POCATELLO, Idaho – Down 2-0 to Idaho State on the road, the Northern Arizona volleyball team had its backs against the wall. The Bengals had not dropped a set at home this season at that point. Yet, the Lumberjacks stormed ahead and pulled off the five-set comeback by winning the final three sets in dramatic fashion to move into sole possession of second place in the Big Sky standings with a 14-25, 18-25, 25-20, 26-24, 16-14 victory Saturday night.
NAU picked up its second five-set victory over Idaho State this season after doing so to open conference play on Sept. 19 at home. The Lumberjacks are now 9-3 in the Big Sky Conference and 15-6 overall following their incredible comeback.
"I'm so proud of our team's toughness and resolve," said head coach Ken Murphy. "They kept fighting all night until they got the results they wanted. Idaho State played ridiculously good for the first couple of sets and really all night and we had to meet that. We never backed down and we took the challenge seriously."
The home team broke open a tied first set at 11-11 by winning 14 of the final 17 points to gain the early advantage in the match. Idaho State then proceeded to take the second set, once again using a pulling away midway through the set. After a 4-0 run by the Lumberjacks cut their deficit to 14-11, the Bengals earned back three consecutive points of their own as they coasted to a second set win in which they never trailed at any point.
Although NAU fell behind 2-0 in the match, its offense was clicking as the Lumberjacks hit .333 and .290 respectively in the first two sets. However, the Bengals were nearly unstoppable as they hit .667 and .452 in each of the first two sets and they looked to be in prime position to potentially sweep NAU after they won their 16th and 17th consecutive sets at home without a defeat.
The third set was a battle yet again with Idaho State clinging to a 15-13 lead before the Lumberjacks went on a momentum-shifting 6-0 run. Consecutive kills by sophomore Payton Bock and freshman Addy Lofstedt pulled NAU even at 15-15 and it surged ahead courtesy of four straight ISU attack errors – two coming off solo blocks by Bock and freshman Jensen Barton. NAU never let it up as it totaled five kills on its final six points, the last coming from sophomore Janae Vander Ploeg to not only deal ISU its first set loss of the season but also to stay alive in the match.
With momentum on their side, the Lumberjacks got out in front first in the fourth set, 12-9, and forced a Bengal timeout. The Bengals responded and retook a 17-15 lead before the Lumberjacks knotted it up at 17-17. The fourth set was a see-saw affair as the two teams traded points down the stretch until a kill by junior Taylor Stephens gave NAU sideout serving for set point at 24-23. An ISU kill resulted in the 16th and final tie of the set because back-to-back kills by Stephens and Lofstedt would send the match to a deciding fifth set.
In the final set, the Bengals held a slim 8-7 lead as the two teams switched sides and then rattled off three more points to extend their advantage out to 11-7. Coming out of their timeout, the Lumberjacks refused to go away as they fought back to a 13-13 tie following kills by Vander Ploeg and junior Sydney Kemper. ISU won the next point and the opportunity to serve for the match, but its serve went into the net. With the score knotted at 14-14, Bock and Kemper combined for a block – the Lumberjacks' 11th of the night – and NAU's comeback became complete when the Bengals' next attack sailed long presenting the Lumberjacks' with their first victory from a 2-0 deficit since Oct. 1, 2011.
"We told ourselves that we had to trust each other and have more confidence and that really showed," Vander Ploeg said. "We've had tough losses on the road and this makes our team realize that we can come out on top against any team in any environment. We can come together when we're down and come out strong."
Vander Ploeg tallied a career-high 22 kills – the high total of any Lumberjack this season – and led four Lumberjacks in double-digit kills. Kemper totaled 13, Bock added a season-high 11 and Lofstedt chipped in 10. All four players plus Stephens hit .364 or higher for the match as Barton ran the NAU offense at a high efficiency to the tune of a career-high 59 assists.
The Lumberjacks hit .345 for the match – their highest percentage since their .390 clip in their season opener versus Campbell – and they also outblocked their opponent for the 10th time in their last 12 matches. Barton's career-high six blocks was the driving force behind NAU holding an 11.0-7.0 advantage over Idaho State.
NAU will look to continue its momentum next Saturday, Nov. 2 in its only match of the week. The Lumberjacks will host Sacramento State at the Rolle Activity Center at 7:30 p.m.