The Northern Arizona Lumberjacks went from a seasoned squad to a young team rather quickly after injuries sidelined two key players indefinitely.
Northern Arizona still managed to start the first weekend of Big Sky Conference volleyball with a 2-0 record, improving to 9-5 overall despite having to put four freshmen on the court Saturday during a home match against Idaho State.
“We know it’s a long season and that’s why we need to have depth," Lumberjacks head coach Ken Murphy said Tuesday after practice, "because we will face setbacks like this. Some could be longer than others, we don’t know, but the goal is still to grow our team and get as good as we can by November.”
With junior opposite hitter Heaven Harris nursing a leg injury, redshirt freshman Morgan Gappmayer filled in at the position on Saturday. Meanwhile, freshman Neche Newton started her third consecutive match Saturday, filling in at middle blocker for injured redshirt senior Victoria Ewalefo.
Northern Arizona, playing host for the first week of the Big Sky schedule, beat Weber State in four sets Thursday and nearly blanked Idaho State on Saturday, but relinquished a 20-8 lead in the third set to the Bengals in Rolle Activity Center and had to go four sets.
And the Bengals almost made it a five-set ordeal until Lumberjacks senior middle Abby Akin, who was named the conference's defense player of the week, took control, getting her hands in the final three points of Saturday's match for the 25-22 fourth-set win.
“This team especially is just really resilient, and whatever the challenge thrown at us, we are able to find a way to be successful," said Akin, who averaged 2.25 blocks per set against Weber State and Idaho State. "This is just another challenge where two of our starters are out and we just need to have the confidence in our younger players to step up. And we do, we do believe they can produce for us.”
While Akin had a match-high 13 blocks against Weber State, the younger players showed they are ready for larger roles.
Gappmayer recorded eight kills to go with a solo block and an assisted rejection in her start against Idaho State, but she also committed six hitting errors. Neche added a solo block and assisted in three, helping the front row stay solid.
Both freshmen played fundamentally sound overall, and that's exactly what Murphy and Co. needs from them as they find ways to grow in other areas.
Moreover, Murphy wants his players to continue to be defenders first.
“We just feel that our defense, regardless of our lineup, can keep us in matches," said Murphy, who also has freshmen Taylor Jacobsen and Jasmine West working in the starting lineup.
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Akin said the team isn't necessarily relying on the seniors because they know how talented and determined the younger players are.
“But having the seniors on the court is a comfort level for them. I guess that’s what the younger players look to when they are on the court," Akin said.
Here are a few more things to watch as Northern Arizona embarks on its first conference road trip of the season:
This weekend, the youth movement will be faced with the challenge of playing outside of Flagstaff. Northern Arizona faces Portland State Thursday and Sacramento State Saturday afternoon.
“Both teams are very different and we will be in different environments as well," said Akin, who leads the conference in hitting efficiency at .412 and is second in blocks per set at 1.57 behind only Portland State's Jordan White and her 1.62 clip.
Northern Arizona dispatched Portland State last season in three sets in Oregon in the teams' first meeting of 2018, while Sacramento State handed the Lumberjacks a 3-2 loss a year ago in California.
Portland State (5-8, 1-1 Big Sky) and Sacramento State (6-9, 1-1) are both averaging an opponent hitting percentage of .196 heading into the second week of conference volleyball.
“They’ve been in our gym, they know what we can do here, but can they do it in an opponent’s gym," Murphy said of his young players.
The Lumberjacks expect long, scrappy matches full of rallies for the second straight week when they take on the Vikings Thursday and the Hornets Saturday.
Portland State is fourth in the league in blocking at 2.35 rejections per set, while Northern Arizona sits at the No. 3 spot with 2.48 per set. The Vikings are second in the Big Sky in digs at 15.92 per set, while the Lumberjacks and Hornets sit at No. 4 and 5, respectively, in the category.