The NAU soccer team returns home today where its played in front of one of the country's top home attendances all season long to square off against preseason Big Sky favorite Portland State at 7 p.m. at Lumberjack Stadium.
The Lumberjacks are back in their home confines with a 2-1 conference record, 4-6-2 overall, after a weekend split a week ago.
"Anytime you have an opportunity to play at home in conference, you have to make the most of it," said head coach Andre Luciano.
"Three points (for a win) in a conference game is huge and this weekend gives us the opportunity to win and perhaps sit in the top-two or three in the conference at a critical stage of the season."
NAU kicked started last weekend's two-match road swing with its third consecutive 1-0 victory, shutting out Weber State behind the play of junior Lauren Weaver in goal and a score courtesy of freshman Cierra Gamble. Gamble notched the game-winner, her second goal of the season, towards the ending of the first half and Weaver tied her career-high of 11 saves to preserve the victory. The Lumberjacks appeared to be on track for a weekend sweep, striking first against Idaho State on a goal by redshirt freshman Malia Tano, but conceded two quick goals to the Bengals in an eventual 2-1 loss.
Entering play this weekend, the Lumberjacks currently are on the outside looking in, sitting in a tie for fifth place with six conference points. However, they've played just three Big Sky games through the first two weekends of conference play as compared to the majority of the teams in the conference who have played four.
The play of the defense has been key to the Lumberjacks' recent success over their last five games in which they've gone 3-1-1. With a backline consisting of senior Georgia Foltz, junior Alana D'Onofrio, sophomore Diane Buzzard and freshman Alexia Gonzalez and Weaver anchoring the defense in goal, the Lumberjacks have allowed just three goals during that span and posted three shutouts.
"Team cohesion has been the key," Weaver said on the Lumberjacks Weekly Podcast. "We've all learned how to play together and we're starting to mesh."
After a close first set win, NAU pulled away from Montana State in the second and third sets to complete a 3-0 (25-21, 25-18, 25-18) win on Thursday night in Rolle Activity Center. Senior Kelli Dallmann and freshman Janae Vander Ploeg each had 10 kills and the Lumberjacks held the Bobcats to a .084 hitting percentage to improve to 5-2 in the Big Sky and 13-3 overall while Montana State dropped to 10-5 overall and 4-3 in conference play.
"We don't win that many matches in three sets so it's really nice," NAU head coach Craig Choate said. "I think it helps you as a team when you beat someone in three and are able to move on. I thought Montana State played well but we just played better tonight."
Vander Ploeg added eight digs and four blocks to her stat line while sophomore Sydney Kemper totaled six kills and a match-best five blocks.
The first set was the most competitive as it featured 14 ties and five lead changes. Neither team led by more than two points before, when the set was deadlocked at 18-18, the Lumberjacks used a 5-1 run to take a 23-19 lead. The Bobcats got back to within 23-21, but consecutive kills by Vander Ploeg and freshman Payton Bock gave the opening stanza to the home team.
There were eight ties and three lead changes in the second set as the teams again played to an early stalemate with the set level at 13-13. After taking a slim 16-15 lead, Northern Arizona went on a 6-1 run to open a comfortable 22-16 advantage. Montana State could get no closer than a five point deficit for the duration as another Vander Ploeg kill ended the set and gave the Lumberjacks a 2-0 lead.
NAU never trailed in the third set, jumping to a 4-0 lead and extending to a 9-4 advantage. The Bobcats would get back to even at 13-13, however, and trailed just 16-15 after the media timeout. The Lumberjacks, who hit a match-high .323 in the third set, pulled away from there with a 5-1 run to take a 21-16 lead. With a 22-18 advantage NAU got a kill from Bock, a service ace by senior Jen Wilson, and a Bobcat attack error to claim the set and the match.
In two home matches this season the Lumberjacks have held both their opponents to a hitting percentage below .100. They will return to their home floor at 7:30 p.m. Saturday vs Montana, which dropped to 3-13 overall and 1-6 in the Big Sky with a 3-0 loss on Thursday at Southern Utah.