PORTLAND, Ore. – It was gut check time. The Northern Arizona volleyball team faced a 2-1 deficit – despite a furious third set rally – and were one set away from coming away winless on a critical road trip. With possibly the most important adversity they have encountered this season, the Lumberjacks rose to the challenge.
In what can only be defined as a complete team effort, the Lumberjacks rallied past the Portland State in five sets, 20-25, 25-23, 28-30, 25-21, 15-11, to remain atop the Big Sky South Division and in a tie with North Dakota for first overall in the conference with two weeks remaining in the regular season. NAU notched its 20th win of the season – recording its third 20-win campaign in the last four years – and more importantly improved to 10-2 in conference play by successfully overcoming a 2-1 deficit for the first time this season. The 'Jacks were previously 0-4 in such situations.
"This might have been our most important match of the year up to this point," said head coach Ken Murphy. "Teams go through ups and downs and you have to learn about yourself. We really proved to ourselves tonight how tough we can be, the type of match we want to play and the type of team we want to be. Even in the third set that we dropped, we proved a lot to ourselves and built momentum through that."
First and foremost, the Lumberjacks' defense came through in a big way and kept NAU in the match throughout the night. In the back row, NAU received career-nights from junior Brooke Donnelly and redshirt freshman Hannah Cherry, who filled the void left by sophomore libero Jordan Anderson. After Anderson suffered an injury in the second set, Donnelly and Cherry anchored the back line. Donnelly tallied 26 digs – the most by a Lumberjack this season – while Cherry took over libero duties and finished with 13. Barton and Jacobsen also recorded 20 digs with Barton setting a new career-best herself and Jacobsen tying her highest total.
While NAU as a team recorded a season-high 105 digs, it also did damage at the net with redshirt sophomore Brittni Dorsey notching a career-high 11 blocks among NAU's season-best 20.0 stuffs. Dorsey was not alone in the lifetime-best category, as Jacobsen set a new career-high with six. Barton and freshman Abby Akin each also recorded seven blocks apiece. It marked the first time that the Lumberjacks recorded 20 team blocks since 1994.
The defense allowed the offense to find a rhythm that would not come until the latter part of the third set. After the teams split the first two sets, the Lumberjacks fought off seven straight points – and climbed all the way back from seven points down before dropping the third set. Portland State led 20-13 and failed to close out NAU on its first three set points up 24-21. Although NAU would continue to stave off defeat on the next four Portland State set point opportunities, the 'Jacks could never climb in front themselves and eventually succumbed in the longest set played by NAU this season.
Riding the offensive rhythm gained towards the end of the previous game, NAU finally solved the Portland State defense to hit .364 to send the match to a fifth and final set. Jacobsen and redshirt sophomore Kaylie Jorgenson refused to let the 'Jacks go quietly into the night as the pair combined for 11 kills in the fourth game. Down 9-8, NAU used a 10-3 run to take control it never relinquished.
The wave of momentum continued into the fifth set as the Lumberjacks set the tone early with three blocks – all involving Barton – during a 4-1 start. The Vikings managed to reel off four straight points to claim their lone lead of the final game, before successive kills from Barton, Jacobsen and senior Addy Lofstedt put the Lumberjacks in front for good. Portland State held off two set points, but its final swing hit the antenna finally sealing the deal for NAU.
Jacobsen with 21 kills and 20 digs became the first Lumberjack to record a 20-20 game in more than seven years. With her final numbers, she sits just three kills and one dig shy of 1,000 in each category which would make her the sixth player in school history to register both milestones.
Barton handed out 55 assists as NAU followed its fourth set performance to hit .400 in the final set. Jorgenson finished with a career-high 15 kills and hit a .310, with Lofstedt also reaching double-figure kills with 11 on .345 hitting. Dorsey wrapped up the career-high night for many with five of NAU's eight aces.
The story of the night though was Donnelly and Cherry, who stepped up and made plays when the Lumberjacks needed them most.
"Hannah did a great job of stepping into the libero role," Murphy said. "We didn't change very much and she got better throughout the match. Our team was comfortable with her in that spot. Brooke made really big plays at important times in the match, and she made a lot of really tough digs on (Portland State's Pati Anae)."
At 20-5 overall now, NAU is right back on the road at Weber State and Idaho State next week in its final road trip of the regular season. The Lumberjacks' first match of the week will be in Ogden versus the Wildcats at 6 p.m. Arizona time on Thursday.