FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – Thursday's 3-0 match score was not indicative of the play on the Rolle Activity Center court. Through 23 ties, the Northern Arizona volleyball team took blow after blow from Montana State before squeezing out a 29-27, 25-21, 25-20 sweep which extended its home winning streak to 24 matches. Despite mustering up only a .172 hitting percentage against a scrappy Bobcat squad, the 'Jacks won their fourth consecutive match overall to improve to 18-4 and 8-1 in conference play.
"We made a few more errors than we need to cut down on, but that's what happens when you're not aggressive from the start and that's a good thing to learn from," said head coach Ken Murphy. "Defensively, Montana State did a good job taking away some shots, but we were out of rhythm. Our hitters were off balanced, but by the end we had some good (service) pressure and we were causing some problems for them."
By the third set, NAU had figured out the Montana State defense enough with senior Lauren Jacobsen finding open court for five of her match-high 13 kills. Jacobsen wound up hitting .257 for the match and the Lumberjacks hit .314 in the final game to up their match hitting percentage. The entire match though was a grind for the 'Jacks recording 20 attack errors. The error total was NAU's third-highest this season with the only two higher marks coming in five-set matches.
The Bobcats set the tone early and made sure the Lumberjacks knew they came to play in spite of their 2-6 Big Sky record. Montana State tallied six of its seven blocks in the opening game alone leading to NAU recording more than half of its errors.
A solo block by redshirt sophomore Brittni Dorsey seemingly had NAU in control, 18-12, despite an uneven start to the match. However, Montana State ripped off the next five points. The 'Jacks regained their footing and held set point at 24-21 following one of senior Jensen Barton's seven kills on the night, only for the Bobcats to score the next three points. NAU managed to hold set point on the next three occasions at 25-24, 26-25 and 27-26, yet Montana State stood its ground each time. It was not until redshirt junior Kaylie Jorgenson gave the Lumberjacks their seventh set point that NAU was able to clinch on a block by Dorsey and Barton.
Following 11 tie scores in the first game, the tight nature of the match continued in the second set with an additional seven ties and four lead changes. After the Bobcats erased an 11-8 deficit and turned it into a 15-13 advantage, the Lumberjacks countered with five straight points to retake the lead for good. NAU managed to close out the second set much easier with consecutive kills from Barton, and the Lumberjacks rode a strong service game with four of their six aces in the match coming in the game to offset another offensive struggle.
Freshman Sydney Lema came up big for NAU and provided a spark in the third set as she notched all four of her kills in the final game as she rotated to the front and took her hitting position for the first time in three matches. Along with Jacobsen, Lema played a critical role in closing the match in three sets and preventing the Bobcats from gaining any momentum that would have come from extending the match.
"Their blocking took away the middle of the court and it was important for us to take advantage of some things," Murphy said. "The thing with our team is when we have something that's not working, we have other hitters (like Lema) who can pick it up. Even though we didn't hit a high percentage, we had balance enough to keep Montana State on their heels and that's a credit to our hitters."
Two kills each from Dorsey and Lema, along with a pair of blocks from senior Addy Lofstedt, were part of a 7-2 run by NAU that put the 'Jacks in front 10-6 in the third set. Montana State eventually brought the score even to 12-all, but a corresponding 4-0 spurt presented NAU with a lead it would not relinquish. The Bobcats closed within one at 19-18, only for the Lumberjacks to finish on a 6-2 run with Jacobsen pounding her final kill on match point off the block.
"Every team is out to get us with us being number one in conference right now," said sophomore Jordan Anderson, who led the Lumberjacks with 15 digs. "We always talk about that we haven't won anything yet, and we need to be focused every match and every practice. It's easy to play down or lose intensity when you're playing a team who hasn't won, but we didn't do that tonight."
Anderson was one of four 'Jacks with double-figure digs. Jacobsen, Barton and Lema all recorded 10 digs apiece with Jacobsen and Barton posting double-doubles. Jacobsen's was her 16th of the season, while Barton dished out 29 assists for her 11th double-double. Barton also added in three aces and seven kills for good measure.
Montana State recorded just one block in the final two sets and NAU wound up with the block advantage, 8.0-7.0. Dorsey posted a team-high five blocks as Montana State's .055 hitting percentage was the third-lowest allowed by NAU this season.
NAU closes its four-match homestand on Saturday with Montana at 12 noon in Rolle Activity Center.