HOUSTON, Texas – In typical first-match fashion, the Northern Arizona volleyball team was not perfect but they proved to be victorious in their 2014 season opener on Friday, defeating host Houston Baptist on the first day of the Marriott Houston Westchase Invitational. The Lumberjacks won their season opening match for the eighth time in the last nine years, doing so on Friday in four sets, 25-17, 21-25, 25-19, 25-14 behind a gritty effort.
"I thought we were definitely anxious and we were rushing our offense," said head coach Ken Murphy. "We didn't get into a really good rhythm offensively but it's good that we have the ability to win a match like this when everything isn't going all that great. We battled the whole time and we made some adjustments during the break."
The Lumberjacks started the match well, hitting their best percentage of the day, .286, in winning the first set. The teams split the first eight points of the day, but three consecutive Lumberjack points was all NAU needed to break free. The short spurt gave NAU a 7-4 lead which eventually extended out to 19-11 following two straight ball handling errors by the Huskies. Sophomore Addy Lofstedt provided the Lumberjacks with the early spark with five first set kills and junior Payton Bock put a wrap on the opening stanza with a kill.
The home team came out swinging in the second set though as it had eyes on evening the match at one set apiece. Houston Baptist started by taking five of the first six points and would eventually find itself with a seemingly comfortable 18-10 lead before NAU mounted a furious rally started by a kill from junior Janae Vander Ploeg. A 7-2 NAU run forced a Husky timeout and by the time Houston Baptist committed consecutive errors, the Lumberjacks had climbed back to just one point at 21-20. However, the NAU momentum was halted right there as HBU denied the Lumberjacks of a 2-0 lead by claiming four of the next five points.
Following the intermission, the third set was another tight one at the onset with the two squads battling to an early 4-4 tie. A block by junior Taylor Stephens and sophomore Jensen Barton was the first of four straight NAU points which swung the tide in the Lumberjacks' favor. It turned out to be the first of many momentum swings as the 'Jacks could not quite pull away from the Huskies. With her team clinging to a one-point edge late in the set, 19-18, senior Sydney Kemper converted on a kill which was followed by four consecutive HBU errors to put NAU at set point, which Vander Ploeg would finish with her seventh kill of the night two points later.
Vander Ploeg's third-set capping kill was the boost she needed to ignite the Lumberjacks in the decisive fourth set as she recorded four kills in NAU's 11-4 opening run, which all but proved to be the difference. The Huskies never got within four points the rest of the way as NAU hit .222 – its second-best clip of the day – and limited Houston Baptist to an -.067 percentage – its worst of the match. Back-to-back kills by Lofstedt positioned the Lumberjacks for match point and they would seal the victory with the Huskies' 33rd attack error of the match.
NAU only hit .160 for the day but showed its defensive strength allowing Houston Baptist to hit just .048 while totaling 83 digs as a team. The team's first win showcased a complete effort as three players – Vander Ploeg, Kemper and Barton – tallied double-doubles. Vander Ploeg notched 12 kills and recorded a career-high 20 digs for her 15th career double-double in addition to a match-high three service aces. Kemper added 10 kills and a career-high tying 15 digs and Barton ran the NAU offense with 36 assists along with 13 digs, two aces and three blocks. Bock led all players with seven blocks while redshirt junior Stacia Williams posted 15 digs in her first appearance as a Lumberjack and Lofsetdt added 11 kills. Senior Hannah Hill also earned her first start at libero and chipped in eight digs.
"We won today with our toughness and our defense; holding them to a low percentage while we were working through our offense," Murphy said. "It's attributed to our leadership and how far we've come in terms of our fight. It doesn't matter if things aren't going right, they keep fighting. We can carry that into when we're playing a little cleaner because we've got some really good matches ahead of us."
The Lumberjacks will have a short turnaround as they will be right back in action Saturday morning with their second match of the HBU Tournament at 10 a.m. Flagstaff time versus Chattanooga. NAU will conclude the tournament at 3 p.m. versus Tulsa. Tulsa defeated Chattanooga in Friday's first match in four sets.