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Northern Arizona Volleyball

Northern Arizona middle blocker Neche Newton (1) sends a ball past Northern Colorado's block during a match at Rolle Activity Center earlier this season.

Early in the season, two major components at the net for Northern Arizona were sidelined with injuries. Then a number of smaller setbacks, including illness, kept the Lumberjacks from making real progress.

Head coach Ken Murphy still looks at his team as a work in progress, despite the regular season nearing its end and the race for playoff slots getting hot. He doesn't see his volleyball team as being as steady in its system or as disciplined as it usually is by this time of the season.

“And that comes from having new people on the court and playing next to someone different from one week to the next, having distractions and we are a little bit young," Murphy said of his volleyball team. "So we had a really good week of getting back to fundamentals and re-establishing some things for ourselves."

The Lumberjacks (14-10, 7-5 Big Sky) kept their heads up through the adversity, and they are getting a needed lift as they begin a two-match stretch at home. Junior opposite hitter Heaven Harris is expected to return from a leg injury for today's match against Sacramento State (12-13, 7-5 Big Sky).

Harris last played against Weber State in Northern Arizona's Big Sky Conference opener at home. At the time, she was a team leader in kills on a .322 hitting-efficiency clip. She was also a lead blocker for a team that prides itself in its ability to slow opponents down.

The Lumberjacks understand that Harris might not make an huge impact immediately as she eases back into playing matches -- at least not in the stat sheets.

“But she’s a good volleyball player, and even if all of her offense isn’t back and all of her blocking isn’t back, she’s still an experienced player who knows how to do the things we do and do them really well. That could give us a lift," Murphy said.

What won't show up on the box score is the leadership Harris brings to a team that's been through the mill this season.

Murphy said Harris has the ability to stay intense while still swinging freely.

“She does that better than anyone I have ever coached," Murphy said, "being able to be light out there, be yourself, do the things you always do, relaxed, but also be intense and ready to fight. That helps us.”

Despite the struggles, the Lumberjacks enter today as winners of four of their last five matches. Moreover, four of those five matches were away contests, including the 3-0 loss to Weber State on Saturday that saw Northern Arizona hit just .093, the lowest hitting percentage it has posted during the conference schedule.

Prior to the Weber State loss that snapped a four-match win streak, Northern Arizona was starting to roll, registering conference highs in hitting percentage while younger players such as freshman outside hitter Taylor Jacobsen started finding rhythm on offense and defense.

Murphy still sees his team as being able to reach its peak at the right time.

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“We have been hit as hard as we can possibly be hit as a team, and we are still here and we are still going. We are still feeling OK about some of the results," Murphy said.

Here are a few things to watch for as the Lumberjacks have a homestand in Rolle Activity Center this week:

KEEP 'EM SEPARATED

While Northern Colorado sits at 11-1 in the conference standings -- its only loss so far coming against Northern Arizona -- the next few slots are looking wide open for the weekend.

Northern Arizona and its opponent today, Sacrament State, both sit at 7-4 in the conference at the No. 4 spot. Not far ahead is a two-way tie between Weber State and Idaho, both owners of an 8-4 Big Sky mark.

Montana State sits at 6-6 in the conference.

Sac State is coming off a five-set loss to Eastern Washington (5-19, 3-9 Big Sky) and has split its last four matches. The Lumberjacks will be looking to avoid the regular-season sweep to the Hornets, who beat NAU 3-2 in the first meeting in California.

The Lumberjacks take on the Hornets today at 6:30 p.m.

GETTING PAST PORTLAND

Portland State (9-14, 5-7 Big Sky) beat Northern Arizona in five sets in a match before the Lumberjacks fell in five to the Hornets. That loss to the Vikings, in fact, sparked a set of four straight matches that went the distance for Northern Arizona, which ended up winning one of those.

Sac State and Portland State are seventh and eighth in the league in hitting percentage respectively.

The Lumberjacks take on the Vikings Saturday at 6:30 p.m.

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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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