Northern Arizona's Abby Akin and Heaven Harris stood out last week as the team took down two of the Big Sky's top teams.
Akin was named the Big Sky Offensive Player of the week, and Harris garnered the defensive player recognition. Other than Sacramento State, which lost its first conference match of the season last week to the Lumberjacks, Northern Arizona has been the only team to sweep the weekly honors.
Their recent level of play has been a reflection of the team. Winners of six of their last 10 matches, the Lumberjacks have been clicking, increasing their production on offense and defense across the board, and now they own a season-high four-match winning streak.
The level of play from the key components of the front row has been a key part of the success.
Akin, a sophomore middle blocker, has recorded double-digit kills in four of her past six matches after accomplishing the feat just once through the first 16 matches of the season. Meanwhile, she was part of 27 total blocks in the past six matches. During that span, Harris had her hands in 24 blocks, recording a season-high total of seven in the last two matches.
"I think Abby Stomp is finding more opportunities to get the ball to them," said Lumberjacks head coach Ken Murphy. "Also they are all young players that are emerging. As the season goes on, all the matches we play, they are gaining experience and getting more comfortable with being in situations."
Harris and Akin are showing the power and athleticism on offense Murphy had thought would lead to wins.
Sacramento limited Harris to seven kills and a .185 hitting percentage the first time they met at the Hornets Nest on Oct. 14. Since then, no team, including Sacramento, has been able to slow her down.
The freshman opposite hitter is averaging her highest average of kills per set, terminating the ball nearly 13 times per match in the past six matches. And she's doing it without making mistakes.
"I think we have hitters who can terminate the ball in crucial times," Akin said. "I think at all three positions we have hitters who can do that."
A week before Harris and Akin won their awards, Lumberjacks outside hitter Kaylie Jorgenson was named the offensive player of the week. Jorgenson has put up 15 or more kills in each of the past four matches.
Unfortunately for the Lumberjacks, who have just four regular-season matches remaining, another cog to the front that's been part of the team's turnaround suffered a knee injury recently.
A big part of the rotation for the first time after joining the team last season, Victoria Ewalefo's numbers as of late have been trending upward, too.
"She's provided some offensive part of the game that are kind of unique and can get us out of some situations that we've actually come to rely on," Murphy said of Ewalefo.
In fact, all three have landed the Lumberjacks at No. 3 in hitting percent in the conference at .256, just behind Portland States .258 and Idaho's .296. Their intensity has showed up on defense as well, as Northern Arizona, in conference matches only, is No. 4 in blocks per set at 2.39.
The Lumberjacks (11-12, 7-5 Big Sky) plan on bringing a player with experience in to replace Ewalefo.
Brittni Dorsey, who was a big part of the team when they won the Big Sky championship in 2015 and finished runner-up the next season, came in against Portland State on Saturday and assisted in five of the team's total 22 blocks. Last season at the service line, Dorsey led her team with 64 aces.
Akin currently leads the team with 27 aces, with Jordan Anderson at 25.
Having two middles with a wicked serve is a "good problem" for Murphy -- and the depth is nice too.
"That's a position we feel comfortable with. I think all three (Akin, Ewalefo, Dorsey) bring something good and different to our group, and I think Brittni has proven herself over the years to be a heck of a volleyball player," Murphy said.
They'll all need to step up as the team prepares to take on two of the best and two of the worst teams in the conference on alternating nights.
Northern Arizona opens the weekend with a home match in Rolle Activity Center with the Weber State Wildcats (6-18, 4-8) at 7 p.m. Thursday. On Saturday, the Lumberjacks host the Idaho State Bengals (11-14, 8-4) at 2 p.m. Next week, NAU plays its final road match of the regular season against North Dakota (24-5, 9-3) and comes home to close it up with Southern Utah (6-18, 1-11).
"For a team like ours, we want to understand how to play our best regardless of who's across the net, and that's something we have to prove to ourselves," Murphy said.
In the Big Sky Conference Championship quarterfinals, the No. 5 Northern Arizona women's soccer team fell to the No. 4 Portland State Vikings 1-0 to round out the season 9-10-1 overall and 4-6-1 in the Big Sky.
"I think it was a pretty even game in terms of statistics and matchups," said Lumberjacks head coach Andre Luciano said. "We tried to create some chances with pace in the first half by getting in behind, and we had some chances we could have capitalized on."
Despite the result, the Lumberjacks led the game with eight shots, outshooting the Vikings' seven. It was a familiar box score for the Lumberjacks as they have outshot five out of 10 of the opponents they've lost to and more than half of those losses have been by a single goal.
"Our midfield matchups were even for both teams; we did a good job containing Katie Forsee and they did a good job covering Adrian Nixt," Luciano said.
Both Forsee and Nixt, top forwards for their respective teams, were not even able to get a shot off in 90 minutes of action.
Portland State's goal came just under the 70th minute from Regan Russell, who played just 10 minutes, the least amount on the Viking roster. It came down to a corner kick and cross for Portland State to give them the lead over the Lumberjacks.
The Lumberjacks were at a scoreless tie at halftime after dominating possession, attempting four shots and maintaining pressure with three corners, while Portland State was able to match those numbers, without landing a shot on frame. The second half provided fewer shots for the Vikings, but more set pieces after the Lumberjacks conceded four corner kicks, seven overall, and six fouls, 11 overall.
"Soccer has a funny way of not letting the ball bounce the way you need it to go and sometimes the game comes down to set pieces," Luciano said. "We have to give Portland State credit as they fought hard, were organized and made it difficult for us to play."
SWIM AND DIVE
One dual meet down, one WAC Athlete of the Week for the Northern Arizona swimming and diving team. Junior Christina Torrente was named the Women's Diver of the Week on Wednesday by the Western Athletic Conference office, picking up her second Diver of the Week award of her career.
Torrente set new career-highs on both springboards in the Lumberjacks' 167.5-132.5 victory over New Mexico this past Saturday, while winning the 3-meter event. She dominated the 3-meter springboard, posting a winning score of 325.50 which eclipsed her next closest competitor by nearly 40 points. Torrente also was the runner-up to junior Tatiana Kurach on 1-meter with a score of 292.13. NAU wound up sweeping the top three spots on 1-meter.