OGDEN, Utah – Sporting one of the conference's deepest rosters, the Northern Arizona volleyball team received high preseason recognition on Tuesday as they will enter the 2014 season as preseason co-favorites to hoist the Big Sky trophy. In the Big Sky preseason poll voted on by the league's head coaches, the Lumberjacks and defending conference champion Idaho State each received four first-place votes and 108 points to sit tied atop the coaches' forecast. Coaches were not allowed to vote for their own team.
"Our team appreciates recognition from the coaches that we had a good year last year and that we return a lot of players," said head coach Ken Murphy. "But our team isn't too focused on that right now. We're focused on how good we're going to be in late November and the hard work we're going to need to put in to get to that point.
The Lumberjacks are coming off a 19-11 season in 2013, finishing fourth in the conference with a 13-7 Big Sky mark. NAU earned a spot in the Big Sky Championship for the second year in a row and has notched a combined 43 wins the last two seasons, the most in a two-year span in school history.
Murphy, beginning his second year in charge of the Lumberjack Volleyball program, returns nine players including five starters. His long list of returnees is highlighted by junior Janae Vander Ploeg, a 2013 first team All-Big Sky selection, and senior Sydney Kemper, a 2013 second team All-Big Sky selection, as well as returning starters Taylor Stephens, Payton Bock and Jensen Barton. Seven talented newcomers will add to the NAU's squad providing the team with the depth and talent it will need to claim the program's first conference championship since 1999.
Idaho State is the defending Big Sky Champions after winning last year's conference tournament as the No. 3 seed. Behind the Lumberjacks in the preseason poll is Idaho, who returns for its first season in the Big Sky since 1996, with two first-place votes and 95 points. North Dakota, last season's co-regular season champion, was picked fourth receiving the remaining two first-place votes and 92 points. Northern Colorado and Portland State, last season's Big Sky Championship host and co-regular season champion, followed in fifth and sixth respectively. Eastern Washington, Sacramento State, Montana, Montana State, Weber State and Southern Utah rounded out the poll.
This season, the Big Sky will have two divisions in volleyball with NAU residing in the South Division with Idaho State, Portland State, Sacramento State, Southern Utah and Weber State. Eastern Washington, Idaho, Montana, Montana State, North Dakota and Northern Colorado will be in the North Division.
The top eight teams will advance to the 2014 Big Sky Championship, hosted by the regular season champion Nov. 20-22. The top eight teams will be determined by overall conference winning percentage regardless of division.
2014 Big Sky Preseason Poll (First-Place Votes in Parentheses)
T1. Idaho State – 108 (4)
T1. Northern Arizona – 108 (4)
3. Idaho – 95 (2)
4. North Dakota – 92 (2)
5. Northern Colorado – 86
6. Portland State – 84
7. Eastern Washington – 60
8. Sacramento State – 49
9. Montana – 35
10. Montana State – 33
11. Weber State – 26
12. Southern Utah – 16