MISSOULA, Mont. – Just one night after squandering a 2-1 lead to Montana State in an eventual five-set loss, the Northern Arizona was not about to let it happen again. The Lumberjacks put away Montana in the fourth set and walked away with a 23-25, 26-24, 25-17, 25-17 victory Saturday night. The victory allowed NAU a split of the weekend and improved its record in Big Sky play to 6-2 and 12-5 overall.
"Tonight showed a lot about this team's team toughness and determination to keep growing," said head coach Ken Murphy. "We had a realization that we weren't playing well in these road environments and this team did a lot of important things to improve on that tonight. It would've been easy for them to feel sorry about themselves and tired after a long match, but they played a very fresh and energetic match."
NAU got off to a hot start with sophomore Janae Vander Ploeg pounding three kills and leading the Lumberjacks to a 6-2 start before Montana called a timeout. The Lumberjacks held an 11-6 lead later in the set until the Grizzlies began to string points in bunches in taking a 20-17 advantage. Senior Lexie Schroeder's ace would bring the teams to a 21-21 tie but Montana would close out the set on a 4-1 run to put NAU in a 1-0 hole.
As they did on Friday at MSU though, the Lumberjacks would even the match with a gritty effort in the second set. A pivotal 6-0 run with junior Erin Truett, who contributed two aces during this span, on the service line gave NAU a 15-11 lead only for Montana to climb back into it tying the set at 20-20 and eventually serving for set point at 24-22. Back-to-back blocks, first by juniors Sydney Kemper and Taylor Stephens followed by a stuff by sophomore Payton Bock and freshman Addy Lofstedt, helped the Lumberjacks hold off two set points. After a UM timeout, consecutive kills by Bock and Lofstedt capped a 4-0 NAU run and a second set victory.
With the critical third set tied at 13-13, a Montana service error spurred four straight Lumberjack points that broke open the set. The Grizzlies was unable to cut into the deficit and the Lumberjacks finished the set by winning five of the final six points following Kemper's career-high 16th kill to take a 2-1 lead in the match.
Unlike Friday night though, there would be no letup by NAU as the Lumberjacks battled back from an early deficit to cruise to the match victory. The Grizzlies led early 11-9, but the Lumberjacks' resiliency was on display during a 5-0 run that put them in front for good. Montana was able to hang around and trailed by as little as two at 18-16 before NAU dashed any rally hopes for the home team. Stephens smashed a kill to spark a match-concluding 7-1 run for NAU with the last four points coming on Lumberjack kills.
The Lumberjacks was in control in all facets of the match, outhitting the Grizzlies .313 to .149 and holding dominating advantages in blocks (14.0-8.0) and digs (67-46). In the process, they set single-match season-highs in kills (61) and assists (58) and was one shy of their high dig total, all of which were set in their five-set win against Idaho State on Sept. 19.
Kemper led the way with a career-high 19 kills, 13 of which came in the first two sets alone. It is the team's high kill total for the season and it was just part of an all-around performance for the junior who finished with seven digs and six blocks while hitting .361. Vander Ploeg and Lofstedt each added 13 kills and Lofstedt equaled her career-best hitting percentage of .435 set earlier this season against Idaho. Stephens – seven kills on .600 hitting – and Bock – eight kills on .375 hitting – were also highly effective as Truett handed out a career-high 57 assists in running a powerful showing by the hitters.
"Erin did a real great job of getting all of our hitters involved," Murphy said. "I thought our hitters took accountability for their swings and it was a real breakthrough for them."
Not to be outdone, the Lumberjack defense was exceptional as sophomore Trianna Henry tied her career-high with 23 digs. Schroeder posted her best dig performance of her career with 18 digs as the pair combined for 41 digs, just five less than Montana had as a team. Three players finished with at least six blocks led by Bock's season-high tying seven.
The Lumberjacks are back at home next week beginning with Northern Colorado on Thursday to wrap up the final week of the first half of conference play. Thursday's match, scheduled for 7 p.m. at the Rolle Activity Center, will be the team's annual Think Pink game. It will also be Club Volleyball night as all youth club volleyball players wearing their jersey will receive free admission with a paid adult.