FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – Behind a raucous and enthusiastic home crowd of 672, the Northern Arizona volleyball team opened the Fiesta Bowl Tournament in grand fashion sweeping San Diego State, 28-26, 30-28, 25-22, Friday night. The Lumberjacks improved to 4-0 in 2013, pulling off their fourth three-set sweep in as many matches to open the season.
"Being in this gym and having these fans behind us raises our level and gives us a little more confidence and it was a huge difference against a team like this," said head coach Ken Murphy. "The first two sets were two-point games and the fans gave us an edge tonight."
The Lumberjacks pulled off a dramatic first set victory that would epitomize their effort in their home opener after each team had two set points to claim the early advantage. But two kills from sophomore Janae Vander Ploeg with the score at 26-26 ultimately brought the NAU faithful to its feet as the Lumberjacks prevailed in the first set thriller that saw 13 ties.
The story was repeated in the second set as both teams once again engaged in a tight battle as the score was even on 14 occasions. With neither team able to hold a lead larger than two points, the set once again needed extra points to be decided. The Aztecs had two opportunities to even the match at one set apiece as they were serving for the set at both 25-24 and 26-25, but junior Sydney Kemper pounded two kills off the block each time to keep NAU alive. A kill by San Diego State's Chloe Mathis put the Aztecs ahead at 28-27, but the Lumberjacks withstood a third set point off an Aztec attack error. The error was one of two in the final three points, with in addition to a kill by sophomore Payton Bock, was what NAU needed to head into intermission one set away from victory.
While the first two sets were tightly contested, the Lumberjacks seized control of the third set early taking the lead three points in and maintaining a steady advantage throughout for the sweep. Unlike the two sets that preceded it, the third set had just one tie – at 1-1 – and NAU never trailed although the Aztecs particularly kept themselves in the match with short runs to counter NAU's spurts coming out of timeouts. But it was the Lumberjack effort that was on maximum display for the 91-minute match that is what impressed Murphy the most.
"San Diego State put a lot of pressure on us, but we kept responding and we were tough," Murphy said. "When they made a great play, we would make a great play of our own and we were steady. There were some things offensively that worked for us and I give credit to our team for making the adjustments defensively. More than anything, I thought we were gritty."
The Lumberjacks rode the arms of Kemper and Vander Ploeg as the duo combined for 25 kills and just three errors. Kemper equaled her career-high with 15 kills and hit .464 for the match while Vander Ploeg added 10 kills and hit .321. Freshman Jensen Barton dished out 38 assists, the highest total of her young career, and the Lumberjacks used the block to force the Aztecs into 27 errors. The Lumberjacks totaled nine team blocks versus just three by the Aztecs led by Barton and junior Taylor Stephens who had three blocks each.
Sweeping San Diego State, an NCAA Tournament team last year and vote-getter in the preseason AVCA rankings, was no easy task but it was made easier with the largest home crowd since the 2010 season finale supporting their hometown Lumberjacks.
"I've never seen the crowd like tonight," Kemper said. "Seeing everyone in the stands got us all pumped up. Tonight sets the tone for the entire weekend and we came out, did our best and proved we could beat them."
In the first match of the day, Cal State Northridge edged out Idaho in five sets. The Lumberjacks return to the court versus Idaho to open four matches on Saturday at 10 a.m. They will then wrap up the Fiesta Bowl with Cal State Northridge at 7 p.m. Both matches will be televised live by NAU-TV and can be seen online here or locally on Suddenlink channel 4.