Last year’s Northern Arizona women’s volleyball team posted one of the most successful seasons in program history, but fell just short of the ultimate goal when they lost to the eventual Big Sky Conference champion Idaho State in the semifinals.
But this year’s squad may be good enough to finish the job and become just the second team in program history to bring home a Big Sky championship. The school’s lone title came back in 1999.
The Lumberjacks are off to a 2-1 start to the 2015 season and host a four-team field this weekend for the annual Lumberjack Classic tournament. Houston Baptist, Liberty, and Loyola Marymount will provide a competitive event, which is just what third-year head coach Ken Murphy wants.
“Our team is dedicated and hungry, and we operate on the basis that we want to get better and better, to be our best in November,” he points out.
The three teams invited this year have a combined 10-2 record so far this season, with Houston Baptist and Liberty so far undefeated and Loyola Marymount coming off a sweep of No. 20 UCLA on the road.
But the ‘Jacks are coming off a 21-8 season, just the fourth 20-win season in program history, and have been picked in the pre-season to finish second in the Big Sky, behind defending champ Idaho State. Last year’s team led the conference in hitting percentage, opponent hitting percentage, assists, and blocks.
And Murphy has the cream of the 2014 roster back for this season. He has a strong senior class of four, top-level skill at every position, and one of the best outside-hitter tandems in the Big Sky in senior Janae Vander Ploeg and junior Lauren Jacobsen. Vander Ploeg, a three-time All-Conference selection, hit the 1,000-career kill mark last season and is on track to become just the second player in school history to record both 1,000 kills and 1,000 digs during her career.
Jacobsen is one of three local athletes that are expected to play key roles in this season’s success. The six-foot OH is a graduate of Hamilton High School in Chandler, but spent her first two years playing at San Jose State. She started all 29 matches for the ‘Jacks last season and ranked third on the team in both kills and digs.
Hamilton also provided NAU with one of its top middle blockers in senior Payton Bock who finished last year as the No. 2 blocker in the conference with a 1.34 per-set average. She was largely responsible for the ‘Jacks being able to lead the conference in that category and finishing as the No. 10 team in the country.
The other local who will play a significant role again this year is Jensen Barton from Arcadia High School in Scottsdale. The junior setter directed the NAU attack last season, finishing second in the Big Sky with 10.75 assists per set and third with 0.35 service aces per set, which earned her Second Team All-Big Sky honors.
And the ‘Jacks are solid at the libero position as well, where Cal Poly transfer Stacia Williams will play out her redshirt senior season after a 2014 campaign in which she stabilized the defense with 430 digs, or 4.43 digs per set. Those marks put her at sixth in both categories in the program’s season record books.
Bottom line: The ‘Jacks are loaded and have the potential to make another serious run at the Big Sky title.
(Photo: NAU Athletics)