It was beginning to look like one of those seasons for the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks when nothing seems to fall into place.
They started the season with a tough schedule and a roster full of new faces. Early on, the injuries started piling up. And just as the lineup started getting healthy, the road trips hit.
Yet with just six regular-season matches remaining, five of which are at home in Rolle Activity Center, the Lumberjacks enter the season-ending stretch feeling that the barrage of challenges they faced only helped make them a better team.
"Because we had so many new people, this has been a cool opportunity to rebuild as a team," said Lumberjacks setter Abby Stomp, who has had to make adjustments for the squad as it pieced together lineups around injuries. "Because of the injuries at the beginning of the year, we just got stronger and it made us more committed to getting better."
Northern Arizona came away from its most recent road trip with a 3-1 record, improving to 9-12 overall and evening its Big Sky Conference mark at 5-5. The last match of the trip ended in the Lumberjacks taking care of business against a struggling Montana team, sweeping the Grizzlies by scores of 25-18, 25-13, 25-18.
"The early part of the season, it just seemed like everyday it was something else, there was injury or we had to change something about our lineup, and we just felt like we were behind on the season in terms of getting a core group to play together well, trying to identify who is going to be in what role, but we stayed this competitive team that just kept our heads up and worked through it," said Lumberjacks head coach Ken Murphy. "I think we are starting to see the payoff."
Lumberjacks leading attacker Kaylie Jorgenson, who has recorded 288 kills so far for her team, had one of her best matches against the Griz, and the performance earned her the Big Sky Offensive Player of the Week award. She tallied 17 kills for her best three-set effort and hit .438, her personal best average this season.
The goal is to carry the momentum into Flagstaff.
"We are getting into a rhythm of we know how we are, and since we've found how we are, we've been able to grow more," Stomp said.
Northern Arizona kicks off the four-match homestand with the Sacramento State Hornets, the only team remaining with a perfect conference record at 10-0. Rolle has not been a good venue for the Hornets, who haven't won there since 2009.
The Lumberjacks, who went 23-2 at home from 2014 to 2016, want to keep their new levels of intensity they've recently developed intact.
"I think when expectations are high, it's easy to get frustrated with a loss or two, but they have done a great job with being resilient and learning from all the things we've done so far this year," Murphy said.
Murphy is excited to see how it all plays out against the Hornets, a team he thinks has become a great rival for the Lumberjacks.
When the season started, Murphy envisioned the team being offensively heavy at the net and decided to try a 6-2 rotation with Stomp and transfer Dani Westfall working in and out as setters. Westfall struggled with injuries around the same time outside hitter Sydney Lema was sidelined with an injury, and the offense stalled in taking shape.
Stomp, with 650 sets, is now the lone setter and works in all six rotations, forcing her to improve her all-around game. The sophomore setter is coming off some of her best nights at the net, having tallied seven of her 15 blocks in the last three matches.
"We have been committed to being a team, to being with coaches and each other and everyone was playing for everyone. It built a lot of team camaraderie for us," Stomp said of the team and its ability to learn from the challenges.
Tonight's match is set to start at 7 p.m.