FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – On July 1, 2013, Ken Murphy was hired as the 11th head volleyball coach in Northern Arizona program history. Less than two months later, the Lumberjacks took to the court for their first match of the 2013 season.
Time was not on Murphy's side. However in spite of a brand new coaching staff and the urgency to replace a graduating senior class of five, the Lumberjacks enjoyed a highly successful first season under Murphy's tutelage. The season culminated in the program's second consecutive Big Sky Championship appearance, the first time the Lumberjacks have qualified for the conference tournament in consecutive years since 10 straight appearances from 1995-2004. During a 19-11 campaign, 13-7 in the Big Sky, the Lumberjacks defeated San Diego State, a 2012 NCAA Tournament team, and swept the season series against eventual Big Sky champion Idaho State.
The Lumberjacks recently completed a strong spring exhibition season in which they continued to make strides in improving their play on the court. Those improvements were on full display during a 3-1 showing at the New Mexico Spring Tournament and in a scrimmage with Arizona State, an NCAA Tournament team in the fall.
Unlike a year ago, the Lumberjacks will be experienced and loaded heading into Murphy's second season this upcoming fall. NAU will return nine players including a pair of All-Big Sky players in Janae Vander Ploeg and Sydney Kemper. Exceptional at every spot on the court, Murphy's team will be even deeper in 2014 with the addition of seven new faces.
Nearly 10 months into the job, Murphy sat down to discuss not only the present, but the future of NAU Volleyball as he prepares for the summer months leading into Year Two.
Stay tuned to nauathletics.com beginning next week for features on the team's four new additions during the spring signing period. To read about the Lumberjacks' three fall signees, click here.
Question: You've been here just under a year now and with a fall and spring seasons in the book, how would you assess the current state of the program?
Murphy: "This spring we made a lot of progress. We had two really big goals. The first was cleaning up the way we play, particularly how we pass and play defense. I thought the team took on that challenge of improving in those areas and I was impressed with our team's ability to work through that and get better. The second big picture goal was to understand and prove to ourselves that we can compete against big, physical teams through a combination of how we block and how we attack. We wanted to gain confidence in those areas and if anything, we proved to ourselves that we can only handle playing matches against those types of athletic teams, but we can have success in those matches."
Question: In the fall, it seemed every match against a team like Idaho State or going back into nonconference against San Diego State, your team rose to the occasion. With a relatively young team last year, that can only help them going forward right? It seems the spring was reinforcement that your team can compete against the elite teams that it'll come across.
Murphy: "There's no doubt that when we were on last year, we were able to have a lot of success. What we gained in the spring is a better understanding of why those things were happening and how to turn it on for every match. I know going into next fall, we'll have a much better handle on the things we need to create to be successful."
Question: A year ago, the program lost a big senior class with a lot of contributors. Having only lost two seniors this year and returning a lot of younger players who are making the transition to being upperclassmen, how exciting is that for the fall outlook?
Murphy: "In terms of our competitive level especially in developing leadership and having maturity in our program, we definitely have older players who are taking on a role of making sure that our team is working hard every day and that our message is the same in the locker room and on the court. We have a higher level of mature leadership within our program than when I got here and that's going to be the driving force for us for any success that we'll have."
Question: Depth was lacking last year across the board. With a nice recruiting class that started in the fall and will wrap up this spring, what was the focus for building the depth you were looking for?
Murphy: "We wanted to add athleticism and keep improving our program from a grass roots level. We looked at shoring up positions where we needed more depth and competition. I think our recruiting class emphasizes that. Going into the fall, every position on the court will be competitive and we'll not only have depth for when we may have injuries, but our practices will be better because every spot will be an earned one on our team."