BAKERSFIELD, Calif. – The Northern Arizona volleyball team bent but did not break on Friday in the first match of the Roadrunner Classic, prevailing for a five-set win over UC Riverside, 25-21, 25-18, 24-26, 22-25, 15-12. NAU lost a two-set lead, but led the fifth set wire-to-wire to capture its eighth win of the season, improving to 8-3.
"We're learning to stay in our process and play the way we want to play," said head coach Ken Murphy. "Just like in last night's match, there were times when we were right on it and times that we weren't. But we're recognizing that and we'll get better."
The Lumberjacks defeated the Highlanders for the third consecutive season, but it was far from easy as they hit .185 in the match – their lowest clip since their season opener. NAU did post a season-high 14.0 blocks, with redshirt sophomore Brittni Dorsey recording eight and senior Jensen Barton and freshman Abby Akin each tallying six, to limit UC Riverside to only .118 hitting.
NAU was led offensively by senior Lauren Jacobsen, who posted a match-high 20 kills, in addition to 18 digs and four blocks. The double-double was Jacobsen's eighth of the season, while freshman Sydney Lema joined her with 11 kills and a season-high 21 digs.
The 'Jacks cruised early on, racing out to an 8-3 lead that only grew to 15-9 courtesy of a five-point run. The match was just getting started though, as the Highlanders settled in and eventually closed to 21-20. Consecutive kills by Lema and Jacobsen and a tandem block by Dorsey and Barton reestablished distance on the scoreboard and Jacobsen's fifth kill of the opening game wrapped it up on NAU's third set point.
Lema's first of her season-high tying three aces capped a 5-0 NAU run that erased a 7-5 UC Riverside lead to the start the second set and the Lumberjacks maintained a narrow advantage for the most of the set. It was not until junior Brooke Donnelly kickstarted another 6-0 run with a pair of aces herself that allowed NAU to pull away late and take a commanding two-set lead.
The 'Jacks looked poised to close out the sweep by the look of the beginning of the third game when Lema chipped in two more aces during an opening 5-2 start. However, the Highlanders eventually tied the set at 18-all. NAU once again appeared to take control with a three-point spurt to break the tie and was just two points away with a 23-21 lead before UC Riverside rallied to claim the game in extra points.
The Highlanders remained determined even after falling behind 5-0 to start the fourth set on the heels of three aces by Dorsey. Even after UC Riverside tied the score at 8-8, NAU regained a sizeable advantage with an 8-2 run that provided the Lumberjacks with a 16-10 lead. A kill by Lema got NAU to 20 points first at 20-17, only to see UC Riverside storm back with six straight points and eventually force a fifth set.
Unlike the previous two sets, NAU did not let an early lead slip away from itself in the deciding fifth game as four Highlander attack errors buoyed the 'Jacks to a 6-1 lead. Although UCR closed the gap to 6-5 and remained in striking distance throughout the remainder of the set – even holding off two match points – Jacobsen put the hammer down with her 20th kill to prevent NAU from dropping its first match while holding a 2-0 lead since 2012.
After hitting a combined .257 through the first three sets, NAU became engaged in a match that shifted significantly into a heavyweight defensive bout. The Lumberjacks' ability to win points was dictated on extending rallies with sophomore Jordan Anderson recording a career-best 25 digs. Anderson and Lema became the first pair of teammates to both record 20-plus digs in nearly four seasons.
One match after registering a season-low two service aces, NAU – the Big Sky's most potent serving team – returned to its service pressure proficiencies with 11 aces on Thursday.
The Lumberjacks close out the Roadrunner Classic, and non-conference play, on Saturday with a pair of matches. First, NAU will take on UC Irvine at 10 a.m. and will conclude with San Francisco at 4 p.m. in Bakersfield, Calif.