GREELEY, Colo. – Falling behind 1-0 in the match in an environment where they had lost five of their previous six trips did not phase the Northern Arizona volleyball team Thursday night. Instead, NAU dug deep and came out victorious in its conference opener, defeating Northern Colorado, 17-25, 25-12, 25-21, 25-23, in a matchup between the Big Sky's preseason top two teams. The Lumberjacks won their fourth straight conference opener and is now owns an 11-3 overall record this season.
"I was really proud of the way we regrouped after the start of that first set," said head coach Ken Murphy. "Early on, one error led to another, and at some point we stopped worrying about our (serve) receive so much and that allowed us to relax and get into a flow. We focused on what we do well – playing one point at a time – to put ourselves back in the match and ultimately to win it."
The Lumberjacks had previously won just once in the Bank of Colorado Arena dating back to 2009, but senior Lauren Jacobsen was determined to not let NAU leave Greeley on the short end once again. The reigning Big Sky Offensive Player of the Week recorded her fifth 20-kill match of the season with 24 on .322 hitting to go along with 14 digs. The double-double was her 10th this season as she continues to lead the conference in the category.
The opening set could not have gotten off to a worst start for the 'Jacks as the Bears used four early aces to rip off an 8-3 lead. NAU settled in midway through the set with two Jacobsen kills around an ace by redshirt sophomore Brittni Dorsey that cut into a nine-point UNC lead, but the Lumberjacks were never able to overcome their early deficit and tough service pressure by the Bears with five aces in all.
As rough as the first set was, the Lumberjacks flipped the switch on the Bears to even up the match heading into the intermission. After hitting only .120 to open the match, NAU hit .324 as it controlled the game from the onset. Senior Addy Lofstedt and freshman Abby Akin combined for a block to force a Bear timeout with the 'Jacks leading 6-1 and they never let up. NAU put away Northern Colorado with a five-point run with Jacobsen at the service line – and two kills from freshman Sydney Lema – to increase its lead to 20-8 on its way to the critical set victory.
After both teams won their respective sets with ease, the final two sets were nothing short of a tight clash between two teams with high aspirations this season. The third set featured 10 ties and six lead changes with neither team leading by more than two points until NAU broke a 16-16 stalemate. Jacobsen's kill was followed by another ace by Dorsey to provide NAU with a slim, but ultimately final lead, of 18-16. The narrow edge held until Dorsey and senior Jensen Barton's block gave NAU set point at 24-20 and Lema's kill finished the set two points later.
Barton served NAU to a 6-3 lead in the fourth game, only for the Lumberjacks to see their early advantage evaporate when the Bears clawed in front, 12-11. NAU's deficit grew to as much as 21-16 late on the heels of a 6-1 UNC run, before Jacobsen ripped an attack from the back row to start the Lumberjacks' late push. Down, 23-21, Akin slammed a kill to provide NAU with its final sideout. A UNC attack error knotted the score at 23-all and Jacobsen would cap the comeback with the final two points from the left side.
"There are so many good things to learn from a match like this, but the final one was at the end we kept applying pressure over and over," Murphy said. "We were able to fight back and score those points on our own terms. We talk about playing points on our own terms and we did a really good job of that at the end of the match."
While NAU hit just .233 in the win, its defense kept Northern Colorado to an even lower .159 clip. While Akin and Lofstedt combined for a team-high three tandem blocks, NAU's dig performance was impressive with five players recording double-digit digs. Barton came up one shy of her career-high with a team-leading 17 digs – along with 42 assists – followed by Jacobsen. Sophomore Jordan Anderson and junior Brooke Donnelly each tallied a dozen digs and Lema rounded it out with 11 of her own.
The Lumberjacks finish the weekend with a trip to Cedar City, Utah on Saturday for a 12 noon match against Southern Utah. The Thunderbirds were swept by North Dakota Thursday night in their first Big Sky match of 2016.