The Northern Arizona volleyball team is looking for some addition by subtraction for the next stretch of matches, one that has them playing three teams in three different states across a five-day span.

“The nice thing about right now, though, is I think because of injuries and because of some of our struggles, some of our expectations have just been removed," Lumberjacks head coach Ken Murphy said Tuesday after practice. "We are just more free to play right now. This year has been a challenge that way, I think -- dealing with those expectations has been a little tough for us."

This upcoming stretch, although difficult in travel, was looking like three victories against three of the weaker Big Sky Conference teams. Things have changed since the start of the season, however.

Northern Arizona takes on Idaho today to get started, a team that landed at No. 5 in the preseason conference poll. Then it's on to Eastern Washington and Southern Utah, programs that were predicted to be bottom-feeders in 2019.

"What I think I am starting to see is a team that is a little less nervous about all that, a little less stressed out about that kind of stuff, and is more willing to just go play, do our best and work hard and see what comes out of it," Murphy said.

The Lumberjacks (10-8, 3-3 Big Sky) just snapped a three-match skid, beating Montana at home in five sets. It was the fourth straight five-set match Northern Arizona had played, finally coming away from an outing that went the distance with a win.

If Northern Arizona would have slipped on Saturday, it would have moved to 0-7 for the season in matches that go to a deciding fifth game.

“Saturday was special because we finished and proved to ourselves that we can still do that. But even in that match, I think we were a long ways from what our potential is," Murphy said.

The Lumberjacks are hoping to keep trending upward with a different group of players than what they started with. To help the offense get good first touches, Sydney Lema, a senior, moved from the outside hitter position to libero. On Saturday during the match, Murphy made the change from a 6-2 system to a 5-1, looking to simplify things for a team that is relying on youth to fill in for injured players.

For now, keeping it simple seems to be the best approach for the team.

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Murphy said practice this week has been great, as the team starts to hone back in on the little things that can change the outcomes of matches.

“It’s less about can we make these amazing blocks and amazing digs, but more about can we just get back under control when things get chaotic, get organized and take care of all the little plays that can happen in this game," Murphy said. "Traditionally, we’ve been really strong in those areas, not giving away points and taking care of our side. We’ve spent a few weeks not being strong in that area, but this group did a great job in this past week of focusing on that a little more.”

And Murphy likes the test that's ahead of his team, one that is looking to win more matches even when it's not at its best.

Idaho (8-10, 4-2 Big Sky) finished tied with Northern Arizona as last season's regular-season Big Sky champions, with the latter going on to win the conference tournament for a trip to the NCAAs with a win over the former. But Idaho lost a chunk of players to graduation heading into this season.

Despite the loss of players, the Vandals are leading the league in hitting efficiency at a .232 clip, with the Lumberjacks trailing at No. 2 at .229. Today's match against the Vandals, however, could be the contest the Lumberjacks need to make sure their offense is heading in the right direction, as Idaho is ninth out of the conference's 11 teams in opponent hitting percentage.

Meanwhile, Southern Utah might not be the doormat it looked like at the start of season. The Thunderbirds (11-7, 4-2 Big Sky) outlasted Weber State and Sacramento State earlier in the conference slate, beating both in five sets, and they sit in the top three of the conference in hitting efficiency and assists, kills and service aces per set.

Eastern Washington looks exactly as expected, sitting at 2-16 overall and winless in the conference at 0-6. They also sit at the bottom -- or very much near it -- in most statistical categories.

However, Murphy and his squad are not looking at the stats or records, especially now. He wants his team to be concerned with itself and use this stretch as an opportunity to define itself.

"All we can control is that we have to play our style of volleyball, get the kind of rest we need on the road. I think this kind of stuff makes teams start to define themselves a little bit. And we’ve been talking about that it’s time for us to define what this team is and define what this season is, and this road trip goes a long way toward us doing that," he said.

Northern Arizona plays Idaho today at 6 p.m., Eastern Washington 2 p.m. Saturday and Southern Utah at 5:30 p.m. Monday.

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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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