FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – As quickly as four years will past by for every student-athlete, it is equally a rapid blink-of-an eye for a coach – especially given the success the Northern Arizona volleyball program has experienced the last four years. As the Lumberjacks' three seniors – Jensen Barton, Lauren Jacobsen and Addy Lofstedt – take the Rolle Activity Center court for the final time on Saturday, it will mark the end of an exceptional run at home under head coach Ken Murphy – who like his seniors is nearing the end of his fourth season in Flagstaff.
While the player-coach relationship between Murphy and his senior class is unrivaled, their journey did not actually start together. Recruited by Murphy's predecessor, Barton and Lofstedt never played for the coach that convinced them that NAU was the place for them. In fact, they never even got in the gym for a training session with Murphy eventually hired as the program's leader a month before the start of their first fall practice.
Yet, when looking back at it now, it was a blessing that was truly in disguise as NAU has gone a remarkable 89-31 over the last four years under Murphy's guidance.
"I was scared when it all first happened," Barton recalled. "(Former NAU head coach Craig Choate) had told me so many things when he recruited me and I had never even met Ken. But Ken accepted us right away and he didn't play favorites or judge anyone. He let us prove ourselves and the best eye-opener of him to me because he gave everyone a fair chance."
A year later, Murphy would add Jacobsen to this class following her freshman season at San Jose State. A high school teammate of NAU's all-time leading blocker Payton Bock, Jacobsen seamlessly meshed with the program in her return to Arizona as she would embark on playing her final three years up the mountain north of her hometown in Chandler.
"After transferring from San Jose State and coming to a community that accepted me right away was amazing," Jacobsen said. "I loved being close to home with my family able to see me play, and I'm super grateful to have been able to play for a coach like Ken. He's shaped me into the player and the person I am today."
The individual successes that Barton, Jacobsen and Lofstedt have enjoyed during their time at NAU should not come as a surprise given their character and work ethic. While their list of personal accolades is lengthy, they have also played integral roles in the Lumberjacks' collective achievements which include the program's first-ever outright regular season championship and second-ever NCAA Tournament appearance last season, three 20-win campaigns and an unthinkable 43-4 record in the Rolle.
However, these three have not been immune to the adversity that any student-athlete experiences, which makes their successes even more impressive.
Barton immediately established herself as NAU's top setter as a freshman, starting her first six career matches before suffering an injury. The injury sidelined her and then when cleared she was not inserted back into the starting lineup initially. It would be nearly six weeks before she was ingrained as the starter again and since that moment, she has started 97 of the 99 matches she has appeared in.
When it is all said and done, Barton will go down as one of the program's most decorated setters as she is just 19 assists away from becoming the third player in school history to reach 4,000 for her career. She also needs just 31 assists to move into second all-time in NAU history, with both achievements well within reach in her final home match. She ranks second in the conference this season in hitting percentage at .358 and is averaging career-highs in kills and digs. An All-Big Sky Second Team selection as a sophomore and a First Team selection last season, Barton also ranks eighth all-time in career aces and owns three of the five triple-doubles within the conference this season.
"When she came here she was a great setter, and as she's developed she's become a great player and competitor," Murphy said. "You look at how she leads this team and that's something she's developed over her career. You give credit where credit is due and she's a player that wanted to make a great impact. She's left such a huge imprint on not only this team, but this program's history."
Jacobsen has battled a multitude of injuries throughout her career, but through it all she has never missed a match. In fact, she has started all 90 matches and played in all 328 possible sets over the last three years only further emphasizing her resiliency.
Just last week, Jacobsen joined rarified company when she became only the sixth player in program history to total 1,000 career kills and 1,000 career digs. She accomplished both feats in the same match – a 3-0 victory at Weber State last Thursday – and will end her career as one of the program's greats despite playing only three seasons on the Mountain Campus. Her 1,031 career kills is 13th all-time and she has quickly moved up to eighth in career digs with 1,041. She has recorded 20 double-doubles this season, the most in the Big Sky, and should receive her second consecutive all-conference selection next week.
"It's hard to measure toughness and as much as any player I've ever coached, Lauren has fought through injuries and the little things that could set people aside," Murphy said. "She doesn't miss practice and opportunities to get better, and her game has evolved. There's no doubt she's one of the best players to ever come through NAU and her impact is massive. A lot of players get better, but the elite players are those who get better through adversity and I could not be more proud of how Lauren has done it while she's been here."
Meanwhile, Lofstedt's adversity was not injury related. Her perseverance has been documented through a position change as well as a diminished role during her sophomore season. Initially recruited as an outside hitter, she appeared in all 30 matches as a freshman only to see time in just eight matches the following year.
Lofstedt then made the move to the opposite side and has found her niche the last two seasons appearing in all 61 matches. Particularly in her final year, Lofstedt's impact has been great as she currently ranks second on the team in kills with 210. With it has come a career-best efficiency hitting a high of .284 in addition to setting a new career-high with 73 blocks. On Saturday, the Louisville, Colo. native will play in her 100th career match and will start the day with 655 career kills.
"Every good program needs a player like Addy and over her career she's done whatever we've asked her to do," Murphy said. "There's been highs and lows, but she's always given herself to the team. She's a dedicated hard-worker and has taken every offseason in the weight room and in the gym to get better. We are all so appreciative of what she has given to us as a program."
Adversity in whatever form strikes just about any collegiate student-athlete, but these three seniors have flourished in the face of it with immense amounts of hard work and dedication.
"Being a part of NAU Volleyball has taught me to work harder than I ever thought I could," Lofstedt said. "That will carry over into every aspect of life. Waking up at 6 a.m. to condition and run your heart out is not something that you want to do, but you learn that if you give it your best, you can do anything."
After Saturday's regular season finale, NAU will embark to either Grand Forks, N.D. or Greeley, Colo. for next week's Big Sky Tournament where it will enter as the defending champion. While the Lumberjacks would have hoped to defend their title at home, they will have to overcome yet another set of challenges in order to reach their second straight NCAA Tournament. With a senior class that has endured through their fair share of obstacles though, they are in good hands.
Then whenever the season comes to an end, Barton, Jacobsen and Lofstedt's time in an NAU uniform will also reach its conclusion. When that moment comes, they will not be the only ones who will find it difficult to accept that a journey that started four years ago will have reached its final destination.
"It'll be weird next year stepping into the gym without these girls in there because I've never had that experience here at NAU," Murphy said. "I didn't recruit Addy and Jensen, but this group bought into the things that we believe in from the beginning. They've dedicated giant pieces of their life to the success of this team and this program. They've been selfless and dedicated to their roles every day of their careers and our program is so appreciative of them."