It’s been a couple of decades since the Northern Arizona University and Grand Canyon University women’s volleyball teams met on the court. In fact, it was back in 1994, when Grand Canyon was still playing in Division II.
Back then, the two programs played 20 times in all. GCU lost all 20.
But, as they say…that was then, and this is now. The Antelopes are no longer a D-II program. They’re now a member of the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) as they work their way through the four-year transition period to become a fully-accredited D-I program.
Tomorrow, the ‘Lopes will get a chance to break through that long string of losses when they play NAU in the opening game of the Lumberjack Classic tournament in Flagstaff. It will be a morning game and is important because it will set the tone for the rest of the tournament for both teams.
The Lumberjacks are undefeated so far this season at 6-0. GCU comes in with just one loss at 5-1.
Both teams are riding high this season. NAU will come into weekend play after being crowned a co-champion with Texas Tech in the UTPA Tournament and the Antelopes finished runner-up at the Gonzaga Invitational. Their loss to the host team is their only loss this season.
The Lumberjacks lead the Big Sky Conference in kills (13.95/set), assists (12.91/set), and digs (17.36/set). Sophomore setter Jensen Barton leads the conference in assists, with 11.09 per set, and senior middle blocker Taylor Stephens leads in hitting percentage at .466.
Seven NAU players will come into the tournament averaging more than 1.67 kills per set.
Meanwhile, in the WAC… the ‘Lopes are second in the conference in hitting percentage and opponent’s hitting percentage. Senior outside hitter Shannon Dugan leads the individual stats in the WAC with 4.17 per set, followed by freshman outside hitter Natalie Tardy with 3.78 per set. Tardy, a 6’2″ recruit out of Horizon High School in Scottsdale, joined with Dugan on the Gonzaga Invite All Tournament Team.
The odds are leaning in the Lumberjacks’ favor for this tournament, which also includes Albany and UC Riverside. The ‘Jacks are coming in off a two-week road trip and will be energized by their first home match of the season.
“This weekend is an opportunity to keep working on some things and keep improving on parts of our game that we’re focusing on,” says NAU head coach Ken Murphy. “Playing at home is good for us because we’ll get more rest and we’ll play in front of a crowd that we know we play well in front of.”
The stats bear out that last point. Last year, the ‘Jacks were 11-2 at home in Rolle Activity Center — a mark that equals the most home victories in a season in school history.
Add to all that a deep, talented roster and you have a formula for success, not just in this tournament, but as the season progresses. NAU returns nine players, including five starters, from a team that posted 19 wins last season and finished fourth in the Big Sky. To add to that experience, Murphy added three transfers to this year’s roster.
The upper-class leadership this season includes junior outside hitter Janae Vander Ploeg, an All-Big Sky selection last year, and senior outside hitter Sydney Kemper, who has a chance to become the first player in program history to be named four times to the All-Conference team.
NAU and GCU will open the two-day tournament with an 11 a.m. game tomorrow (Friday).
(Photo: NAU Athletics)