NAU grabs 20-win season, Big Sky fifth seed
PORTLAND, Ore. -- The Northern Arizona volleyball team ended a decade of frustration in Portland and clinched their fourth 20-win season in program history with a big block all night in sweeping Portland State on Saturday.
The 25-18, 25-15, 25-19 win sends NAU into next week's Big Sky Championships on a high note, having finished the regular season 20-7 overall and 11-5 in the conference. NAU will head into the conference tournament as the fifth seed.
The Lumberjacks had previously lost 10 straight in Portland to the Vikings, and the Peter W. Stott Center was where NAU saw its season come to an end last season at the conference tournament. NAU's last win in Portland came in 2003 and during its 10-match losing streak there, it had been swept seven times.
"We played with complete composure the entire match," said head coach Ken Murphy. "They made a run and the crowd got into it, but we stuck to our systems. Tonight we had great leadership. Sydney (Kemper) and Janae (Vander Ploeg) were tremendous. We trusted ourselves and played the match we wanted to play. It gives us a nice blueprint for the things we want to do next week at the conference tournament."
On the Vikings' Senior Night, the home crowd was electric to start as the PSU took the first five points of the match. NAU tied its footing and evened the score at 7-7 and took its first lead at 11-10 off a kill from sophomore Isabelle Gosar. Junior Janae Vander Ploeg followed with back-to-back kills and the Lumberjacks took control of the set from there. Using a big block that totaled six team blocks in the set, NAU strung together points the rest of the way to take a 1-0 lead in the match ending the set on a pair of Vander Ploeg kills.
The Lumberjacks turned the tide to begin the second set, racing out to a 6-1 lead and they never trailed to head into the intermission with the first two set wins. The Vikings could not get closer than three points after NAU's set opening run and they managed to put together multiple points just once in the entire set. The Lumberjacks once again tallied six team blocks to hold Portland State to a -.068 clip and fittingly ended the set with a block by junior Payton Bock and sophomore Jensen Barton.
Senior Sydney Kemper started the third set with the hot hand contributing three kills as NAU built a 9-4 lead. Portland State fought back though tying the set at 12-12 and the teams were locked up as late at 19-19. With the set in the balance, Kemper came through with a consecutive kills as NAU notched the final six points of the match with redshirt junior Stacia Williams sealing the win with aces on the last two points.
Although NAU hit only .205 in the match, the Lumberjacks equaled a season-high of 17.0 team blocks to limit the Vikings to .037 offensively. Bock led the Lumberjacks with nine blocks while Gosar and Barton each set new career-highs with eight and seven respectively. Bock and Gosar both recorded three solo blocks.
NAU's defensive play was also strong in the backrow as it had five players with at least 10 digs for the second straight match. Williams paced NAU with 18 digs -- along with a season-best three service aces -- while Vander Ploeg and sophomore Lauren Jacobsen each had 15 digs.
"I thought our defensive intensity was high as a whole," Murphy said. "In particular with our blocking, our middles were very active and they did a very good job of closing the block on both sides of the net. I felt our team anticipated a lot of things they were going to do."
Vander Ploeg notched her 15th double-double of the season, and sixth in her last seven matches, with a match-high 11 kills. Barton also notched a double-double with 31 assists and 10 digs.
The Lumberjacks will match up with Idaho, the fourth seed, in their first match of the Big Sky Championships in Pocatello, Idaho, on Thursday. Their quarterfinal match will be the third of four on the opening day of the tournament and is slated for 5 p.m.