FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – For the second consecutive season, the Northern Arizona volleyball team is headed to the postseason as they clinched a spot in the Big Sky Championship tournament Thursday night by defeating Montana in four sets, 25-19, 25-20, 21-25, 26-24. Sophomore Janae Vander Ploeg returned to the lineup after a one-match absence and the Lumberjack defense was solid as the team also helped seal up head coach Ken Murphy's 100th career victory.
"There were parts of the match that we played better than others and Montana rose when we lowered our play a little bit," Murphy said. "It was good for us to be challenged like that and have to show some grittiness, so I'm proud of them. Our defense was the best part of tonight. The first two sets we had control because our defense was in tune with what we needed to do."
The Lumberjacks steadily took control of the first set after the teams played to an 8-8 tie early. Two kills by Vander Ploeg and one by sophomore Payton Bock gave NAU a lead it would not give back, but Montana hung close until the 19-17 mark. Three Grizzly errors aided NAU's 4-0 spurt to open up a six-point advantage and Vander Ploeg's fifth kill of the set ended it as the Lumberjacks claimed the first set.
After hitting .273 as a team in the first set, NAU was better in the second set as it rode a .314 clip to a 2-0 lead in the match. The Lumberjacks pushed out to a 6-2 edge with their first five points coming off kills, but the Grizzlies jumped in front 15-14 for their first lead of the set. Junior Taylor Stephens and freshman Addy Lofstedt paired for a block on the next point to even the score and junior Sydney Kemper followed with a kill to put the Lumberjacks back in front for good. By the time NAU was done with a 5-0 run, it was ahead 19-15 and Vander Ploeg would hammer down the final point of the set for the second time on the night to send the teams into the intermission.
The third set was all Montana as the Grizzlies never trailed in the set. Although NAU managed to tie the score three times before either team hit the 10-point mark, the Grizzlies had their best set of the night as they hit .321 compared to NAU's .079, its worst of the night. With freshman Jensen Barton at the service line, NAU was able to get as close as 23-20 after stringing together three straight points before UM closed out the set to stay alive in the match.
Sensing a momentum shift, the Lumberjacks grabbed the early lead in the fourth set and after Bock slammed down a kill to give NAU an 11-5 lead, Montana was forced to call its second and final timeout of the set. NAU appeared to be on its way to cruising to its match-clinching win, but the Grizzlies put together a 7-0 run to take a brief 18-17 lead. The Lumberjacks regained the lead courtesy of a corresponding 4-0 run sparked by a kill and ace from Stephens, but they quickly found themselves down 23-22 yet again late in the set. NAU would close by winning four of the final five points to avoid a fifth set and moments after Barton's shot over the UM block touched the ground, the Lumberjacks had punched their ticket to the conference tournament.
"Last week was a challenge for us but we bounced back and came together tonight," Vander Ploeg said. "Our team chemistry keeps growing on the court. Montana is an amazing team and this was a huge win for us."
Although NAU struggled offensively down the stretch, it managed to outhit UM .216 to .158 for the match. Sophomore Trianna Henry led a strong defensive effort by the Lumberjacks with 19 digs and Vander Ploeg was right behind with a career-high 18 digs. Lofstedt equaled her best blocking night of her career with five blocks to lead NAU at the net.
Offensively, Vander Ploeg had a match-high 17 kills, which coupled with her 18 digs, was good for her fifth double-double of the season. Kemper also posted her fifth double-double with 11 kills and 11 digs and Bock had a season-high 12 kills. Barton had an outstanding game as she handed out 45 assists to go along with five kills on .500 hitting percentage in addition to seven digs, two blocks and an ace.
NAU (18-8, 12-5 Big Sky) wraps up its home schedule Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. versus Montana State at the Rolle Activity Center. It will be senior night for the team's two graduating seniors, Lexie Schroeder and Erin Truett.