior Jen Wilson had 11 kills and three blocks and senior Anna Gott added 22 digs to bring her program-record dig total to 1,891, the third highest career dig total in Big Sky history.
"It was the best time I've had playing all year," said Dallmann after her final collegiate match. "I wanted to leave it all on the court for my last time playing and I did, and my team did. That's all I could ask for. We've been through a lot and worked so hard through the summer and the spring and I'm really proud of us. (Coach) said it would take three or four years to get here and we did, and I think we're starting a little legacy here and it's going to be great next year."
NAU hit .469 in the first set with just one attack error while Dallmann hit .636 with seven kills. The Bengals started 3-0 before NAU responded with four straight points to start the opening set. Idaho State would lead 9-8 before NAU embarked on a 7-0 run - which included five kills from Dallmann – as NAU built a 15-9 lead. The Lumberjacks maintained a lead of at least four points for the remainder of the set and reached set point at 24-17. The Bengals fended off three set points before an ISU service error gave NAU a 1-0 lead.
The teams traded one point leads to open the second set as NAU held a 7-6 lead before ISU scored nine of the next 10 points to take a 15-8 lead. NAU got back to within four points at 17-13 but could get no closer. The Lumberjacks hit just .143 in the set as Idaho State led 23-19 before consecutive kills from senior Jaclyn Hone-Hawkins evened the match at one set apiece.
The third set began as a story of runs as the teams traded 2-0 runs and 5-0 runs sandwiched around a 4-0 NAU run as the Lumberjacks opened up a 13-9 lead. NAU held a 16-13 advantage before the Bengals came back with five straight point to go up 18-16. The Lumberjacks battled back to even the set at 20 before the Bengals reached set point at 24-22. NAU answered with a kill by sophomore Sydney Kemper and a block from freshmen Payton Bock and Janae Vander Ploeg to even the set at 24. Idaho State would then get consecutive kills from senior Breanne Van Every to take the set and move to a 2-1 lead.
The Lumberjacks came back strong to open the fourth set with a 6-3 lead that extended to a 12-6 advantage. The NAU lead grew to seven points at 15-8 before the Bengals won seven of the next eight points to get back within a 16-15 deficit. NAU built back to a 19-16 lead and extended to a 22-18 cushion before the Bengals battled back to within 22-21 and evened the set at 23-23.
A kill by freshman Tressa Lyman gave ISU a match point at 24-23 but consecutive kills by Bock and Wilson gave NAU a set point at 25-24. The Bears fought back with two more points and had another match point at 26-25 that was again negated by a Wilson kill. The Bengals then had another match point prevented on a block by Kemper and Wilson before an NAU service error put the Bengals back ahead 28-27. Idaho State would then finally close out the match on a kill by Hone-Hawkins to advance to the Big Sky Championship final.
Idaho State held a .235-.202 advantage in hitting percentage for the match and posted a 15.0-11.0 block total. After hitting .469 in the first set NAU was held to sub-.200 hitting percentages in the three ensuing sets while the Bengals had four players finish with double-digit kills and had three double-doubles, including a 60 assist, 18 dig effort from Big Sky MVP Lori Mendenhall.
Named the Big Sky Outstanding Freshman on Thursday, Bock totaled nine kills and a match-high seven blocks to end her freshman year with 143 blocks, the third highest single-season block total in program history. Vander Ploeg added eight kills, four digs, and three blocks to her superb rookie season totals while Kemper had nine kills and four blocks and sophomore Kalee Kirby had 51 assists and 13 digs for her 14th double-double of the season.
"I'm sad to be losing the girls I've been playing with but I'm excited to move forward," Kirby said. "I think this was a good experience for us and being so young we can come back next year even harder and maybe get up to that championship spot."
While the team will return seven players – five of which played in almost every set this season - next year, the five graduating seniors will be sorely missed after they transformed the NAU volleyball program into a Big Sky contender.
"These seniors were my first recruiting class and when they came in there wasn't much on the shelf at the time," Choate said. "It was going to be a struggle to get here, and they did it. They made it possible for us to go out and get the caliber that now we are getting so I'm really happy with them."
Note: Gott and Kirby were named to the Big Sky Championship All-Tournament team following the championship match on Saturday.