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Northern Arizona University Volleyball

Northern Arizona Lumberjacks volleyball head coach Ken Murphy looks on during a practice in the Rolle Activity Center.

The Northern Arizona volleyball team is starting to find its balance on offense.

It showed over the weekend at the team's second tournament of the season, the Seton Hall Classic, as the team went 2-1 and hit .324 overall. The Lumberjacks were led again on offense by opposite hitter Heaven Harris, who currently owns a team-high total of 73 kills on .367 hitting.

Despite still needing growth in the serve-receive area, the Lumberjacks setters are helping attackers find production and over the weekend they made an effort to move the ball around more.

“Compared to last week, we did a better job of getting the ball to our outside hitters, just to keep some balance, and they responded well," Lumberjacks head coach Ken Murphy said after a practice Wednesday. "We felt like in the first week, we were so unbalanced that we needed to get something going.”

As a result, Lumberjacks senior outside hitter Sydney Lema came away from the Seton Hall Classic with 10 kills in each match played and earned  Big Sky Conference Offensive Player of the Week recognition for the first time in her career. Overall, Lema hit .338 as the team improved to 3-3 by the end of the tourney.

In a five-set loss to Northeastern on Friday, five different Lumberjacks recorded 10 or more kills for the first time in over a decade. And although the result was a loss, Northern Arizona hit .373 for the match.

A more balanced attack and Lema's growth will come in handy this weekend when Murphy and Northern Arizona play host to the most challenging Lumberjack Classic he said he's been a part of during his tenure.

“We knew what we returned this year, and we wanted the quality of competition that would help us get better," Murphy said. "Also just for NAU, to have this high of level of volleyball in our gym for a couple of days is a cool thing and we know the volleyball community will support us, and we want to be the leaders in that area."

Northern Arizona hosts South Dakota State, LSU and Fresno State this weekend. Not one of the teams enters the Lumberjack Classic with a losing record.

“These are big challenges and these are big things that will help us move forward,” Murphy said.

It's a chance for Lema to keep taking steps in the right direction, much like it was last year for former outside hitter Kaylie Jorgenson. A year ago when the Lumberjacks played the No. 8 Florida Gators in the Lumberjack Classic, Jorgenson connected for 17 kills and hit .368, helping Northern Arizona hand a shocking loss to Florida in five sets. She showed it was her season to be an impact player with that performance.

Lema's come a far way from being just a solid defense player with a strong swing to an all-around playmaker no matter where she is on the court. She's currently third on the team in total kills at 49 on 151 attempts and has only committed 10 attack errors so far this season.

“A few years ago, that was an area where she struggled, and it is so cool to see her dedicate herself to getting better in that phase, and we are starting to see the results of that," Murphy said of Lema finding new ways to terminate the ball.

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It took maturing and a spring during which Lema came to know herself better as a player. It also helps having two setters who have come a long way since working together in a 6-2 last season.

Northern Arizona currently sits at third in the Big Sky in assists at 11.50 per set, with sophomore Aubrea Bandfield and senior Abby Stomp finding ways to get production out of a team that still is a work in progress in the passing area.

“We just think that we can run our offense from a lot of places because our setters are so good. So if our passing is off, we can still get the ball to all of our hitters, and I feel like they can all do a good job," Murphy said.

Here a few more things to look for when Northern Arizona kicks off its Lumberjack Classic Friday:

DOMINANT DEFENSES

Lumberjacks middle blocker Abby Akin earned the conference's defensive player of the week honor after helping her team limit their last three opponents to a combined .152 hitting-efficiency clip. She's currently atop the conference in the blocking category at 1.67 per set. While Northern Arizona enters the weekend with an opponent hitting percentage of .190, Fresno comes to Flagstaff at .175 and LSU at .212.

TOURNAMENT STANDOUTS

Harris and Lema made the Seton Hall Classic All-Tournament team. The following week, Harris, who is averaging 3.04 kills per set for the team, was named to the Michigan Invitational All-Tournament Team.

MAKING FRIENDS

This is the first time Northern Arizona will play LSU. In fact, seven of the first nine nonconference teams the Lumberjacks will play this season will be first-time meetings.

THE SCHEDULE

Northern Arizona plays its first home match of the season at noon Friday against South Dakota State (3-3) and then has a nightcap against LSU (3-2) at  p.m. The team ends its tourney with Fresno (4-2) on Saturday at noon.

All matches will be played in the Rolle Activity Center.

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Mike Hartman can be reached at 556-2255 or at mhartman@azdailysun.com. Follow him on Twitter @AZDS_Hartman.

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