NAU volleyball bows out in Big Sky semis

POCATELLO, Idaho — In a battle fitted to decide the conference champion despite it being just the semifinal, the Northern Arizona volleyball team saw their season come to an end in a dramatic five-set loss to Idaho State, the defending Big Sky champs. The Bengals edged out the Lumberjacks by taking the final two sets after falling behind 2-1 — 25-22 20-25, 25-27, 28-26, 15-10 — to advance to the finals. NAU finished the season with a 21-8 record.

"I thought we did such a great job of regaining our composure at times when the environment got tough and ISU was playing outstanding," said head coach Ken Murphy. "We weathered the storm and put ourselves in position over and over to win sets. That’s the mark of a team with a ton of character and a ton of fight."

The semifinal showdown between the two preseason Big Sky co-favorites featured 32 ties. Senior Sydney Kemper and junior Janae Vander Ploeg each finished with 18 kills while NAU totaled 17.0 team blocks equaling a season-high.

Idaho State struck first, rallying to take the first set. Behind the hot hand from Vander Ploeg, who had three kills early, NAU held a 12-9 lead to open the match. The Lumberjacks would maintain the lead until 17-15 when sophomore Lauren Jacobsen converted on a kill, but the Bengals tied it at 17-17. Two points later with the set tied at 18-all, the Bengals claimed three consecutive points that proved to be the difference in the set. Kemper kept NAU in the set on the first set point with a kill before Idaho State wrapped it up one point later.

The Lumberjacks returned the favor in the second set storming back to even the match with strong serving from sophomore Lauren Jacobsen and a stiff block that forced ISU into 12 attack errors. The second set was NAU’s turn to rally as it battled back from a 17-14 deficit. After sophomore Jensen Barton snuck in a kill over the ISU block to give NAU sideout, Jacobsen stepped to the service line and pressured the Bengals. She served two aces during a 10-0 NAU run that also included Vander Ploeg and senior Taylor Stephens teaming up for three blocks. Idaho State failed to go quietly holding off three set points, but Vander Ploeg halted any Bengal comeback with a kill off the block.

NAU trailed 5-1 and then 14-5 before mounting a momentum-changing run. With senior Hannah Hill at the line, the Lumberjacks once again served their way back with a 10-1 run to tie the score at 15-15. From there, the set became a race to 10 points, but it would need to be decided in extra points. Kemper’s kill gave NAU its first lead at 20-19 and a block by junior Payton Bock and sophomore Jensen Barton put the ‘Jacks at set point at 24-22. The Bengals managed to withstand the two NAU set points, but NAU regained set point at 25-24. After Idaho State tied it at 25-25, Kemper gave the Lumberjacks their fourth set point with a kill and Bock stuffed the Bengals on the following point to complete the comeback.

For the third straight set, Idaho State held the early lead at 15-10 midway through the fourth, but as the ‘Jacks were accustomed to they fought back to tie it at 17-17. NAU claimed its first lead a point later at 18-17, only for Idaho State to retake the advantage at 20-19. The lead continued to exchange sides with Vander Ploeg’s ace putting the Lumberjacks in front 21-20, and then ISU moving back in front at 23-22. The Bengals had the first of five set points at 24-22, only for NAU to send it to extra points. After holding off set points at 25-24 and 26-25, the Lumberjacks fell victim to the Bengals at 28-26 as the home team extended the match to a winner-take-all fifth set.

After NAU tied the fifth set at 6-6, Idaho State claimed three critical points to take a 9-6 lead. Vander Ploeg brought the Lumberjacks to one at 10-9 however the Lumberjacks could not close the gap further. Idaho State finished the match with five of the next six points to clinch the final spot in the Big Sky Championship.

Both teams hit under .200 with Idaho State holding a narrow .170-.156 advantage. Behind Kemper and Vander Ploeg’s 18 kills, Bock finished with 10 kills. Redshirt junior Stacia Williams led four Lumberjacks in double-digit digs with a career-high 29. Barton recorded a double-double with 53 assists and 10 digs as did Kemper as she added 10 digs to her total.

Bock and Vander Ploeg each paced NAU with six blocks, with Vander Ploeg setting a new career-best. Jacobsen tied her season-high of 17 digs and finished with a season-best four aces.

The match was the last in the NAU careers of the team’s three seniors — Kemper, Stephens and Hill — as they wrapped up their illustrious careers as the winningest senior class with 79 victories.

"In terms of the big picture, I couldn’t be more proud of this group of players and I could never ask for more," Murphy said. "They’re so invested in the success of this team and right now it hurts because we didn’t get what we really wanted, but that doesn’t take anything away from what we accomplished and all the progress we made. I am just so proud to be a part of this group."