When a new coach takes over a
struggling program, positive results can often take some time. But
while the NAU volleyball team still has plenty of goals to reach,
second-year head coach Craig Choate led the Lumberjacks to their
best record in seven years last season, and this is clearly a team
on its way up.
While there is certainly some
proven talent on the Lumberjacks' 2009 roster, it is the
performances of the unproven talent which will tell the story this
season, as to say the roster is full of underclassmen is no
exaggeration. Of the 14 student-athletes, 12 are sophomores and
Where leadership will come from on
such a young team is one of the big unknowns heading into the
season. The obvious name that comes to Choate's mind is sophomore
outside hitter Lexi Sullivan.
"Lexi was the Big Sky Freshman of
the Year," said Choate, "which by itself is not enough, but she's
an outgoing person and she just loves to play. She is a person that
can lead. Where else it comes from, I don't know. It's not that
there aren't others who can lead, but when a team changes its
makeup like ours is going to so drastically, you have to wait and
see how the chemistry works out to see where the leadership will
come from. I'll know in the first three days of practice, but I
don't know right now."
The end goal of every season is to
earn a berth in the conference tournament, whose winner goes on to
the NCAA Tournament. That goal, which the Lumberjacks just barely
missed achieving a year ago, will now be made harder as tournament
berths will go to just four teams instead of six.
Another obstacle for NAU lies in
the experience of the conference's top teams, who return all their
starters from last year.
"Portland State, the defending
tournament champion, brings all six starters back with five seniors
and a junior," said Choate. "They have to be the favorites. Eastern
Washington won the regular season and also brings back all six,
four juniors and two seniors. Earning a spot in the tournament is
always the first goal. Are we going to do everything possible to
get there? Of course. Whether we get there or not depends on how
fast a lot of people mature, and a certain amount of luck."
The Lumberjacks will miss the services of Brittany Stowers, last year's Big Sky Libero of the Year who ranked second in the nation in digs. Her defensive performances undoubtedly contributed in a huge way to many of the team's wins last season.
"Brittany can't be replaced," said
Choate. "She's too fabulous a combination of defensive player and
passer. But you don't have to replace her. Every team has great
players go through it that don't get replaced."
"We have some people coming in that
I think are very good. Two freshmen, Anna Gott and Lexie Schroeder,
are both very good defensive players. But we'll be transitioning
from a senior Brittany to a freshman, and that's going to be
Another player Choate will look to
defensively is sophomore Sara Bowden. "Sara made great strides in
the spring," he says, "and is a much better defensive player than
she was last year." Adding to NAU's depth on defense is sophomore
Shanlie Kaululaau, who ranked second on the team in assists last
year and fifth in digs, playing in 18 matches with 10 starts.
The lone senior on the team is last year's starting setter, Jana Mays-Robinson, who transferred to NAU prior to last season. She ranked second in the conference and 34th in the nation in assists per set with 10.84, but will likely face some obstacles this year after undergoing two knee surgeries in the offseason.
"It's going to be a really
interesting battle for the position," said Choate. "Jana is back
for her senior season but may not be 100 percent. We have freshman
Kelli Dallmann coming in who was a first team all-state selection
in Arizona and in my mind has the potential to be unbelievably
good. One of our possible liberos, Anna Gott, set her high school
team to the state championship match and is really quite
accomplished as well."
Junior Chelsea Cheeley returns for her third year with the Lumberjacks, making her the longest-tenured player on the team. Although she saw somewhat limited action as a sophomore, Choate has been very impressed with her play since then.
"Chelsea has been moved all over
the place since she got here, but halfway through this past spring
I decided we needed to lock her down in the middle blocker
position. By the time the end of spring and competition came
around, she was really doing a nice job. I think we kind of found a
diamond in the rough. The second half of spring was the best
volleyball I've seen her play."
Another returner Choate expects to
be solid at the middle blocker position is sophomore Katie Bailey,
who started in 20 of 22 matches she played in as a freshman and
ranked second on the team in blocks. Ashley Ames also factors in
the mix after redshirting as a freshman last year.
Leading the offense is Lexi Sullivan, who ranked 25th in the nation as a freshman with 4.13 kills per set. "Lexi had a great freshman year," said Choate, "but that year is over with. We're hoping she can have a great sophomore year. She's the kind of athlete that's capable of it because she wants it."
Sophomore Kobi Christensen, who put
up some strong numbers in limited action as a freshman due to
injury, is back for her second year but once again may not be 100
percent after undergoing shoulder surgery over the summer. In a
similar situation is sophomore Sam Hodgkins who missed most of last
season and all of the spring season after a shoulder operation.
"Kobi is back, but we don't know
about her yet because of the surgery," said Choate, "and with Sam
it's the same thing. Those are some question marks. Sam's numbers
were quite good for a freshman hitter early last season, but then
we lost her."
Looking to earn spots as outside
hitters will be freshmen Lauren Campbell and Jen Wilson. "Jen looks
strong coming in after her performance at the Junior Olympics this
summer," said Choate. "Lauren is someone who I expect to play
really smart. She's a 5-8 outside, which is small, but she has real
shots. She doesn't just hammer the ball. I'm hoping she can bring
something to our game because we didn't have that kind of player
Two traditionally nationally-ranked opponents and nine television matches highlight the schedule, which also includes the annual Fiesta Bowl Tournament in Flagstaff on Sept. 11-12.
Choate has put together a tougher
early season schedule than the one that saw the Lumberjacks go 8-1
to begin last season, but believes the team will be better for
"The schedule is different this
year in a few ways," said Choate, "but most notably it's that every
team but one ended last season with a higher ranking in the RPI
than we did. Our toughness in the schedule has increased three or
The NAU TV Services Department is
once again televising a majority of the volleyball matches. All
nine of the broadcasts will be available on Dish Network 9411
(Universityhouse), and additional stations such as Fox College
Sports or FSN Arizona will be announced at a later date. All three
of NAU's Fiesta Bowl Tournament matches will be televised, along
with six of the eight home Big Sky Conference contests.
"I hadn't been on TV before I came
here, and it's fabulous for us," said Choate. "I can't tell you how
many people told us they watched matches last year, and it helps us
get out there in the recruiting world. I think it does nothing but
good for the program and for NAU to get us out there."
NAU begins the season at the Boise
State Bronco Invitational where the Lumberjacks will face Cal State
Northridge and Tulsa along with host Boise State. "I have a pretty
good rivalry with the Northridge coach Jeff Stork who was a gold
medal setter in the '88 Olympics," says Choate. "He and I have
faced each other three times in the past and they've all gone to
five sets so that's kind of fun."
The Lumberjacks will then head to
Malibu to take on Pepperdine as part of the USC Tournament. Over
the following two days they will also face Florida Gulf Coast and
USC in Los Angeles. The USC Trojans were ranked 13th nationally in
the final poll from last year, while Pepperdine was ranked during
the season and was the third team receiving votes in the final
NAU will host the 17th annual
Fiesta Bowl Tournament on its home court in September, and will be
looking to defend its title after going a perfect 3-0 last
"The Fiesta Bowl was fabulous last
year," said Choate. "They treated us better than I've ever been
treated at a tournament. They really did a nice job and I was very
impressed. The caliber of the teams participating this year will
make it a tougher tournament than last year."
The Big Sky slate begins for the Lumberjacks on Sept. 17 and 19 with Idaho State and Weber State coming to Flagstaff. The schedule is home-heavy early on with five of the first eight in NAU's Rolle Activity Center, while five of the final eight league matches will be on the road including the last three straight.