FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – There was a level of uncertainty surrounding the Northern Arizona volleyball team in August. A senior class – including both the program's all-time career kills and blocks leader – who helped NAU win 92 matches in the last four years was no longer around. Twenty-eight wins was a high standard to replicate.
What would this year's Lumberjacks look like? The answer: NAU's veteran senior class of Jensen Barton, Lauren Jacobsen and Addy Lofstedt took their own games to another level and new faces emerged to shoulder big roles.
How would they follow up a historic championship season? The answer: The 'Jacks racked 24 wins and finished as the Big Sky runner-up.
Now four months later with the 2016 season in the rearview mirror, rather than a rebuilding year, the Lumberjacks reloaded and posted as successful of a season as anyone could have anticipated shy of a second consecutive conference title.
"We started the year with a lot of question marks and by the end of the season, we had answered so many of those questions," said head coach Ken Murphy. "We've set our standards really high and we look back at this season as a mix. On one hand, we really wanted to win the conference tournament, but on the other hand we won some great matches and we made a lot of progress. We accomplished so many great things as a group that we can be proud of this year."
Among NAU's season highlights were an impressive 9-1 record at home and nine wins versus teams in the NCAA top 150 RPI. Nationally, NAU ranks in the top 50 in aces, aces per set, blocks, blocks per set, hitting percentage, opponent hitting percentage, digs, digs per set and winning percentage. As of Wednesday, the 'Jacks still maintain the national lead in total aces (226).
However, in contrast to the 2015 team's unmatched dominance all the way to the NCAA Tournament, the 2016 team experienced growing pains expected from a team who lined up two true freshmen (Abby Akin and Sydney Lema), two sophomores (Brittni Dorsey and Jordan Anderson) and a junior college transfer (Brooke Donnelly) among their starters in their season opener on the opposite end of the country in Philadelphia.
But between a season-opening loss on Temple's home court and a less than desirable end to the season at North Dakota in the Big Sky Tournament finale, the journey was filled with moments that truly exemplified the spirit of a Lumberjack. It was a journey that while not nearly as smooth as the year prior, will be equally as important to the future of the program.
"Towards the end of the season we went through a little of a rough stretch," Murphy said. "We were fighting for some wins and maybe not playing our best, but our match against Sacramento State (in the semifinal) was such a good reflection of our team's character and our seniors' dedication to finishing their careers the right way. Along with our Portland State (first round) match, we had two of our strongest matches on back-to-back nights. It showed that we were peaking at the right time and demonstrated our team's fight through the times of adversity this season."
After a 10-3 run through the non-conference schedule, which included a signature win at Southern Illinois, the Lumberjacks earned the No. 3 seed in the conference tournament following a 12-4 record in Big Sky play. While the conference record looks sparkling, it was not without a number of gut-check matches sprinkled in amongst matches of pure dominance.
There were commanding home wins against Idaho State, Sacramento State and Portland State – all of whom made the conference tournament – as well as a conference opening road win at Northern Colorado. But there were also dramatic five-set road victories at Idaho and Portland State following disappointing performances at Eastern Washington and Sacramento State.
There was even the end of their 25-match home win streak, which at the time was the second-longest in the nation, at the hands of North Dakota – the eventual conference champions – which was part of a final three-week stretch that saw the Lumberjacks go 3-3 in their final six matches. Still, the 'Jacks made the long trek to Grand Forks, N.D. with as good of a shot as anyone of being the last team standing.
First, NAU dispatched Portland State with ease in three sets. Then the Lumberjacks knocked out Sacramento State, who displaced NAU from the top of the Big Sky's competitive South Division. On the heels of their most complete performances in weeks, the Lumberjacks squared off with the Fighting Hawks with the conference's auto bid to the NCAA Tournament on the line. Unfortunately, there would be no storybook ending this year though, with NAU closing the season with a 24-8 record and tying for the third-best single season win total.
Within the cloud of question marks as the team commenced preseason training, the Lumberjacks knew they had two certainties to rely on in Jacobsen and Barton; and they did not disappoint. Both repeated as all-conference performers with the pair being selected to the First Team. Jacobsen ranked second in the Big Sky with 4.07 kills per set and totaled 480 kills, marking the fourth-highest total in school history. She became the sixth Lumberjack to ever record 1,000 career kills and 1,000 career digs and accomplished the feat in the same match at Weber State on Nov. 3. Barton meanwhile tallied three of the five triple-doubles in the Big Sky this season. She finished sixth in the conference in assists at 10.03 per set in addition to setting career-highs in kills, hitting percentage, digs and aces. Fittingly, both ended their careers with spots on the Big Sky All-Tournament team.
Jacobsen and Barton may have grabbed the headlines, but Lofstedt should not be overlooked for her performance. Playing on the right side, she proved to be a reliable source of kills placing second behind Jacobsen with 238 kills. She did it with extreme efficiency, hitting a career-best .294 and was also a stout blocker.
"We're definitely going to miss our three seniors and they've been such a big part of our success during the four years I've been here," Murphy said. "Replacing all three of them will be challenging, but our younger players proved to themselves that they could consistently compete at a really high level and it showed in our team's ability to win matches, especially in the conference tournament. We're definitely excited about what's next for them."
There are reasons to be excited about the Lumberjacks' future and it is easy to see after the brilliance that NAU's younger "supporting" cast displayed this season. Starting with the middle blocking tandem of Dorsey and Akin, both of whom garnered All-Big Sky Second Team recognition, the 'Jacks will have two all-conference performers back next season. Dorsey saw an increased role offensively with 1.03 kills per set on .276 hitting and was the team's leading blocker at 1.21 per set. Furthermore, she set a new school record with 64 aces this season which led all of the Big Sky. Speaking of leading the Big Sky, Akin hit a conference-best .381 in league play and wound up setting a new single season school record with an overall clip of .367 on her way to receiving conference Outstanding Freshman honors. She ranked second on the team behind Dorsey in blocks at 1.10 per set and averaged 1.51 kills per set.
All-conference accolades aside, NAU's young guns were prevalent everywhere, making a nightly impact. Lema, like Akin, wasted no time in establishing a name for herself as she started 31 matches. Whether she was in the front row averaging 1.36 kills per set or in the back row where she ranked third on the team with 343 digs, Lema was a consistent contributor, as was Anderson at the libero position. Anderson appeared in 27 matches at libero and led the team with 3.62 digs per set.
Anderson was joined in the back row by Donnelly, who started all 32 matches in her first season out of Yavapai College. She totaled 260 digs and was one of the driving forces that led NAU to its second-most dig total (2,038) in school history.
The Lumberjacks had several players step up right from the start, but others found their way into big roles as the season progressed. Redshirt sophomore Kaylie Jorgenson claimed a spot in the rotation during the third weekend of conference play and finished second on the team with 2.39 kills per set. Redshirt freshman Hannah Cherry elevated herself from a serving specialist into the team's libero in the conference tournament.
So while the 'Jacks will once again undergo a little makeover with the loss of their three accomplished seniors, one thing is clear: NAU will have quite the roster returning in 2017.
"We look at our younger players and we have a competitive team with depth," Murphy said. "We have all the things we're looking for in terms of size and athleticism, but we also have good toughness and players who want to compete. I don't have any doubt that we're on the road to bigger and better things."
There are sure to be question marks again when camp opens next August. But if this season was any indication, NAU is not to be counted out of championship conversation regardless who is out on the court.
So the question that begs to be asked should be, how much better can the Lumberjacks be next season? The answer: Only time will tell, but the 'Jacks are here to stay and without a ceiling.