Despite having her first two attack attempts ricochet off the hands of Weber State's blockers, Heaven Harris called for another assist and then terminated the ball on her third try to put an end to a long fifth-set volley, refusing to let the rejections get in her head.
Northern Arizona dropped the match, falling 15-11 in the deciding set to Weber State a week ago at home, but, like Harris, the Lumberjacks kept swinging. They rebounded with a 3-0 trouncing of Idaho State on Saturday, taking down one of the Big Sky's better teams 25-17, 25-21, 25-17.
Against Weber, Harris, currently the Big Sky's second-most efficient hitter, was limited to hitting .143, a season-low clip against a conference opponent. Her next night out, however, the freshman opposite hitter recorded 12 kills, committed no errors and hit .545.
“We feel like every week, whether we’ve won or lost, that we’ve done a little bit better, and any team that feels like they have some control over things, they love coming to the gym,” said Lumberjacks head coach Ken Murphy.
With middle blocker Victoria Ewalefo out for the rest of the year with an ACL tear, Harris and Northern Arizona's other leading attackers, outside Kaylie Jorgenson and middle Abby Akin, head into the two final matches of the regular season looking to be more productive.
“We’re making sure they understand how to be a little bit more efficient," Murphy said. "We’ve had such a diverse offense this year that if something wasn’t working right, we could just go to a different hitter. And now I think we put a little more emphasis on instead of going to a different hitter, going back to the original hitter and have her execute better. I wouldn’t say pressure, it’s just their development in how to handle challenges better.”
On a run to be the conference's freshman of the year, Harris hasn't faced many defenses that can shut her down. She comes into the final week of regular-season matches with a .376 hitting average and 262 total kills, the second-most on the team. Through the first 25 matches of her collegiate career, the Phoenix product has tallied double-digit kills against 16 opponents, including the last four.
Winners of five of their last six matches, the Lumberjacks currently sit third in the conference in attack percentage at .228, a number that reflects their last stint of wins. In the past five victories, Northern Arizona never fell below .200 hitting, and the team is coming off its season-high .445 average against Idaho.
Against Idaho, Brittni Dorsey, filling in at middle for Ewalefo, went 5 for 5 with no hitting errors. In fact, in her two matches so far taking over inside, Dorsey was 12 for 17 with no hitting errors.
Harris and Northern Arizona get to test their consistency on Thursday against North Dakota, which Murphy called possibly the best defense in the conference. Playing host for the teams' first and only meeting this season, the Fighting Hawks, one of three Big Sky teams in possession of a 10-4 conference record, hold the No. 2 spot in blocking behind Weber with 2.64 per set and the top spot in digs per set at 18.05.
The last time the Lumberjacks went up against a good blocking team, they took 189 total swings, recorded 54 kills and committed 26 hitting errors, eventually falling to Weber and leaving the court on .148 hitting.
North Dakota, winners of two of their past five matches, is the kind of challenge Northern Arizona wants to take on before heading into the postseason.
“We need to know going into (North Dakota) we are going to have to work for our kills. That’s probably something we need right now," Murphy said.
Although Weber and North Dakota share a big block, they don't have in common a winning record, and Northern Arizona has had a season of beating good teams and falling to teams with losing records. Against conference teams with winning records, the Lumberjacks are 5-2, but are 3-4 when facing teams with losing marks.
After taking on North Dakota on the road, Northern Arizona (12-13, 8-6 Big Sky) will return to Rolle Activity Center to try to close out the season with a season sweep of Southern Utah (7-9, 2-12).
While kill consistency is going to be key to picking up pace heading into the postseason, the team wants to keep its mental approach to the game the same and not let the urgency to end the season on a high note affect their style.
“We have a good way of being able to stay calm but still have the adrenaline and are ready to play when we need to," Harris said. "It’s doing what we do, not changing anything and just playing the game.”
“I don’t think we need to be different, I don’t think we all of a sudden need to say, ‘OK, it’s the end here and now we’re really going to crank it up.’ I think we just need to be more consistent, take our good moments and do them at a higher percentage," Murphy said.