The Northern Arizona University women’s volleyball team will take on the University of San Diego in Thursday’s first round of the NCAA Tournament after being issued their ticket to the 64-team Big Dance during last night’s televised Selection Show.
And that in itself is a major accomplishment for Lumberjack volleyball. It marks just the second time in the history of the program that the ‘Jacks will be appearing in the NCAA tourney. The only other time was before the turn of the century – in 1999 to be specific – when they lost to North Carolina in the first round.
The team gathered last night for a viewing party at the Oakmont Restaurant in Flagstaff to join with a packed house of friends, family, and fans to await the announcement that has been a long time coming. They found out they will be traveling to Los Angeles where they will match up with the Toreros in the Galen Center on the USC campus.
So how did the ‘Jacks get on the road to LA? They won the regular season title, the Big Sky Conference Tournament, set a bunch of new school records, and made their mark in the national stats.
The three-set victory last week over Idaho State to win the Big Sky Tournament – the first time in 16 years – capped a 17-match winning streak to set a new school record. Their 28 victories on the season also set a new school record.
And, since it was played in Flagstaff, it completed a 14-0 record at home to make this team the first ever to post an unbeaten record on their home court.
Not surprisingly, the fans have responded accordingly. The sellout crowd of 1,423 that packed into Rolle Activity Center to watch the Big Sky Tournament also set a new school record.
NAU, which finished the regular season 27-4 overall and 15-1 in conference play, was the top seed entering the tourney and proved why they were given that distinction, sweeping through their three matches without losing a set on the way to the title. In the first two games, they set the two highest single-match hitting percentages in league tournament history, hitting .448 against Southern Utah and .443 against Sacramento State.
The ‘Jacks had a much tougher time against third-seeded Idaho State (23-10) in the title match, as the two teams fought to 30 ties and a dozen lead changes during the three sets. But NAU prevailed to win all three 28-26, 25-18, 25-23 and avenge a loss to Idaho State in last year’s conference tournament semifinals.
Janae Vander Ploeg led NAU’s offensive attack that struggled much of the time, unlike the previous two games. The senior outside hitter recorded 12 kills, followed by 10 kills from Payton Bock, the 6’3″ middle blocker from Hamilton High School in Chandler. Junior setter Jensen Barton – another local athlete, from Arcadia High School in Phoenix – handed out 34 assists to join in the effort.
Vander Ploeg had a total 40 kills and 30 digs over the three sets and was voted the tournament’s Most Valuable Player. Her 1,644 career kills is a school record and also ranks seventh all-time in conference history and 12th among all active D-I players in the country. This season’s 581 kills puts her fifth in the country in the single-season category.
Coming into the conference tourney, Bock ranked second in the country with 170 blocks. Her career mark of 546 blocks set a school record and put her second among active D-I players.
Vander Ploeg was named to the All-Tournament Team, along with teammates Bock, Barton, and Lauren Jacobsen, a junior outside hitter who also attended Hamilton High. Jacobsen contributed 36 kills and seven aces during the tournament.
As a team, the ‘Jacks are ranked fifth in the nation in blocks, with 326 to date, and fourth with 210 total aces. Senior setter Jordon Leiter posted five service aces in the conference tournament title match.
Now the focus turns to beating San Diego, which sports a 21-9 record and finished second in the West Coast Conference, in Thursday’s 5 p.m. (AZ time) match. The Toreros are ranked 28th nationally (but were No. 18 at one point in the season), and the Lumberjacks are No. 35. They have split the eight times they’ve played, but haven’t met since 1995.
If the ‘Jacks get past San Diego, they will likely face a much steeper challenge. If USC (30-2) gets past Cleveland State (26-6) in their first-round game, NAU will match up with the Trojans, the No. 1 team in the nation and No. 1 overall seed.
But they won’t have much time to think about it – and that’s probably a good thing. The second round is Friday.
(Photo: NAU Athletics)