Beating the Portland State volleyball team isn't new for Northern Arizona.
Taking such success into a postseason match against the Vikings, however, is a new situation for the young Lumberjacks.
“It's one of the things we are going through for the first time, and I hope we can handle it really well," said Lumberjacks head coach Ken Murphy, whose team ended the regular season with a 13-14 overall record and a 9-7 conference mark.
Seeded No. 5 heading into the opening round of the Big Sky Championship Tournament Thursday in Sacramento, the Lumberjacks are set to face a fourth-seeded Vikings team that they beat in both regular season matches. Murphy wants his team to rely on what led to the past success but not allow the previous results to make them overconfident.
The bulk of Northern Arizona's starting lineup, besides middle blocker Abby Akin and Brittni Dorsey, had limited roles in last year's tourney, which for the Lumberjacks started with a 3-0 sweep over the Vikings. Likewise, Portland State's side of the court will be also filled with young players looking to improve upon their brief playoff performances from a year ago.
“They are really talented and I think really skilled," Murphy said of the Vikings, who finished their conference slate at 11-5 as a junior-laden team. "When I look at them, I see a team that really knows what they are trying to do with a really good system, and I think they have confidence that if they stick to their gameplan they are going to have success. So I think it’s up to us to make sure that we do things to disrupt them, get them unsettled and make them question what they are doing a little bit.”
Northern Arizona kept Portland State out of rhythm in both regular-season matches courtesy of an aggressive service attack. In trying to keep Vikings senior setter Erin Clack from getting into a tempo with sophomore hitter Caitlin Bettenay, the Lumberjacks recorded 12 aces in the teams' first meeting but also sent 12 outside the lines.
Jordan Anderson was on target from the line that day, tallying a career-high six aces. In the next encounter with Portland State, the Lumberjacks put down five aces to 10 service errors. Murphy wasn't concerned about the errors.
“We feel like that pressure is really important," said Murphy, whose team sits at No. 2 in the conference in serving at 1.52 aces per set. "If their setter is near the net, she has all of these options that can be so hard to defend -- their middles are strong, their outside is strong. If they have those options, they will be that much more difficult. We are willing to sacrifice a few points here and there to establish that pressure. It’s something we do in general, but it’s really important in this matchup.”
Clark leads the conference in assists per set at 12.26, and has attackers surrounding her who can get into double-digit kills on any given night. Bettenay enters the tourney with a team-high 369 kills, terminating the ball at an average of 3.88 times per set on swings, the third most in the conference.
By the second time Northern Arizona faced Bettenay, it had a big block to go with the serve. After allowing the outside hitter from Australia to collect 15 kills on .200 hitting in Portland, the Lumberjacks tallied 12 blocks and limited Bettenay to just eight kills on 36 attempts to go with eight errors in Rolle Activity Center.
Meanwhile, Lumberjacks outside hitter Kaylie Jorgenson, who played behind Lauren Jacobsen a year ago in the tourney, has been able to penetrate Portland State's defense. The junior put up a double-double in both matches against the Vikings, helping her team get both wins in four sets. Bettenay, on the other hand, struggled to a meager .056 hitting percent in the second meeting while registering nine digs.
A starter in last year's squad that reached the title round and fell to North Dakota, Abby Akin has been a consistent threat up front and at the service line for the Lumberjacks. While Akin has experience, freshman outside hitter Heaven Harris, a player who has become crucial to terminating the ball for big side-outs, joins the front this year for her first-ever postseason match.
Sitting respectively at No. 3 and 4 in the conference in hitting percentage, Akin and Harris have also had their share of success against the Vikings. Both put up double-digit kills in each contest, never falling below .200 hitting.
"We are going to respect this match for what it is: one chance against a really good team. We learned from the first two matches and hopefully we can do those things again, but there are always places where we can get better," Murphy said.
No. 1 Sacramento State, this year's host, or No. 8 Northern Colorado will play the winner of the Portland State-Northern Arizona match. Northern Arizona's match on Thursday is set for a 5:30 p.m. start.