FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – The Northern Arizona volleyball team had a season to remember in 2012 for a number of reasons. It ended the year at 24-7 with the 24 victories marking the second-highest single season total in program history, only trailing the 26 wins by the 1991 squad. The .774 winning percentage bested the 1991 team and is the best winning percentage in school history. The Lumberjacks placed third in the Big Sky during the regular season with a 15-5 conference record and proceeded to earn the program's first postseason win since 1999 when they swept Montana State in the conference quarterfinals.
As historic as the 2012 season was, the Lumberjacks enter a new era of NAU volleyball in 2013 led by first-year head coach Ken Murphy, the reigning Conference USA Coach of the Year. Murphy, following seven years at UTEP, leads a young but talented Lumberjack squad into somewhat uncharted waters in terms of high expectations following last year and will need to do so without the help of five graduated seniors and three starters lost plus NAU's most accomplished libero in program history.
Yet despite the losses, Murphy and the Lumberjacks return three starters including the current Big Sky Outstanding Freshman. The Lumberjacks were picked fifth in the Big Sky Coaches Preseason poll, but their talent did not go unrecognized as they received two first-place votes. Young and loaded, the 2013 Lumberjacks are geared up for building upon its successful 2012 campaign.
"We've made a ton of progress and we're much more aware of our identity as a team," Murphy said. "We're powerful at the net and we're continuing to develop how physical we play, how fast we play. The team is starting to relate to our identity."
The Lumberjacks depth and strength currently lies in the middle. With junior Sydney Kemper, a two-time All-Big Sky honoree, and sophomore Payton Bock, last season's Big Sky Outstanding Freshman and first-team all-conference selection, NAU has one of the top middle blocker combos in the Big Sky.
Bock made her presence felt in her debut season as she ranked fourth in the Big Sky and No. 54 nationally with a team-high 1.23 blocks per set, which was the seventh-best single season average in program history. She totaled the third-highest block total with 143 blocks and broke the program record for block assists in a season with 127. Not only was Bock effective on the block, but she ranked second on the team and sixth in the conference with a .303 hitting percentage while averaging 2.30 kills per set.
"Payton had a great freshman year and was recognized by the conference, but I think she has so much room to grow," Murphy said. "She's gotten stronger and she's developed more offensive capabilities. As good as she was last year, I still think her best volleyball is ahead of her."
Kemper earned her second all-conference nod last season and with Bock, the duo was a model of efficiency. Kemper led the team in hitting at .338, second in the Big Sky and third-highest in school history, while also ranking third on the team with 2.37 kills per set. Her 104 block assists was the sixth-highest total in a season in program history and she averaged just shy of a block per set at 0.97. As good as Kemper was though, the thought is moving her to the outside to capitalize on her offensive abilities.
"Right now we're looking at moving Sydney to the right side," Murphy said. "She was a high impact player last year and we think we can do more things with her by moving her positions because she's a real integral part to our offense. We're doing what we can to get her more involved in the offense and have her make a greater impact."
"We have four players that can legitimately fill big roles for us in the middle," Murphy said.
Kemper's potential move to the right side would only add to the strength of the Lumberjacks' outside hitting contingent led by sophomore Janae Vander Ploeg heading into the season. While Bock was recognized as the conference's top freshman, Vander Ploeg was not far behind after sitting among the Big Sky's elite hitters with 3.16 kills per set (seventh in the conference) and 3.69 points per set (eighth in the conference), both averages that paced the Lumberjacks. She garnered All-Big Sky honorable mention honors after leading all Big Sky freshmen in kills and points and also proving more than capable defensively as she ranked fourth on the team with 248 digs for 2.12 per set.
"I think Janae was actually under recognized for all that she was able to do for this program last year," Murphy said. "She's a complete player. Her offensive skills are obvious but she's a really good backrow player as well and has great ball skills. She was underappreciated last year outside of our team and I look for her to continue to grow."
Freshman Addy Lofstedt and junior transfer Hannah Hill have both proven to be competitive throughout fall camp as they try to establish themselves in their first seasons at NAU. Lofstedt was a key member of two league championship teams at Monarch High School in her home state of Colorado while Hill joins the Lumberjacks after a year at Yavapai College where she starred in both volleyball and softball.
"There's some competition between Addy and Hannah," Murphy said. "Addy is very physical and is already learning how to apply her game at the college level. Hannah has the college experience coming from Yavapai and her it's about adjusting to the size and speed at this level."
At the setter position, the Lumberjacks must replace departed starter Kalee Kirby, who transferred to the University of Utah. Murphy has two candidates on the roster with junior Erin Truett returning and freshman Jensen Barton moving north from Phoenix after a stellar high school career at Arcadia High School.
Truett enters her second season with the Lumberjacks after transferring in from South Mountain CC where she averaged 8.43 assists per set. Although Truett did not see action in her first season at NAU last year, she performed well during the Lumberjacks' spring exhibition season.
Barton on the other hand led Arcadia to a pair of Arizona state runner-up finishes in 2011 and 2012 and was named to the Arizona Republic Division-II All-State First Team as a senior. During her final season, in which she was also named PrepVolleyball.com Senior Ace, she hit .428 and averaged 2.80 kills, 1.80 digs and 4.80 assists per set.
"Erin set the team all spring and they did well with her controlling things," Murphy said. "She's a talented setter that connects with hitters well. Jensen is really dynamic and she's just scratching the surface with what she can do setting and leading a team. Between the two of them, we're hoping to raise the level of our offense and they do that in different ways."
Among the departed graduating class was Anna Gott, the team's starting libero of the last four years. Gott, who finished her career with a school-record 1,891 digs which was also the third-most in Big Sky history, is now on Murphy's staff as an assistant coach. Although Gott's numbers are indication of her significance and impact to the team, her consistency – she started every match and played in every set during her four-year career and she recorded four of the six highest single season dig averages in school history – is something the Lumberjacks must fill in 2013.
To fill the void left by Gott, the Lumberjacks feature a trio of players that will be asked to take up the task in the backrow. The veteran of the group is senior Lexie Schroeder, the lone four-year player on this year's roster. Schroeder has 37 career starts to her name and has averaged 1.81 digs per set over her first three seasons with a career-high 185 digs in 2011.
"Lexie is a really good player and the biggest contribution she makes is that she works really hard," Murphy said. "She makes a lot of great volleyball plays. When she's playing hard, it has a really positive effect on everyone around her."
Along with Schroeder, Murphy can also turn to sophomore Trianna Henry who appeared in all 31 matches a year ago. She averaged 1.68 digs per set with 197 total digs, both of which rank only behind Vander Ploeg among returning Lumberjacks.
Freshman Hannah Johnson gives NAU a third option and together the trio will not necessarily be asked to replace Gott but instead develop as individuals and fill the numbers vacated by Gott collectively.
"Anna was such a great player for this program and made such a big impact that we're looking for leadership characteristics from our liberos as a group," Murphy said. "All three are different than Anna. We're not looking to replace her, rather we're looking for these three to grow within themselves and become leaders in their own ways."
The Lumberjacks have 29 matches on their schedule and will begin the 2013 season with the William & Mary Invitational in Williamsburg, Va. on Aug. 30 and 31. The following week, they will open up their home schedule with the return of the 20th Fiesta Bowl Tournament. NAU will welcome Cal State Northridge, Idaho and San Diego State to the Rolle Activity Center for the two-day tournament from Sept. 6-7.
After traveling to Albuquerque, N.M. for the Lobo Invitational from Sept. 13-14, the Lumberjacks host Idaho State and Weber State on Sept. 19 and 21 in their Big Sky openers. Overall, the Lumberjacks will have seven of their first 10 conference matches at home through the first half of Big Sky play before wrapping up with seven of their final 10 on the road.
"Our team is relatively young and our main goal is to keep improving from day one through the conference tournament," Murphy said. "We're hoping that our preseason schedule helps us to continue to improve and challenge us. When we get into conference, it will help us to have some home games early because I know the team has always played well at home. But as strong as we feel today, we want to be so much stronger come November and December."
For the full 2013 schedule, click here.