GRAND FORKS, N.D. – The Northern Arizona volleyball team was determined to become the first back-to-back conference tournament champion in four years, but North Dakota made sure their home crowd of 1,512 saw otherwise. Although the Fighting Hawks ultimately denied the Lumberjacks of a second straight NCAA Tournament appearance in straight sets, Saturday's championship match was anything but a walk in the park for the home team.
The No. 3 seed Lumberjacks' 2016 season came to an end with a 25-22, 25-20, 25-15 loss to the top seed, and they concluded the campaign with a 24-8 record. The 24 victories tied the second-highest total in school history.
"North Dakota played great tonight and they were just a little better than us," said head coach Ken Murphy. "It came down to the little plays. We defended the big things that they do, but we didn't control the funny, little plays in rallies like they were. They did a great job of controlling them on their side and tonight it came down to the little things."
With the loss, the careers for seniors Lauren Jacobsen, Jensen Barton and Addy Lofstedt also came to a close and they went down with a fight. Jacobsen led all players with 14 kills, while Barton recorded 30 assists and Lofstedt hit .267 with five kills. Jacobsen and Barton were named to the All-Tournament team for their brilliant play over the last three days.
The first two sets featured 16 ties and nine lead changes, and unfortunately for the 'Jacks both games went in favor of the home team. UND claimed a tight opening set with a brief, but important, breakthrough midway through the first game. At the eighth and final tie, 12-12, the Fighting Hawks used a quick 4-1 spurt that proved to be the difference. North Dakota was able to keep the lead after the sixth exchange of the set, despite NAU keeping it close. Redshirt sophomore Kaylie Jorgenson brought the 'Jacks to 19-18, and NAU was within striking distance as late as 23-21, but the Hawks preserved their three-set margin for the first strike.
The second set played out much like the first, and UND was the beneficiary to take a 2-0 lead into the intermission. NAU grabbed the early 3-1 lead and regained the advantage briefly, 11-10, on consecutive aces by freshman Sydney Lema. However, like the set prior, North Dakota made its move at 13-13 – once again the eighth tie of the game – and the Lumberjacks could only close the gap to as small as three points. After NAU had a little momentum when Jorgenson's kill found the court to make it 18-15, UND immediately got its two points back.
Like she has done all season, Jacobsen took control when the team needed her as she tallied three kills in NAU's first four points. Tied 4-4, the Fighting Hawks scored the next two points and never looked back. Jorgenson pulled NAU to within 10-8 with a kill, but the Lumberjacks could not get any closer as North Dakota strung together a 10-4 run that all but put NAU away.
The Lumberjacks struggled to slow down the Fighting Hawks with the home team holding the hitting percentage advantage .278-.142. North Dakota also held the block advantage, 6.0-3.0, after NAU outblocked its first two tournament opponents, 25.0-3.0. The Lumberjacks did record more aces than the Hawks, 5-1.
"You're always disappointed because the goal is always to win a championship," Murphy said. "But we're so proud of their growth, their effort and the work they put in. We're a such different team than we were in August and we have great character in this group. There were times in the season when we didn't know we could get this far, and I'm so proud of the way they stuck together through the struggles to get the opportunity to play in a match like tonight."