HOUSTON, Texas – The Northern Arizona volleyball team was an offensive juggernaut in their Marriott Houston Westchase Invitational finale Saturday afternoon, topping Tulsa in four sets, 25-15, 23-25, 25-23, 25-14, to win the Houston Baptist-hosted tournament. The Lumberjacks wrapped up the weekend with a perfect 3-0 start to the weekend, marking the fourth consecutive year in which they have started the season with at least three straight victories. The win allowed NAU to capture its seventh pre-conference tournament dating back to the start of the 2011 season.
"Tulsa is a good team and I'm proud of the fact that we were able to be successful on offense and get back to executing the way we want to," said head coach Ken Murphy. "All three of these matches were really tough and as the weekend went on we got into a better rhythm. We were really tough on defense and we had a great mindset all three matches."
Sophomore Jensen Barton was named the tournament MVP after averaging 10.55 assists and 2.73 digs per set. The Phoenix, Ariz. native also set the Lumberjack offense to a .263 hitting percentage for the weekend. Senior Sydney Kemper and junior Janae Vander Ploeg joined Barton on the All-Tournament team.
NAU broke open the first set that was locked up at 10-10 – the seventh tie in the early going – with a five-point surge capped which included two blocks and a kill by junior Payton Bock. From there, the Lumberjacks maintained at least a five-point advantage and controlled the remainder of the set with two additional runs of three points. NAU clinched the set and took the momentum into the second set with consecutive kills by Vander Ploeg and senior Taylor Stephens.
The Lumberjacks appeared poised to take a 2-0 lead in the match after an 8-2 start to the second set, but Tulsa chipped away and took the lead at 12-11 and never gave it back. The Hurricane held a five-point lead as late as 21-16, but the Lumberjacks had one final run in them beginning with a kill from sophomore Lauren Jacobsen. Jacobsen's kill started a 4-0 run which brought NAU within one and a Tulsa error eventually brought the set even at 23-23. However, Tulsa quickly dashed any hopes of an NAU set win though with the final two points following its timeout.
The late second set rally gave NAU the building blocks for a strong third set though, as the Lumberjacks picked up the first three points. The set was closely contested but the Lumberjacks never trailed on their way to taking a 2-1 lead in the match. A 4-0 run put the Lumberjacks in front by five points, their widest margin of the set, at 15-10 before the Hurricane climbed back getting within one late in the set. NAU held off Tulsa and Vander Ploeg converted on a kill to cap the critical third stanza victory.
After a tight third set, the Lumberjacks jumped on the Hurricane early and often and never let up as consecutive aces by Vander Ploeg gave NAU a 6-2 lead. Tulsa briefly cut the deficit to one at 7-6, but NAU quickly responded by pushing the lead back out to four. Another Vander Ploeg ace forced Tulsa's final timeout at 17-11 and the Lumberjacks left no room for a Hurricane rally by rattling off eight of the next 11 points to put a bow on a perfect season-opening weekend.
NAU's offense was off in its first match against Houston Baptist on Friday, but the Lumberjacks only got better as the weekend went on culminating in a .335 hitting performance against Tulsa. In Saturday's final match, they did not lower than .311 in any set and came at Tulsa in a variety of ways, showcasing the team's many weapons.
Kemper led the Lumberjacks with 18 kills and hit .302, while Vander Ploeg had her best match of the weekend with 15 kills while hitting .349. Jacobsen added 11 kills for her first double-digit kill performance as a Lumberjack and hit .290. Senior Taylor Stephens added eight kills and hit .636 and sophomore Isabelle Gosar enjoyed a breakout performance with seven kills on a .429 clip.
The Lumberjacks also flexed their defensive muscles, holding Tulsa to a .210 clip in large part to 13 team blocks. Five Lumberjacks, led by Stephens' six, totaled at least four blocks apiece while NAU also outdug Tulsa by a 56-49 margin. Redshirt junior Stacia Williams posted a career-best and match-high 23 digs as one of four Lumberjacks with double-figure digs. Vander Ploeg, Barton and Jacobsen each had at least 11 digs while totaling double-doubles. For Vander Ploeg and Barton, who had 45 assists, the double-doubles were their second this weekend.
The Lumberjacks will be right back in the state of Texas next weekend for the UTPA Tournament in Edinburg, Texas. NAU begins play versus Texas A&M-Corpus Christi next Friday, Sept. 5 at 8 a.m. Flagstaff time. The Lumberjacks will also face Lamar and host Texas-Pan American in the two-day tourney.