FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – The Northern Arizona volleyball team was glad to return home following a disappointing performance last week and it prevailed in a five-set thriller Thursday night at the Rolle Activity Center over Idaho State. The Lumberjacks pulled out a 26-24, 18-25, 26-24, 21-25, 20-18 decision in the Big Sky opener for both teams as they improved to 7-3, picking up a win in their first match to go the distance this season.
"This win speaks a lot about our players," said head coach Ken Murphy. "They made a decision that last week wasn't up to their standards and we had a good week of practice. We focused on our will to win and tonight they displayed that. We scrapped and not everything was perfect but we kept fighting and finding ways to score points. We talk about finding ways to be successful and tonight was a great example."
Several Lumberjacks had career matches and the team needed every single ounce of it to grit out a win over the Bengals, who ended NAU's season last year in the Big Sky semifinals. With just nine healthy players in uniform, the Lumberjacks relied on a team effort that was on full display Friday night.
Although NAU held a five-point lead, 13-8, in the first set, Idaho State battled its way back in the first of many rallies from both teams on the night. The Bengals eventually pulled ahead and served for set point at 24-23, but junior Sydney Kemper converted on a kill to force extra points for the first of three occasions in the match. A block assist by Kemper and sophomore Payton Bock then gave NAU the lead and the Lumberjacks sealed up the first set with a second consecutive stuff at the net by Bock and freshman Addy Lofstedt.
After the Bengals evened the match in the second set in large part because they managed to hit .281 in the set, the Lumberjacks came out of the intermission and immediately took a 14-10 lead only for Idaho State to rattle off nine of the next 10 points to seize control. Just as was the case in the first set, the Bengals had opportunities to close out the important third set but NAU was not to be denied yet again. Down 24-22, the Lumberjacks staved off two set points when Bock slammed a kill through the Idaho State defense which was followed by a block by junior Taylor Stephens and sophomore Janae Vander Ploeg. With the match now tied at 24-24, Stephens came up with the critical play as she faked a back set over the net that landed in between four Bengals after a diving save by Vander Ploeg on the preceding ISU attack. A point later, Stephens put down the set-clinching kill.
"We just needed to stay calm and remain level-headed," Stephens said. "Janae made a great dig and she was excited that I made the play. That got me real excited too."
Just as they did in the second set, the Bengals responded in the fourth as they seemingly stole the momentum from NAU late. The Bengals claimed seven of the final eight points of the set to erase a 20-18 deficit and force the deciding set where the Lumberjacks raced out to a 9-3 advantage. They were unable to put the Bengals away though as Idaho State climbed its way all the back to tie it at 10-10. After ties at 12-12, 13-13 and 14-14, the Bengals were a point from clinching the match after an error by Stephens, but a service error evened the score at 15-all. Idaho State had match points at 16-15 and 17-16 only for NAU to stay alive. With the set tied for the ninth and final time at 18-18, the Lumberjacks had their second match point after an error by ISU and Bock ended the match by slamming down the final point.
Both teams were nearly even with the Bengals posting a .168 hitting percentage as compared to NAU's .165. Although Idaho State totaled 10 more kills as a team, it recorded nine more attack errors and the Lumberjacks won the battle at the net with a season-high 17.0 blocks compared to the Bengals' 13.0.
Lofstedt led the Lumberjacks with a career-high 15 kills, one more than Vander Ploeg and Stephens that added 14 each. Stephens had one of the best matches of her career as her 14 kills was just one shy of her career-high set during her freshman year and she equaled her career-high of eight blocks while hitting a team-best .300. Vander Ploeg notched her second double-double of the season with her 14 kills and a career-high tying 14 digs. Kemper narrowly missed out on a triple-double with nine kills and nine blocks in addition to 10 digs, while Bock totaled a season-high seven blocks. Rounding out NAU's career-night performers were sophomore Trianna Henry, who recorded a career-high 23 digs, and junior Erin Truett, whose 48 assists and nine digs were also career-bests.
"I'm really excited about how our team was able to work for all five sets," Stephens said. "To lose two games before this and come in and own our home court was great. We worked together and we had the crowd behind us."
The Lumberjacks return to the court at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday versus Weber State. The Wildcats fell in four sets at Southern Utah Friday night. All fans who present a game ticket from the NAU football game at the Rolle Activity Center will receive free admission to the Saturday night's volleyball match.