FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – The Northern Arizona volleyball team claimed the first set of Saturday's Fiesta Bowl championship match, but Cal State Northridge would ultimately leave the Rolle Activity Center with the title in hand as the Matadors handed the Lumberjacks their first loss of the 2013 season, 20-25, 25-20, 25-22, 25-10. The Matadors denied the Lumberjacks of their 13th Fiesta Bowl championship in this year's 20th installment as NAU enters next weekend's Lobo Invitational with a 5-1 mark after a 2-1 record at home this weekend.
"Going into the weekend I think I would've taken (2-1 this weekend)," said head coach Ken Murphy. "We'll look at it and regret the things that we didn't do well this weekend but I think coming out of a tournament with three quality teams like we had here at 2-1 is a good result and we have things that we can build on and move forward."
The Lumberjacks won the first set of Saturday night's tournament finale – the 16th consecutive set won to begin the season – despite hitting just .175 in the game. After the set was tied up for the tenth and final time at 14-14, the Lumberjacks would win eight of the next 11 points to surge ahead 22-17. Two kills by sophomore Janae Vander Ploeg and a kill by junior Sydney Kemper wrapped up NAU's scoring in the opening stanza and seemingly gave the home team momentum heading into the second set.
NAU's hitting percentage in the second game rose to .423, but Cal State Northridge countered with a .429 clip as the Matadors used three runs of at least three points to slowly put distance between the two squads on the scoreboard. Although NAU was down just 8-6 after a Cal State Northridge service error, the Matadors rolled off 10 of the following 13 points for their biggest lead of nine points. A late push by the Lumberjacks brought them within four points before the Matadors' Mahina Haina ended any NAU comeback hopes with a kill to finish the set.
Following the intermission, the Matadors seized the all-important third set, breaking open the set with a 6-1 spurt with the score squared up at 16-all. Down to set point at 24-19, the Lumberjacks once again forged a rally and forced a Matador timeout after freshman Jensen Barton and junior Taylor Stephens hammered down consecutive kills and Cal State Northridge committed an error. However, Barton's serve coming out of the timeout went into the net and NAU fell behind in a match for the first time this season heading into the deciding set where Cal State Northridge raced out to a 6-1 lead and never looked back.
"Cal State Northridge played really well; it was the best they played all weekend," Murphy said. "They played really good defense, they controlled the ball well and their offense was great and when we got up against that, I think we pulled our pressure back a little. That gave them even more momentum and we need to learn from that lesson."
Although the Lumberjacks hit a season-low .155 in the match, they received a balanced attack with all six of their starters recording at least six kills paced by Stephens' nine. Along with her team-high nine kills, Stephens hit a team-best .471 and led the Lumberjacks with three blocks. However, Cal State Northridge hit .321 for the match, the highest of any opponent allowed by NAU this season, and the Matadors held the advantage in kills, digs and blocks.
Vander Ploeg and Kemper represented NAU on the all-tournament team. Kemper averaged a team-high 3.10 kills per set, including a career-high tying 15 kills in the tournament opener against San Diego State, while Vander Ploeg was second on the team with 2.80 kills per set and five service aces which tied for the most of any player this weekend. Cal State Northridge's Natalie Allen was named the tournament MVP.
The Lumberjacks head out to Albuquerque, N.M. for the Lobo Invitational next Friday and Saturday, Sept. 13 and 14. NAU will play host New Mexico as well as Abilene Christian and Towson in its final non-conference preparation before its Big Sky opener versus Idaho State on Sept. 19 at home.