The Northern Arizona volleyball team went into its preseason practices already having a list of areas where it needs to see improvement.
The Lumberjacks, who have young players responsible for taking over key spots on the court this season, embarked on a European tour prior to their preseason camp. And the matches gave them a head start on a season that has a title defense at stake.
“It was good for us to have a trip like that so we could practice and play some matches and see how we perform just on a baseline level — see where we need to get better,” Lumberjacks head coach Ken Murphy said Thursday.
Murphy also has a list of areas where Northern Arizona, voted the unanimous No. 1 in the Big Sky Conference Coaches Preseason Poll, has strengths, many of which carry over from last year.
The Lumberjacks went 15-3 against Big Sky schools before sweeping their way to the 2018 conference championship over three matches. Overall, Northern Arizona went 26-9, making a second trip to the NCAA Tournament under Murphy in four years.
The Lumberjacks finished 2018 second in the league in hitting percentage at .249 and first in opponent hitting percentage at .164. Middle blocker Abby Akin, entering her senior year in 2019, led the Big Sky in hitting at a .404 clip, and the defense was No. 1 in digs at 18 per set.
While Akin anchors a powerful front row this season, the back has some growing to do.
Northern Arizona enters this season without two major passers from a year ago, as libero Jordan Anderson and outside hitter Kaylie Jorgenson graduated. They were responsible for a combined 1,183 of the team’s 2,376 total digs in 2018.
During the Euro trip, Murphy said, the team struggled to score when out of system, with some of the new faces showing they needed the practice on serve-receive.
But Murphy said the chemistry is already catching up with the talent when it comes to passing.
“Getting comfortable being next to each other is just as important when it comes to passing as the mechanics, so that just gave us such a big head start on how to approach that,” Murphy said.
Defense has always been a large part of Northern Arizona making three trips to the Big Sky title round in the past four seasons.
“We never have a practice where we are not focused on that. So I think it’s our identity, honestly,” Murphy said.
Northern Arizona has two liberos on the 14-member roster, which consists of three seniors entering their final years and five incoming freshmen. Murphy said his young liberos, Jasmine West and Lillian Thomas, have the talent, but added that “without a doubt there is a learning curve there” for the freshmen defenders.
Then again, Northern Arizona has had success at getting young players up to speed. The Lumberjacks claimed the last three consecutive conference freshman of the year awards in sophomore Ryann Davis, junior Heaven Harris and Akin.
That trio also returns to this season as all-conference performers from 2018. Nine total are coming back from last season.
Akin was with the team in 2016 when it came up one match short of repeating as champs. Also on the roster that year were returners senior Sydney Lema and redshirt senior Victoria Ewalefo, who missed the chunk of the last few seasons due to injury but is back and ready to be a big presence in the middle.
Murphy said the challenge for the team as the look toward a new season is remembering that 2018 is in the books.
“The way this is going to go is different, the way the season is going to go is different, and we need to remove all the expectations that we are supposed to win a championship or we are supposed to win this match or another,” Murphy said. “This team just needs to keep getting better, keep grinding. Like last season, that team did so well at staying focused for four months, and this group has an equally large challenge of doing that. We feel good about our chances if we can do that.”
Here are a few more things to watch for in Northern Arizona’s 2019 season that gets started on Aug. 30:
Northern Arizona brought aboard freshman Taylor Jacobsen, sibling of former Lumberjacks outside hitter Lauren Jacobsen, who was a junior when the team won a conference championship in 2015. The younger Jacobsen, a 6-1 outside hitter who hails from the city of Chandler and Hamilton High School, has been battling for a secondary spot on the court with junior outside hitter Olivia Turner, as Lema has a hold on the position.
Returners Lema, Akin and senior setter Abby Stomp played a large role in the team going on a 13-match win streak a year ago that ended with a loss to Washington State in the NCAA Tournament. Murphy had high hopes for the class when it first joined the roster, and it has not disappointed.
“They are exactly what seniors should be,” Murphy said. “Sometimes you hear about teams that have seniors not holding their weight and you wonder why. But all three of our seniors are doing a great job in the locker room, getting us ready, being out here leading the energy and leading at practice.”
The team also had three seniors on the roster a year ago.