NAU volleyball will be deeper, more experienced this year

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                </div>  Ken Murphy was hired on July 1 last year, giving him less than two months to prepare for his first game as the new head coach for the Northern […]<!-- AddThis Sharing Buttons below -->
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Ken Murphy was hired on July 1 last year, giving him less than two months to prepare for his first game as the new head coach for the Northern Arizona University women’s volleyball program.

It put him under the gun immediately, since he had little time to put together a team that could follow in the footsteps of the 2012 squad that closed out the final season of Craig Choate‘s five-year tenure as head coach with 24 wins.  That was the second-highest win mark in program history, and the team’s .774 winning percentage was THE best in of any NAU team.

Murphy hit the ground running and was able to convert an abbreviated recruiting effort into a 19-11 overall record and a 13-7 mark in the Big Sky Conference, which was good enough for a fourth-place finish.  The program he inherited lost five seniors to graduation, three of whom were starters.

So it will be interesting to see what the 17-year Division I coaching veteran can do with a full off-season on the job.

Murphy, who came to Flagstaff after seven years at UTEP where he was named the 2012 Conference USA Coach of the Year, worked through his first year at NAU with a young and relatively inexperienced squad.  But those players have matured and this year’s edition, which lost just two seniors, will be deeper at just about every position and will have a higher level of mature leadership.

The anchors for that leadership should be a couple of All-Big Sky Conference players.  Janae Vander Ploeg (first team) is a junior outside hitter and Sydney Kemper (honorable mention) is an outside hitter as well, and one of three seniors on the roster.  The Jacks were one of the top hitting teams in the Big Sky last season.

And Murphy added an experienced setter to the incoming recruiting class to make sure someone is getting the ball to his outside hitters at the net.  Jordan Leiter has transferred in from Central Arizona College to team with returning setter, sophomore Jensen Barton from Arcadia High School in Phoenix.

Leiter’s new head coach points to her ability to contribute right out of the chute.  “We were looking for a mature, experienced player who could come in and compete for a spot right away,” he says.  “Jordan has had a really successful collegiate career to his point.  She has great leadership skills, understands the game really well, and she’ll be able to adjust to our team and our level of play really quickly.”

The two setters are examples of the decidedly local flavor to this year’s roster.  Eight of the 16-player roster are from in-state schools, six recruited right out of Arizona high schools.

Leiter, who is originally from Virginia, is one of five players in this year’s class that includes three transfers – two from Division I-level programs – that will provide immediate help.  The other spring arrivals include Stacia Williams, a redshirt junior from California who plays the libero position and spent three years in the Cal Poly program; 6’0″ outside hitter Lauren Jacobsen, a local product that attended Chandler’s Hamilton High School before playing a season at San Jose State; Kayla Guerrero, another libero that will be coming directly from her high school in Honolulu; and Brittni Dorsey, a 5’11 freshman hitter from California that can play middle blocker and outside hitter.

A draw for the incoming libero prospects could be found on Murphy’s staff, where Anna Gott is an assistant coach.  Gott was the starting libero for her four years at NAU and set a school record with 1,891 career digs. Murphy was smart enough to add her to his inaugural staff last season to develop talent at that key position.

The newcomers to the middle of the floor will join a couple of seasoned veterans that have been holding down that area for several seasons, Kemper and Payton Bock.  The 6’3″ Bock is a junior from Hamilton High who last year broke the NAU school record for total career blocks with 251 – and she has two years yet to play.

Murphy wants to clean up some of the problem areas from last season, particularly in the passing game and various aspects of the defensive effort.  He knows he has to convince his players they will be able to challenge the bigger, more physical teams they will encounter in a challenging non-conference schedule and a conference slate that will be split into two divisions this year to accommodate the addition of Idaho to the Big Sky.  The Jacks will play in the South Division.

In addressing the non-conference portion of the coming season, Murphy points out that “there are a lot of teams that finish high in their conference, or have had a lot of success in recent years.  We’re going to have to raise our level of play to have the pre-season we want.”

It all starts on the road on Aug. 29 when the Jacks take on Houston Baptist in the Husky Classic in Houston.

(Photo: NAU Athletics)