FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – Portland State came to the Rolle Activity Center Thursday night undefeated in Big Sky play, and left with its first conference loss as the Northern Arizona volleyball team willed itself to a 25-22, 25-23, 26-24 sweep of the Vikings. The Lumberjacks picked up their second consecutive victory over Portland State after dropping the previous 16 matches between the two teams to improve to 10-4 overall and more importantly 4-1 in the conference.
"It was a very hard-fought match and the difference between the two teams was very small," said head coach Ken Murphy. "I thought the things that made the difference was our right-side attack with Sydney (Kemper) and Taylor (Stephens) did some things in the middle at some important times. They were the difference makers and our ability to fight was crucial."
The Vikings, the preseason favorite in the Big Sky, came out of the gates winning five of the first seven points. Down 5-2, a 4-0 NAU run put the Lumberjacks ahead as they steadily built their lead to as much as six points. Portland State utilized a run of its own to climb back within one as late as 21-20, but a kill by freshman Addy Lofstedt followed by a service ace from junior Sydney Kemper and a PSU error gave the Lumberjacks set point. After the visitors withstood two set points, a Viking attack error, their eighth of the opening set, provided NAU with its 25th point.
The second set began like the first with Portland State jumping out to a lead and NAU battling back to get ahead. But it was the Vikings who held a slight advantage late in the set at 22-20 before NAU finished it with a flurry. Back to back kills by sophomores Payton Bock and Janae Vander Ploeg evened the score and a Portland State mistake followed by an ace by Lofstedt capped a decisive 4-0 spurt. The Vikings were able to steal one last point before the Lumberjacks wrapped up the 2-0 lead in the match heading into intermission.
Eight ties would precede either team reaching 14 points in the third set but with the score knotted at 13-13, the Vikings appeared to gain control with a 5-0 run that put them in front 18-13. A kill by Aubrey Mitchell later gave Portland State a 22-18 lead before the Lumberjacks once again rallied. Kemper and junior Taylor Stephens' tandem block sliced the NAU deficit to 23-22 and was the catalyst in the team's match-clinching run. Portland State held off one match point at 24-23 by forcing extra points, but a kill by Kemper and a final block by Kemper and Stephens – the seventh and final block for both of the juniors – completed a match-ending 6-1 NAU run.
"We came out strong and focused and our biggest thing that we wanted to do was stay relaxed," Kemper said. "We played a really good team, they were number one, so we knew it was going to be a good match and we had to carry a lot of energy with us."
The Lumberjacks finished with a match-high .312 hitting percentage in the final set as NAU outhit Portland State .179 to .091. It was the third time in four matches that the Lumberjacks held their opponent below a .100 clip. A strong presence at the net led by Kemper and Stephens' seven blocks each was key in NAU holding a 13.0-6.0 advantage in blocks.
Kemper notched her second double-double of the season, and her career, with 14 kills and a career-best 11 digs while hitting a sizzling .393. Senior Lexie Schroeder was exceptional in the backrow totaling a career-high 17 digs and junior Erin Truett recorded 38 assists. Stephens continued her strong play of late with seven kills on .500 hitting to go along with her seven blocks.
"I think tonight speaks to our character," Murphy said. "We don't let the little adversities affect our long term plans of improving and winning this conference. A lot of teams lower their expectations with adversity and our team raises our expectations."
NAU will wrap up its three-match homestand on Saturday versus Eastern Washington at 7 p.m. The Eagles are 3-2 in the conference after defeating Southern Utah Thursday night in four sets.