By Andrew Tomsky, NAU Media Relations
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – NAU volleyball freshman outside hitter Janae Vander Ploeg came to Northern Arizona as a highly recruited and accomplished high school athlete hoping to contribute on a veteran team with five seniors and a strong sophomore class. And contribute she has, starting from the first serve of the season and quickly becoming one of the most complete and talented players in the Big Sky conference.
"It was really a shock to even be starting," said Vander Ploeg. "When I came to NAU I told all my friends 'if I work hard, maybe I'll have the chance to start. I was coming in thinking to just play my hardest and keep having fun and hopefully the rest would come. I was pretty nervous at first but it really helps having the girls on the court."
Any nerves have certainly not been apparent to NAU's early season opponents, as Vander Ploeg has averaged 3.58 kills, 1.88 digs, and 0.52 blocks per set while hitting .266 during NAU's 9-2 start to the season, earning all-tournament honors in all three tournaments NAU played in during the nonconference season. The leadership of NAU's upperclassmen and their integration of the freshman star have been vital in her early season success.
"Their experience really helps on the court and shows me what I need to be doing and where I should be," Vander Ploeg said of the five seniors. "The team has been helping me so much through everything and everyone is such good leaders on the court."
A native of Colorado Springs, Colo., Vander Ploeg had the opportunity to make an immediate return trip to play in her home state for NAU's second tournament of the season at the Omni Hotels Colorado Volleyball Classic. She had several family members make the short trip north to the University of Colorado campus in Boulder to see her compete against elite competition, including the Pac-12 Colorado Buffaloes.
Not only did she compete, she dominated, totaling double-digit kills in all three matches with two double-doubles and an average of 3.91 kills per set. She played the best match of her young career against the mighty Buffaloes, the elite collegiate athletics program in the state and the only one from a major conference. Vander Ploeg totaled career highs of 21 kills and 12 digs against Colorado, hitting .302 and adding a service ace and a block. It seemed only fitting that Vander Ploeg would have such an impressive collegiate debut in her home state after dominating the Colorado high school sports scene.
A three-sport star at Cheyenne Mountain high school in volleyball, basketball and soccer, Vander Ploeg had the great honor of earning the 2012 Fred Steinmark High School Athlete of the Year award as the top multi-sport female student athlete in the state of Colorado. The award itself was immensely special to Vander Ploeg, and what made it even more exciting was that the male winner of the award, Canyon Barry, the youngest son of NBA Hall of Famer Rick Barry, has been a close friend of hers since kindergarten.
"It was definitely an honor just to be nominated for it and to win it I was speechless when they called me," she said. "It was really exciting and with Canyon winning it too it was really exciting to share it with him."
Being a multi-sport student-athlete was something that Vander Ploeg enjoyed from a young age, but she soon learned that volleyball was her strongest passion.
"I played soccer the longest but I knew in junior high that I wanted to play volleyball in college so I pursued that a lot more than soccer and basketball," she said. "I've been playing both of them for so long that it might be weird not playing them anymore. I haven't noticed it yet but I think when I get to the winter and spring I'll probably miss them a little bit."
Volleyball was clearly the right path for Vander Ploeg to pursue, as she had one of the most storied high school careers that any student-athlete could have. Her Cheyenne Mountain high school team had never won a state title before Vander Ploeg arrived as a freshman; they then won four consecutive state titles with her leading the team. She was named the state championship MVP in both her junior and senior years, was the Denver Post 4A Player of the Year, earned two conference player of the year awards, and was a two-time PrepVolleyball.com High School All-American. On top of that, Vander Ploeg earned the Colorado Sportswoman of the Year 2012 Leadership Award.
"To lead my teammates in academics and athletics was always a goal of mine," said Vander Ploeg, who aspires for a career in physical therapy or athletic training.
Wanting to experience living in a new place when deciding on a college, Vander Ploeg fielded offers from as close as Denver University to as far away as the University of Rhode Island. NAU provided her with the perfect combination of a head coach that was very welcoming and treated his players how she wanted to be treated, a friendly and accepting group of student-athletes, and a climate not too different than her home. She knew she made the right decision the first time she took the floor with her new teammates.
"Within the first few practices it seemed like we had been practicing with each other for a long time," she said. "The girls are great teammates and they just really help you play your game. If you mess up, they don't get mad at you and they just have fun with you on the court."
The tremendous start to Vander Ploeg's career, paired with another superb non-conference record for her team, has thus far taken place completely away from Flagstaff as the team opened its season with 11 consecutive road matches. The NAU faithful in Flagstaff will have their first opportunity to see Vander Ploeg and the 2012 Lumberjacks when they host Sacramento State on Thursday, as she and the rest of the team have been looking forward to their home opener for a long time.
"I'm so excited for it, it seems like it's been a really long time since we haven't had one yet," said Vander Ploeg. "I think that it will be fun to be playing on the home court and in front of our school will be a blast."
As the confidence continues to grow with tremendous early season success, Vander Ploeg has remained level headed and realizes that conference play is where the team has to be at its best.
"I think we're confident but we still need to practice hard every day," she said. "We need to take it one game at a time and just keep improving. Hopefully it will be a really good season and we'll have a lot of fun while we're doing it."
With those five seniors looking to end their careers with a trip to the Big Sky Championship, a place they have not been during their NAU careers, it will come down to both them and the youngsters playing at their best when they need it the most. The drive to reach that goal gives Vander Ploeg the strength to continue to improve so that her first season can be the last season that the seniors have always desired.
"They want it so much and it makes us want it too," she said. "To be playing for them and try to get to conference for them is special. It would just be something to be really proud of."