NAU volleyball nets just the third 20-win season in history

When Craig Choate took over the women’s volleyball program at Northern Arizona University, it was coming off six consecutive losing seasons.  He told the administration it was going to take four years to build a championship-caliber team.

This is his fifth year and his 2012 team has clinched a third-place finish in the conference – the highest in more than a decade.  They will return to the Big Sky Tournament for the first time in five years.

And,with a win tomorrow against Northern Colorado in the regular-season finale, the squad will secure a tie for second in the conference and have already locked in a third seed for the tournament.

Choate was hired away from Pepperdine, where he was an assistant coach.  But before that he spent 14 years as the head coach at San Jose State where he had five 20-win seasons and finished with a 244-191 record.

Each year under Choate, the NAU squad has moved up the wins ladder, increasing from eight wins, to 10, and then 15 last season when the women set a school record for best start, posting 12 straight wins.  But they couldn’t finish the job and closed the season in seventh place in the Big Sky.

This year, they have been over-achieving.  The 2012 team was picked in the pre-season to finish eighth out of 11 teams.

A win two weeks ago over Portland State, which was leading the conference, built some momentum to propel the Lumberjacks through the final stretch of the season, and three more wins followed to bring them to a 23-5 mark going into the final game tomorrow.

It’s just the third time in program history that a team has achieved 20 or more wins in a season.  The only team to stack up more wins was the 1991 squad that recorded 26 victories.

The last win may have been the hardest of them all this season.  Yesterday’s match with North Dakota went five sets, and the Jacks had to fight back from an 11-7 deficit in the final set to eventually pull out a 3-2 win on its home floor.  The matches were nail-biters throughout: 25-23, 25-27, 25-17, 21-25, 15-13.

It was a freshman that lead the way yesterday.  Janae Vander Ploeg, a 5’11” outside hitter from Colorado, put punch in the NAU offense with a team-high 20 kills, and also added nine digs and four blocks.  When the fifth set worked its way into a 13-13 tie, it Vander Ploeg that provided the final two kills to win the set and the match.

She also had double-figure kills in the Portland State upset, recording 11 behind team-leader, Kelli Dallmann.  Dallmann, the senior outside hitter from Cactus High School in Glendale, had 13 kills against Portland State and then posted another 13 yesterday against North Dakota.

The Jacks will face another 20-win team tomorrow night.  Northern Colorado is 20-10 overall and 13-6 in the Big Sky.  A win over Southern Utah yesterday nailed down a fourth seed for the Bears in the Big Sky Tournament.

Tomorrow will also be Senior Night for the Lumberjacks, as Choate says goodbye to those players who have been with him for the full ride.  Dallmann, Jen Wilson, Lauren Campbell, and Anna Gott were in Choate’s first recruiting class.  And Lexi Sullivan is a fifth-year senior that played on his first team.

“I’m really happy that the seniors got to experience this year, and that they’re going to go to the tournament,” said Choate in reflecting on Senior Night.

“Win, lose, or draw, they got there – and nothing can change that.”

(Photo: NAU Athletics)