FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – The NAU volleyball team takes a Big Sky-best 8-1 nonconference record into the start of conference play this week, opening at 6 p.m. Friday at Idaho State (6-3) before playing at 3 p.m. Saturday at Weber State (6-5). The Lumberjacks rank among the top three in the Big Sky in hitting percentage, opponent hitting percentage, kills, assists, blocks, and digs after another superb nonconference season and look to open conference play with a pair of wins this weekend.
"Probably for the first time since I've been here I feel like I know at what level the team will show up, and it's a higher level than it has been in the past," said fifth year head coach Craig Choate on the Lumberjacks Weekly podcast. "Conference gets harder; even when you're not playing nationally ranked teams, conference gets harder and everything matters more. They've been playing great and have been doing a good job in every match so they should be confident."
NAU's loss to Cal last Saturday ended a 17 match nonconference winning streak dating back to last season and was its first nonconference loss since falling 3-0 to No. 24 Arizona on Sept. 11, 2010, but the Lumberjacks still enter Big Sky play as the only team with just one loss. While the 2012 team narrowly missed on a second consecutive undefeated non-conference season, the numbers thus far are even better than last year entering conference play. The team is hitting .258 in 2012 compared to a .204 hitting percentage through nine matches in 2011 and is also averaging more kills (12.88/set to 11.80/set), assists (12.88/set to 11.80/set), blocks (2.42/set to 2.40/set), and service aces (1.30/set to 1.23/set) this year.
Another important distinction is the wider distribution of scoring in 2012. The team has three players (Kelli Dallmann, Janae Vander Ploeg, and Sydney Kemper) who have scored more than 100 points this season compared to just one player (Kobi Christensen) over 100 points through nine matches in 2011. NAU has also played all nine matches thus far on the road while the 2011 run included three home matches during the Fiesta Bowl Tournament.
Following an All-Big Sky honorable mention selection after her freshman season, Kemper has picked up right where she left off to start 2012. Kemper opened the season hitting .407 with 2.36 kills and 1.00 blocks per set in being named to the UNLV Invitational All-Tournament team. She followed with another superb performance in Colorado, hitting .396 with 2.27 kills and 1.18 blocks per set and then totaled 2.55 kills and 1.18 blocks per set while hitting .351 to lead NAU to a 2-1 record at the Molten Classic Presented by Hilton Garden Inn. She earned her first career Big Sky Player of the Week honor for her performance in Berkeley, leads the Big Sky with a .384 hitting percentage, and ranks fifth with 1.12 blocks per set entering conference Play.
Senior libero Anna Gott averaged 5.91 digs per set last weekend at Cal and is now just 93 digs shy of the NAU career digs record. Gott began the season second all-time in program history with 1,305 career digs and has upped her total to 1,456 to move closer to Chelsea Robb's career digs record of 1,549. If she sticks to her career average of 4.55 digs per set, Gott would break the program record in approximately 20.5 sets, which could be played in five or six more matches. Gott has recorded double-digit digs in seven matches this season with four matches of 20 or more digs, including a season-high 29 digs at Cal.
Idaho State, picked to finish seventh in the Big Sky preseason poll, enters conference play on a five match winning streak after starting the season 1-3. The Bengals defeated St. Francis (NY), Fairleigh Dickinson, and St. Johns to win the Keiser Classic last weekend in New York. The squad also defeated UNLV, 3-1, at a tournament in Portland, a team NAU also defeated 3-1 in Las Vegas. Idaho State went 14-14 overall last season and 7-9 in the Big Sky, placing sixth. The Bengals, who lead the Big Sky with a .268 team hitting percentage, swept NAU in two matches last season and have won six consecutive meetings between the teams.
Weber State will open conference play hosting Southern Utah on Friday before playing NAU on Saturday. The Wildcats also enter conference play on a winning streak after going 4-0 last week at the Tangi Tourism Lion Classic in Hammond, La. The Wildcats, picked to finish 10th out of 11 teams in the Big Sky preseason poll, have already doubled their win total from 2011 in which the team finished 3-26 overall and 3-13 in the Big Sky, with two of their three wins coming against NAU. NAU had won four consecutive matches against the Wildcats before being swept last season and maintains a 33-28 all-time advantage.