FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – The NAU volleyball team (6-0) will look to complete another undefeated nonconference season this weekend at the Molten Classic Presented by Hilton Garden Inn in Berkeley, Calif. The Lumberjacks will face UC Riverside (3-3) at 5 p.m. Friday followed by Penn (2-1) at 1 p.m. Saturday and host Cal (2-3) at 7 p.m. NAU has won five consecutive tournaments and 15 consecutive non-conference matches dating back to last season.
"Our team almost always plays up so this should be a nice measuring stick," NAU head coach Craig Choate said. "We've won some matches but we want to know if we can compete with the big teams and this is the measure. Colorado is Pac-12 but they aren't the nationally ranked team that Cal is so this should be a telling point."
After opening the season ranked No. 17 in the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) poll, Cal has started the year 2-3 and is now the second team receiving votes outside the top-25, essentially ranked No. 27 in the country. This week is the first week since 2002 that Cal has not appeared in the top-25 rankings, as the team was ranked as high as No. 1 in the country last season and advanced to the 2010 national championship match. The Bears have lost three matches to unranked teams this season but defeated No. 6 Hawaii, 3-2, in its last match in Honolulu.
NAU freshman outside hitter Janae Vander Ploeg has started all six Lumberjack matches and proved why she was a two-time Colorado high school volleyball player of the year selection, averaging 3.41 kills per set while hitting .290. She is second on the team in both of those categories as well as service aces and digs and has twice been an all-tournament selection. Playing for the first time as a collegian in her home state of Colorado last weekend, Vander Ploeg recorded two double-doubles including career highs of 21 kills and 12 digs in NAU's win over host Colorado. She has recorded double-digit kills in five consecutive matches and has hit .300 or better in four of six matches this season.
"The setting by Kalee Kirby has been amazing and the setting and passing by all the girls has been amazing," said Vander Ploeg on the Lumberjacks Weekly podcast. "It was really a shock to even be starting and then to get all-tournament (twice) is just such a huge honor to have. (This weekend) will be really fun and no matter what the outcome is its going to make us better."
The 6-0 start to the 2012 season mirrors the open to the 2011 season, in which NAU eventually moved to 12-0, but the numbers thus far have been even better than last year. The team is hitting .273 in 2012 compared to a .216 hitting percentage through six matches in 2011 and is also averaging more kills (13.64/set to 12.87/set), assists (12.86/set to 11.96/set), and blocks (2.36/set to 2.17/set) this year.
The 2011 run did have higher dig totals and a lower opponent hitting percentage, but the 2012 squad's exceptional hitting percentage has limited defensive opportunities. The team has also played all six matches thus far on the road while the 2011 run included three home matches during the Fiesta Bowl Tournament, and the 2012 version has lost just four sets in six matches while the 2011 team dropped five sets. A much more balanced distribution of scoring in the 2012 run also suggests more depth and potential for long term success.
UC Riverside, a member of the Big West conference, begins the week at 3-3 after going 1-2 in a tournament at Gonzaga last weekend. The Highlanders swept fellow Big Sky member Eastern Washington, who was picked to finish third in the conference by the Big Sky coaches, last weekend and also have wins over Fairleigh Dickinson and Providence, with all three wins coming in sweeps. The team went 7-23 overall last year and 4-12 in the Big West, and NAU is 1-3 all-time vs UC Riverside but won the most recent matchup between the teams, 3-2, in 2006 at a tournament in Denver.
After facing its first Ivy League school in program history in a 3-0 sweep of Cornell last weekend, NAU faces another Ivy League member on Saturday against Penn. The Quakers opened their season at the Philadelphia Big 5 tournament last weekend, losing to Temple but defeating La Salle and Villanova. Sophomore Emma White and freshman Ronnie Bither were named to the all-tournament team, with White averaging 4.09 digs and 2.36 kills per set and Bither posting 10.27 assists per set.
Cal went 26-7 overall last year and advanced to the NCAA Tournament before losing in the opening round. The team returned three starters plus its libero including junior Adrienne Gehan who leads the team with 3.19 kills per set along with 2.14 digs and 0.71 blocks per set. Despite having a losing record, Cal has averaged more kills, assists, digs, service aces, and blocks than its opponents through five matches this season. The Lumberjacks are 0-2 all-time vs Cal, having been swept in both 2000 and 2002.