FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – The 2013 season may have ended prematurely for the Northern Arizona volleyball team, but it was a season filled with many successes.
Needing to implement a new system under a new coaching staff plus replace half of their starting lineup while working with a roster of just 11 players, the Lumberjacks still managed to earn a top-four seed in the Big Sky Championships for the second straight year and exhibited a tremendous amount of growth over the last four months.
"Our team had some built-in expectations that were really high even with all of the unknowns we had back in August," said head coach Ken Murphy. "There was a coaching change, the youth on our roster and the amount of new starters we'd have on the court, but with all of that we succeeded at a really high level this season."
Murphy was named the program's 11th head coach on June 29 and less than a month and a half later, the Lumberjacks hit the court for the first time for fall camp. With just three returning starters – each of whom were All-Big Sky selections a year ago – in junior Sydney Kemper and sophomores Payton Bock and Janae Vander Ploeg, the Lumberjacks had a lot to work out before the start of the season.
The Lumberjacks' journey this fall began with a bang as they swept through Campbell, San Jose State and William & Mary in their season-opening tournament at the Tribe Invitational. Two of the team's freshmen had stellar debuts as Jensen Barton and Addy Lofstedt joined Vander Ploeg, who earned tournament MVP honors, on the all-tournament team. NAU followed with a 2-1 mark at its Fiesta Bowl Tournament a week later en route to a 5-1 start to the season. Before suffering their first loss to Cal State Northridge, an NCAA Tournament team this year, the Lumberjacks swept San Diego State and Idaho. The five three-set sweeps was the longest stretch to begin a season in program history.
After dropping two of three at the Lobo Invitational, the Lumberjacks entered the conference season with a 6-3 mark. A thrilling five-set win at home over Idaho State was the first of eight Big Sky victories through the first half of conference play and was one of several marquee wins. Over the first half of play, the Lumberjacks put the conference on notice by handing Portland State and North Dakota their first Big Sky defeats of the season and in three sets nonetheless. Both PSU and UND came into the Rolle Activity Center unbeaten and alone at the top of the standings, but they would leave with their first blemish on their record.
Although the Lumberjacks managed just a 5-5 record in the second half of conference play, they managed to snag a handful of key victories along the way. In particular, the Lumberjacks' grit and perseverance was on full display on Oct. 26 in Pocatello. Down 2-0 on the road, NAU rallied to win the next three sets and shocked Idaho State, the eventual conference champions, for its second triumph over the Bengals this season. The Lumberjacks clinched their second straight Big Sky tournament berth following a win over Montana at home on Nov. 14 and two days later they gave Lexie Schroeder and Erin Truett a victory in their final home matches. The win was the team's first on Senior Night since 2008.
Although ultimately their season would come to an end in the Big Sky quarterfinal, the fourth-seeded Lumberjacks showed their signature resilience in defeat. Once again down 2-0, NAU fought back to force a fifth set before coming up just short against Montana. Vander Ploeg capped off her sophomore season with a career-high 27 kills and notched her eighth double-double of the season with 14 digs in addition to a career-high tying five blocks. Her efforts earned her a spot on the All-Tournament team after she was named to the All-Big Sky first team earlier in the week. Kemper also earned her third all-conference selection of her career with a spot on the second team.
While Vander Ploeg (team-best 3.58 kills and 2.53 digs per set) and Kemper (2.66 kills, 2.16 digs per set) were recognized for their play this season, Murphy's squad received contributions up and down their lineup. Junior Taylor Stephens enjoyed a breakout campaign leading the team with a .299 hitting percentage and 1.19 blocks per set, both of which ranked her among the top-five in the conference. Lofstedt, third on the team with 2.19 kills per set, and Barton, a team-best 9.78 assists per set, made big impacts in their first season. Bock (1.87 kills, 0.98 blocks per set) and sophomore Trianna Henry (4.28 digs per set) also enjoyed strong second seasons.
As for the team's two seniors, they both left it all out on the court in what would be their final career matches. Truett, who filled in at setter throughout the season, ignited the Lumberjacks during their rally in the quarterfinals with 36 assists and equaling her career-high of five blocks. Schroeder, who missed the first month of the season due to an injury, posted a career-best 19 digs in her final match.
All in all, the Lumberjacks concluded the season at 19-11, matching the fourth-most wins in school history. They posted a 13-7 Big Sky mark and tied the school record for home victories with 11.
With 43 wins over the last two seasons, the most in a two-year span in program history, it is apparent that the Lumberjack volleyball program is elevating to new heights. In 2014, with year one under Murphy's leadership in the books and the Lumberjacks returning a wealth of talent, the potential for NAU to take it to the next level is ripe.
"With a spring to work out more things in our system and get even more comfortable, I think we're optimistic that we can improve even more," Murphy said. "Our team is hungry and we've already identified the things we need to do better in the future. We're hungry to have better results next year."