NAU volleyball off to a fast start under new head coach

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                </div>This is a year of transition for the Northern Arizona University volleyball program – and so far it’s going pretty smoothly. The Lumberjacks opened the 2013 season by rolling undefeated […]<!-- AddThis Sharing Buttons below -->
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This is a year of transition for the Northern Arizona University volleyball program – and so far it’s going pretty smoothly.

The Lumberjacks opened the 2013 season by rolling undefeated through the Tribe Invitational tournament, hosted by William & Mary College in Williamsburg, Va.  They brought their big broom with them from Flagstaff, sweeping all three teams they met to win the tourney championship and get the new season off to a 3-0 start.

And a good start is especially important this season since the team is under the direction of a new head coach and without Anna Gott in her familiar libero position for the first time in five years.

Gott was the starting libero for all four years of her college career at NAU, during which time she set a new school record with 1,891 career digs – which was also the third-most ever recorded in the Big Sky Conference.  She started every match and played every set during her Lumberjack career and has now moved to the bench as an assistant under first-year head coach Ken Murphy.

Murphy was hired to replace Craig Choate, who was the Lumberjack head coach for the last five years but ‘retired’ this summer and has taken a volunteer position on the coaching staff at Utah State, returning to the state in which he earned his college degree at BYU.

The transition to a new head coach will be even more difficult than replacing Gott.  Despite one of the best seasons in program history last year, NAU was picked in the Big Sky pre-season poll to finish fifth this year.  The Jacks graduated five seniors and three starters, but return three All-Conference players from the 2012 squad, which finished third in the Big Sky.

The 2012 team finished with a 24-7 overall record.  The 24 wins were the second-highest ever and the .774 winning percentage was the best an NAU team has ever recorded.  And a post-season victory, which got them to the conference quarterfinals, was the first since 1999.

Two of the three returning starters, junior Sydney Kemper and sophomore Payton Bock, will provide the depth and strength in the middle of the floor that will power the team’s attempt to exceed the pre-season expectations.  The other member of that All-Conference trio, Janae Vander Ploeg, headlines the contingent of outside hitters after leading last year’s team with 3.16 kills and 3.69 points per set.

Bock ranked fourth in the Big Sky last season with a team-leading 1.23 blocks per set, which was the seventh-best single-season average in program history.  She tallied 143 blocks on the season and broke the program record for block assists in a season with 127.

Kemper led the 2012 squad in hitting at .338, second in the Big Sky and third-highest in school history.  She averaged 2.37 kills per set and recorded 104 block assists.

Vander Ploeg, the 5’11” sophomore from Colorado, led the way in the opening match against Campbell University in the Tribe Invite with a match-high 13 kills as the Jacks won in three straight sets, 25-19, 25-12, 25-22. The opening match of the season could have been billed as the Battle of the First-Year Coaches since Greg Goral took over the reins of the Campbell program this year.

In the second match against San Jose State, also won in three straight, she had seven kills and 14 digs, which equaled a career high for her.  The Jacks, who had managed just two team blocks against Campbell posted 12 against the Spartans, led by junior Taylor Stephens‘ career-high eight blocks.

In the championship finale against William & Mary, Vander Ploeg contributed a team-high 14 kills and 10 digs for her seventh career double-double and was named the tournament’s MVP.  It was a sweep, but nothing easy about it.  NAU won with scores of 25-22, 30-28, and 25-10; the Jacks had to survive five set points to win the second set.

Vander Ploeg was one of three NAU players named to the all-tournament team.  She was joined by a pair of freshmen, outside hitter Addy Lofstedt and setter Jensen Barton, who was a four-year starter at Arcadia High School in Phoenix and a member of the All-State first team as a senior.

Murphy, who brings 16 years of Division I coaching experience to the Lumberjack program, will be working with a young, but talented squad in his inaugural season as head coach.  He spent seven years at UTEP before coming to Flagstaff and was named the 2012 Conference USA Coach of the Year.

“We made a ton of progress,” Murphy said of the team’s off-season work, “and we’re much more aware of our identity as a team.  We’re powerful at the net and we’re continuing to develop how physical we play, how fast we play.

“Our team is relatively young and our main goal is to keep improving, from day one through the conference tournament.”

The next opportunity for improvement will come this weekend when NAU hosts the Fiesta Bowl Tournament, welcoming teams from San Diego State, Idaho, and Cal State Northridge to the Rolle Activity Center on campus.

(Photo: NAU Athletics)