GREELEY, Colo. – The Northern Arizona volleyball team will enter next week's Big Sky Championships in Portland, Ore. as the No. 4 seed after suffering a tough five-set loss at Northern Colorado, 25-17, 23-25, 27-25, 23-25, 15-13, in their regular season finale. NAU (19-10, 13-7 Big Sky) will face No. 5 Montana, a team it defeated twice in the regular season, in the opening round of the conference tournament next Friday.
"Offensively we never executed very well and there were a ton of opportunities to do some things but we never got into a rhythm," said head coach Ken Murphy. "Even with that, we had some leads but we let them get away. We kept fighting to win the match though despite all the things that weren't going right for us."
Although the Lumberjacks raced out to a 7-3 lead in the opening set and then held an 11-9 edge following kills by sophomore Payton Bock and freshman Jensen Barton, the Bears reversed the tide with a 5-0 run that gave them a three-point lead. NAU held steady until Northern Colorado put together six straight points to put the first set out of reach at 21-13 in an eventual first set win.
NAU would even the match in the second set though, pulling out a victory in a tight set that featured 12 ties and seven lead changes. Every time the Bears went on a run, the Lumberjacks countered with a run of their own until the set was tied at 21-21. NAU finally put away the set with the help of a 3-0 run to break the tie. A Bear attack error followed by kills by Barton and sophomore Janae Vander Ploeg gave the Lumberjacks set point and they would cap the set with a solo block by Bock two points later.
The Lumberjacks appeared to have control of the third set after they went on an 8-0 run to take a 13-8 lead with Vander Ploeg at the service line. NAU maintained its edge until 22-18 after a kill by junior Sydney Kemper. However the Bears rattled off five points to take a brief 23-22 lead and was serving for set point before Bock's kill brought the score to a 24-24 tie. After exchanging points, UNC would take the third set 27-25 and the 2-1 lead.
Another strong start by NAU would not go to waste in the fourth set although Northern Colorado put together a furious rally to make things interesting. Freshman Addy Lofstedt hammered down a kill to give the Lumberjacks a 20-11 lead only for the Bears to get within 20-18. NAU regrouped to lead by three at 22-19 before UNC tied it at 22-all and then once again at 23-all. With all the momentum on the home team's side, Vander Ploeg answered with a kill and the Lumberjacks forced a winner-take-all fifth set on the very next point via a Northern Colorado error.
In the fifth set, both teams played even until Northern Colorado took an 8-6 advantage into the changeover. Back-to-back points brought NAU even at 8-8 after the teams traded sides, but Northern Colorado responded to retake the lead 11-9. A kill by Vander Ploeg and two errors by the Bears put the Lumberjacks back in front 12-11 and they held their last advantage at 13-12. But the Bears scored the next point for the ninth and final tie of the final set and went on to win the final two points to deny the Lumberjacks of the No. 3 seed in the Big Sky Championships. With the victory, UNC clinched the sixth and final spot in the tournament.
Vander Ploeg, Kemper and Barton all posted double-doubles in the defeat. Vander Ploeg recorded a match-high 15 kills to go along with 11 digs. Kemper had 11 kills and 15 digs while Barton had 50 assists and a career-high 17 digs. Junior Taylor Stephens hit .323 and posted 14 kills in addition to five blocks and sophomore Trianna Henry had 25 digs to lead five Lumberjacks with double-figure dig totals.