With a former Flagstaff High standout playing a big role in the back row, the Arizona State Sun Devils made the most of their first trip up the hill since 2004.
Courtney Leffel, who won two titles with the Flagstaff Eagles during her four-year varsity career, ended her night in her hometown with 11 digs and two of her team's four aces, and the Sun Devils rebounded from a first-set defeat to hand the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks their second loss of the Lumberjack Classic, 3-1, on Friday evening in Rolle Activity Center.
"We still have a lot of new girls, a lot of new faces," said Leffel, who joined the Sun Devils last season and made her way into the lineup as the team went through a 2016 rebuild. "There are only eight returners, and the rest are either transfers or freshmen, and our coaching staff is awesome."
Now 0-2 in the tournament after falling to Utah State earlier Friday, 3-1 as well, the short-handed Lumberjacks played strong at the net in the opening stanza on the way to the 25-17 victory. Arizona State, however, had an answer, electing to bring in setter Shelbie Dobmeir to guide the offense through the rest of the match.
The switch worked, as the Sun Devils took control of the next three sets in dominant fashion, winning 25-13, 25-14, 25-18 to come out of Day One of the tournament with a 2-0 record. Earlier in the day, Arizona State blanked CSU Bakersfield.
Arizona State and Utah State remain the only undefeated teams in the tourney.
It was the first time in head coach Ken Murphy's tenure that Northern Arizona dropped back-to-back home matches. With the loss, the Lumberjacks moved to an overall record of 3-5. Arizona State, which finished last season with a 12-20 record, improved to 6-2.
It all happened in front of the second-largest crowd (1,190 fans in attendance) the Lumberjacks have played in front of.
"I think we had a great level of intensity. They made a couple errors early that kind of helped us, but as soon as they stopped hitting in, we were ready and able to force them out of what they were doing a little bit," Murphy said. "I think any time you make someone question themselves with how you are blocking and playing defense, it's to your advantage."
In addition to senior setter Dani Westfall being unable to take the court, Lumberjacks hitter Sydney Lema sat out with an injury.
Leffel and the Sun Devils were supposed to make the trip up north for last year's Lumberjack Classic, but scheduling conflicts put a stop to that. Leffel, whose aces helped her team close in on a 10-point lead late in the second set, said she tried to make this a normal match, despite playing in front of familiar faces.
"I give 100 percent every match, so I just approached it like any other," said Leffel, who won state titles with Flagstaff in 2012 and '13.
Northern Arizona grinded its way to the first-set victory, keeping Arizona State from stringing together more than two points off the serve. The Lumberjacks, who got four first-set kills from outside Heaven Harris and middle Abby Akin, spread out its attack well in the opening frame while Arizona State's offense failed to keep balls within the lines.
"I think we've had a little bit of struggles in the early part of the year just controlling the tempo of the match, and that's one of the ways you can control the match, is by controlling the net," Murphy said. "I thought there were parts of the night where we did a really good job with that, but there were parts we let that get away from us a little bit too."
Akin had eight kills by the end of the match, as did fellow middle Victoria Ewalefo, with Harris adding nine.
As soon as Dobmeir started running the show, Arizona State's offense, led by Oluoma Okaro's match-high 19 kills, caught fire. Peyton Grahovac provided 13 kills and Dobmeir had 39 assists for Arizona State, which manged to allow only one Northern Arizona player, Kaylie Jorgenson, to get double-digit kills at 10. Jorgenson had a double-double courtesy of 11 digs.
ANOTHER FAN FAVORITE
The crowd was roaring before the match got started, especially when Ohiyah Shirley's name was announced as part of the Lumberjacks' lineup.
Shirley, a former Monument Valley High player from Kayenta, ended her night with four kills to five errors, but was a force in the back row, where she ended up with the second most digs for Northern Arizona with 12.
After running a 5-1 to start the season, Northern Arizona went with a 6-2 offense on Friday in both its matches. With Westfall nursing a wrist injury, Jordan Anderson took the court when setter Abby Stomp rotated out.
Stomp notched 28 assists, with Anderson contributing 10, as the Lumberjacks stumbled to a .165 hitting percentage.
Okaro, an All-Pac-12 Honorable Mention selection last year, started the match with just two first-set kills, but put down eight in the following frame, which saw the Lumberjacks get outhit 17-10 as Arizona State's defense also picked up.
"I love (playing the back row)," said Leffel, who was a dominant outside hitter during her time with Flagstaff. "My mentality hasn't changed and I still have the same confidence I had when I left Flag High. I miss hitting sometimes, but I love digging, it's like, 'Come on, try hitting harder at me.'"
Northern Arizona will look to get its first win of the tourney on Saturday when it takes on CSU Bakersfield at noon.