Local prep players key to strong start for NAU volleyball

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                </div>  The Northern Arizona University women’s volleyball team is off to a strong start in its second season under new head coach, Ken Murphy, with a line-up that is heavily […]<!-- AddThis Sharing Buttons below -->
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The Northern Arizona University women’s volleyball team is off to a strong start in its second season under new head coach, Ken Murphy, with a line-up that is heavily supported with in-state talent.

And Payton Bock and Jensen Barton are foremost among those that have helped the Lumberjacks jump out to a 9-0 start to the season and settle in last week to a 12-3 overall record and a tie for second place in the South Division of the Big Sky Conference.  The Jacks have won three of their four conference matches, with their only loss coming at the hands of Idaho, the second-place team in the North.

Bock, a 6’3″ junior middle blocker from Hamilton High School in Chandler, came into last week’s road trip through Idaho and Utah leading the conference in hitting percentage at .386.  Barton, a sophomore setter from Scottsdale’s Arcadia High, tops the Big Sky in service aces with 0.42 per set.  As a team, NAU is in the top 10 nationally in aces per set.

And Taylor Stephens, a 6’3″ senior middle blocker from Scottsdale Christian Academy, was one of three Lumberjacks that recorded double-digit kills in Saturday’s four-set victory over Southern Utah.  The others in that threesome were senior outside hitter Sydney Kemper, who led the assault with 19 kills, and junior outside hitter Janae Vander Ploeg.

Five players on the 15-person Lumberjack roster were recruited from Arizona high schools.

Kemper and Stephens are two of just three seniors on this year’s roster, the other being defensive specialist Hannah Hill, who attended high school in California but started her college career in Prescott at Yavapai College before transferring in to NAU.

Last season, NAU finished in fourth place in the Big Sky, but were  picked in the pre-season this year to finish in a tie with Idaho for first place.  Murphy, who was the 2012 Conference USA Coach of the Year at UTEP, inherited a program on the rise.  The year before he arrived the Jacks had 24 wins and a program-best 774 winning percentage, but last year’s team was predominantly young and inexperienced and struggled to a 19-11 overall record and 13-7 in conference.

But their only misstep in conference play was last Thursday’s match with Idaho, their first meeting with a conference foe on the road.

The Jacks ran out of gas in the first two sets, coming from behind in the first set but unable to keep executing their offense and then allowing Idaho to score 11 of the final 13 points in the second set.  In the third, a 13-2 advantage for the Vandals was too much to overcome, despite the Jacks winning eight of the final 11 points.

Jacobsen and redshirt junior defensive specialist Stacia Williams had 17 digs apiece, Vander Ploeg led the offensive attack with nine kills, and Bock hit. 417 – her seventh straight match above .400.

The match with Southern Utah two days later tested the team’s resiliency and Murphy was pleased with what he saw.  “I’m especially proud of the team because Thurday (against Idaho) was our first real dose of adversity,” he said after the match that went four sets,  “and we bounced back and played exactly the type of match we wanted to play.”

NAU had little trouble in the first match, winning 25-17, but lost the second, 22-25, to force a fourth set.  The Jacks won the last two, 25-20 and 25-17.

In addition to Kemper’s career-high 19 kills, Barton contributed 48 assists to tie a season high and help enable five teammates to record seven or more kills apiece.

It was Kemper and Bock stepping up in the fourth and final set when Southern Utah tied things up at 15-15.  The pair combined on three blocks and each put away a kill to help swing the momentum back to the Jacks.  A solo block by Vander Ploeg, her sixth of the set, sealed the win.

Overall, NAU enjoyed a huge block advantage (14-3) as Kemper and Bock posted seven apiece to hold the Thunderbirds to a .141 percentage on the night.

“It was a huge challenge, we came in knowing this weekend was a huge challenge,” said Murphy, “and it became an even bigger challenge for out team after Thursday.  Everybody really came together and it’s looking really good for us right now.”

The Jacks are back at home this week with games against Montana and Montana State before heading out on the road again for the next two weeks.

(Photo: NAU Athletics)