NAU volleyball off to best start in the Big Sky Conference

This may be the year that Craig Choate gets his NAU volleyball program over the hump.  And perhaps dispels the mediocre pre-season projections at the same time.

Northern Arizona University was picked to finish seventh in the Big Sky Conference – which is right where it has languished at the end of the last two seasons.

But the Lumberjacks are off to a 3-0 start on the season, the only Big Sky school that is undefeated at this point.

Choate, who arrived in Flagstaff in 2008 to take over the program after 14 years as head coach at Fresno State, was quoted earlier this month regarding the potential for this season:  “If we can win early in the season and get into the right mindset, we have the potential to be as good as anybody in this conference.”

A sweep through the Wolverine Invitational in Orem, Utah, last weekend is just the kind of start Choate was hoping for.  And this coming weekend, the Jacks will host their annual Fiesta Bowl Tournament, generally considered one of the better early-season events in the country.

Last year, they swept the teams in the Fiesta for the tournament championship.  So, based on that fond memory and the early wins, confidence should be high going into the weekend.

But it hasn’t been that way for awhile.  The team’s best performance under Choate was the 2008-09 season when they went 15-10.  But that was followed by an 8-17 mark the next year, and then a 10-16 finish last season when they went 4-4 in the conference.

However, this year the Jacks are putting a veteran squad on the floor that has good depth at every position.   They lost just one player to graduation and return nine upperclassmen for the leadership that will be needed to begin turning things around.,

“You can’t compete at the Division I level without upperclassmen,” Choate said,  “so this is the year I expect to see a dramatic change in our program.”

Four of six starters from the 2010 squad returned this year, including libero Anna Gott, a junior from Desert Vista High School in Phoenix.  The group of veterans also includes Kelli Dallmann, a 5’10″ senior setter who was a Big Sky second-team selection last year and will play an even greter role in the offense this year.

Dallmann is another local product, coming out of Cactus High School in Glendale where she was a first-team all-stater.  She helped the Cobras volleyball team to a state title in 2006 and was also an impact player on the school’s track team that won titles in 2007 and 2008.

She has played a big role in NAU’s catapult into the season, being named the MVP of the Wolverine Invite after recording 132 assists through the three games against CSU Bakersfield, Illinois State, and Utah Valley.  Her performance earned her the season’s first Big Sky Player of the Week honor.

Dallmann posted 53 of those assists, along with 16 digs, in the tourney’s championship game against Utah Valley, while junior Jen Wilson added 17 kills and Katie Bailey hit .327 for the weekend.  She averaged 11 assists and 2.92 digs per set and posted two double-doubles.

Gott was named the tourney’s Top Defensive Player and Bailey was named to the All-Tournament Team, along with teammate, junior Lexi Sullivan from Mountain View High School in Mesa.

Just three games, but an encouraging start to the season.

“I think that we have all the pieces and now we just need to put the puzzle together,” says Choate.  “We definitely think that this is our year to break through and get to the Big Sky Championship.”

(Photo: NAU Athletics)