FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - The Big Sky Conference championship, the school record 28 victories. It is the type of factoids that get the fan base hyped. But while the Blue & Gold faithful are anxiously anticipating the upcoming 2016 season, the Big Sky coaches are also expecting big things from the Northern Arizona volleyball team this season after picking them first in the preseason conference poll.
However, as far as this group of Lumberjacks is concerned, 2015 is in the past and they are only focused on one thing: writing their own chapter this season.
"We're trying to get better for tomorrow and keep moving forward," said head coach Ken Murphy. "We're aware that there's a lot of excitement surrounding our program, but we also know that we can't control that. We play every point at practice to try to better, and that's one thing that this team is really adapting. We don't worry about things that are out of our control; we just get in the gym and work really hard."
When the Lumberjacks finally step on their home court during the third weekend of the 2016 campaign, they will look like a different team than the one a sold out Rolle Activity Center crowd saw sweep Idaho State to seal up the 2015 Big Sky tournament crown.
Gone is the winningest senior class in school history, including NAU's all-time career kills leader (Janae Vander Ploeg) and blocks leader (Payton Bock). Returning are just five players who played in at least 17 sets last season. Yet in spite of the losses and inexperience, the amount of talent spread throughout the roster is on another level.
"If you look at our roster as a whole, it is easily the most talented we've been since I've been here," Murphy said. "We have so much size, athleticism and depth at all positions that it is pushing our team to grow really fast. I feel like that while we are really young as a group, we have great potential if we can learn how to work together towards our goals."
Headlining the roster are seniors Jensen Barton and Lauren Jacobsen, both of whom were voted to the All-Big Sky teams a year ago. Barton, who enters the season sixth on NAU's all-time assists chart and could jump as high as second when all is said and done, was selected to the First Team. With the conference undergoing a similar amount of turnover as the Lumberjacks did, Barton is just one of three returning members of the 12-player First Team. Meanwhile, Jacobsen was named to the All-Big Sky Second Team. Both players also garnered All-Tournament honors at the Big Sky Championships.
Barton and Jacobsen make up two-thirds of this year's senior class which also features Addy Lofstedt. With 12 of the 16 players on this year's roster being underclassmen - redshirts included - the senior trio will be expected to bring much needed leadership and experience especially in the early portions of the season. It is a task that they have already taken upon themselves throughout the preseason.
"Our seniors have done a great job already of communicating expectations and making sure that each player is on board," Murphy said. "We've established some really good things in our culture here and our seniors have really taken ownership of it and ensuring that our traditions that we've set are continuing."
After the seniors, just two players - redshirt sophomore Brittni Dorsey and sophomore Jordan Anderson - saw significant playing time last season, while redshirt sophomores Emma Grimsrud and Kaylie Jorgenson combined for just 24 sets played. The inexperience cannot be ignored, but that has not deterred the team in preparation for being the hunted every time they take the court this fall following their record-breaking championship quest.
The cast may look unfamiliar with six newcomers and three redshirts, but the team's heartbeat remains one.
The only question is what does this team have in store for an encore to their record-breaking championship quest? One thing is certain though: do not expect this year's Lumberjacks to be zoned in on external preseason expectations. The only expectations they are interested in are those they place on themselves.
"This group is highlighted by Lauren (Jacobsen). She's such a complete player and a great competitor. She's grown in all phases of her game since last year and she's on the verge of establishing herself as one of the best players in the conference and in the entire West. Then we have a lot of young players that is making this a really competitive spot for us. I'm just really impressed with this group's skill set and talent that they bring." - Murphy
- Jacobsen headlines the team's crop of outside hitters after earning a spot on the All-Big Sky Second Team last season. Jacobsen garnered her first career all-conference selection after posting a career-high 3.21 kills per set. Her kill average was second on the team only behind Vander Ploeg, and ranked eighth in the country.
- Jacobsen also led the Big Sky with 51 service aces, 12th most in the nation, and is the conference's top returner in terms of double-doubles after recording 14 last season. She finished third on the squad with 2.96 digs per set for the season.
- On the right side, NAU returns Lofstedt, who is one of just two four-year Lumberjacks on this year's roster. Lofstedt emerged as a consistent attack during her first year on the right side, averaging 1.53 kills per set on a career-best .244 hitting percentage. In the Big Sky tournament championship match, Lofstedt hit a season-high .545 against Idaho State while tallying seven kills.
- Looking to fill the void left by Vander Ploeg, the 2015 Big Sky regular season and tournament Most Valuable Player, the Lumberjacks could turn to Jorgenson. In limited action last season, Jorgenson showcased flashes of what could be on the horizon. Against Weber State at home, she came off the bench to record five of her seven kills on the season to spark NAU to victory.
- The 'Jacks could also turn to a trio of attackers who are awaiting to make their NAU debuts. Redshirt freshmen Hannah Cherry and Ohiyah Shirley have both made strides since arriving on campus last fall, while freshman Sydney Lema is the team's lone newcomer on the outside.
"It's interesting because this is our most inexperienced position, but it's probably our most competitive position right now. We have five players who could legitimately compete for spots and play at the standard that we're asking of them. On the one hand, we feel like we need to know who is going to grow and emerge from this group. But on the other hand, we feel this is the most talent we've had at this position since I've been here." - Murphy
- The Lumberjacks lost Bock to graduation but will return the services of Dorsey. After redshirting her true freshman season, Dorsey started 30 matches last season and appeared in all but one match.
- Dorsey progressed throughout the season and by the end of the 2015 campaign, she was the team's third-leading blocker. Dorsey notched 11 solo blocks among her 100 total blocks and finished the season with 0.88 blocks per set. She also recorded 67 kills and will be counted on for guidance among an inexperienced group of middle blockers.
- Behind Dorsey, the game experience drops significantly with Grimsrud the only other middle who has appeared in a match. Grimsrud earned three starts, including the first two matches of last season, and in all appeared in 10 matches. Her best match came against Southern Utah, where she recorded six blocks.
- Aside from the two classmates, the Lumberjacks' depth in the middle will consist of redshirt freshman Victoria Ewalefo and true freshmen Abby Akin and Kasie Gilfert.
"Along with Lauren, Jensen (Barton) is one of the best players in the conference, if not a wider region than that. The thing that she's added, in addition to being an exceptional all-around player, is her leadership. Her impact on our program is huge and it goes beyond her being an outstanding setter. Looking at Abby (Stomp), obviously she had a great high school career, but she came into our gym as a polished setter already. There's a very good chance she could contribute early in her career." - Murphy
- Over the last two years, the argument could be made that Barton has been the most complete setter in the Big Sky Conference. Last season, Barton collected her second career All-Big Sky nod when she was voted onto the First Team following an exceptional all-around season.
- Barton ranked fourth in the conference with 10.42 assists per set while running the NAU offensive attack to a school record .264 hitting percentage. It marked the second straight year that the Lumberjacks set a new school best in that category, and last season's mark was the seventh-highest in conference history.
- In addition to handing out assists, Barton was a proficient attacker averaging over a kill per set on a .321 hitting percentage and was NAU's second-leading blocker with 101 total blocks. She also averaged 2.18 digs per set and tallied eight double-doubles.
- Replacing graduated senior Jordan Leiter will be freshman Abby Stomp, who enters the Lumberjack program with a distinguished list of prep accolades. Stomp was named New Mexico's Gatorade Player of the Year as well as a High School All-American by PrepVolleyball.com during her senior year.
"Similar to our other positions, our two newcomers here are really talented. Right away, they added to the competitiveness in our gym. Jordan (Anderson) has been here for a year and she has some advantages because she understands our systems. We feel like she's really emerged over the spring and summer into an elite player. But both Brooke (Donnelly) and Emiley (Larson) bring really great skill sets to our gym and are fighting for spots as well." - Murphy
- Of the team's three back row players on last season's roster, only Anderson returns this season following Stacia Williams' graduation and Kayla Guerrero's departure.
- Anderson may have the inside track towards replacing Williams as the team's libero after seeing significant court time during her debut collegiate season. Anderson appeared in 32 matches with 14 starts as a defensive specialist and overall averaged 1.26 digs per set. She posted her best showing against Boise State, recording a season-high 15 digs.
- While junior transfer Brooke Donnelly may not have NCAA game experience, she does join the 'Jacks following two impressive seasons at Yavapai College. Donnelly started 57 straight matches at libero there, and ranked 28th in NJCAA Division I last season with 4.59 digs per set.
- The Lumberjacks could also turn to freshman Emiley Larson, who like Donnelly, is new to NAU this fall.