FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – With a stacked roster headlined by five seniors, the NAU volleyball team opened practice Wednesday in preparation for its 29-match 2012 season. With eight returning letter winners and four superb newcomers, head coach Craig Choate is looking to integrate the leadership and experience of his upperclassmen with the skill of the newcomers as NAU looks to build off its 15-10 record from a season ago.
"The first practice is always good because they are always excited, but the test is three of four days from now when we start to get tired," said Choate. "It was a good first practice. We are much deeper then we have been since I've been here, so that makes practice better."
The team is scheduled to conduct 19 practices, including a Blue vs. Gold scrimmage in Rolle Activity Center next Friday, Aug. 17, at 6 p.m. before heading to Las Vegas to open its season at the UNLV Invitational on Aug. 24. The Lumberjacks will conduct two-a-day practices throughout the remainder of this week and next week, putting in practice time and other team activities to build to the start of the 2012 season.
"We are so excited to start organized practice," said senior libero Anna Gott. "We've all been playing throughout the summer but I know we are ready to compete, and I'm really excited about our incoming players. I think that they will all really help our program and I'm really excited to start playing with them."
Following a 12-0 start to the 2011 season which broke school and Big Sky records, the Lumberjacks finished with a 6-10 conference record and fell short of the Big Sky Championship. A similar start to the 2012 season will be even more of a challenge as NAU plays its entire non-conference schedule on the road in three tournaments and opens with five of its first six Big Sky matches on the road, meaning that the team will play 14 of its first 15 matches of the year away from Flagstaff.
NAU will look to use the non-conference schedule to build into a challenging 20-match slate in the newly expanded Big Sky Conference, four more conference matches than were played last season. The Lumberjacks have not reached the conference tournament since 2007, and with five superb seniors from Choate's first recruiting class playing in their final collegiate season, the 2012 Lumberjacks have the makeup of a team that is ready to take that next step. The expectations, however, are no different than last year, says Choate.
"The expectations are the same as every year: to make it to the tournament," He said. "I think if we live up to our ability our chances are good."
Gott is joined by Lauren Campbell, Kelli Dallmann, Jen Wilson, and fifth-year senior Lexi Sullivan as upperclassmen looking to end their collegiate careers with a Big Sky title. Sophomore Sydney Kemper, who, along with Gott, was an All-Big Sky honorable mention selection last season, returns as well as Kalee Kirby and Taylor Stephens for their sophomore seasons. The eight returners all saw extensive court time last season, with five of them serving as starters.
The returners will be aided by three freshman and junior college transfer Erin Truett, who began her collegiate career at Kansas State and was ranked as a top-100 high school player by prepvolleyball.com. Janae Vander Ploeg joins the Lumberjacks at outside hitter after being named the top multi-sport high school athlete in the state of Colorado and a two-time prepvolleyball.com high school All-American, and Trianna Henry comes to NAU after leading her Sunnyslope high school team to four consecutive Arizona state championships. At 6-3, Payton Bock becomes the tallest Lumberjack and will play in the middle following a superb high school career of her own in which she was one of five players on ESPN's Gatorade Player of the Year listings for the state of Arizona as a senior.
The influx of superb young talent with a seasoned group of returners could prove to be a recipe for success in 2012 as Gott and her fellow seniors look to lead NAU back amongst the elite of the Big Sky.
"Having five seniors will add a lot of emotion behind how we are playing," she said. "We've had a lot of ups and downs but I think all of the seniors having more experience will really help us. We realize that this is going to be our last shot so we are going to put everything into it."