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NAU Volleyball

Northern Arizona middle blocker Abby Akin (9) celebrates with her teammates after the Lumberjacks rallied for four straight points in the third set to complete the sweep of LSU Friday night in the Rolle Activity Center.

With the Big Sky Conference opener just around the corner, the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks volleyball team and head coach Ken Murphy feel good about how far they've come as a team after finishing a challenging nonconference schedule at 7-5.

The team improved in areas of weakness, and the younger players matured and developed an understanding for the style of play the Lumberjacks take to the court. Meanwhile, the right side and middle positions continued to show their strengths, highlighted by junior opposite hitter Heaven Harris representing Northern Arizona on all four all-tournament teams.

Northern Arizona's opponent for the conference opener on Thursday, Weber State, also front-loaded its nonconference slate.

Weber State went 9-2, losing to No. 2 BYU and a Portland team that finished last season at No. 93 in the RPI rankings while beating teams such as Kansas State and Utah Valley.

The Wildcats own the conference's best record so far, and are riding a five-match win streak into Thursday.

“They play like that and we’ll have our hands full here,” Murphy said Tuesday after practice in Rolle Activity Center, where the Lumberjacks will host the Wildcats.

Northern Arizona, on the other hand, suffered losses to No. 21 Michigan and No. 18 Florida while topping LSU and and Fresno State to win its Lumberjack Classic for the first time outright since 2015, the first year Murphy helped lead the team to a conference title.

Northern Arizona, coming off a trip to the NCAA Tournament courtesy of winning the 2018 Big Sky title, was voted No. 1 in the preseason conference poll, with Weber State coming in at No. 2.

The Lumberjacks had a five-match win streak come to an end in Florida against the Gators and suffered a loss to Liberty on Saturday to close out the Gators Invitational, Northern Arizona's final nonconference tourney.

Murphy admitted the team regressed a bit in the last few matches, but said his team is not overthinking the setback.

“That’s not weird for a team that’s figuring things out, and we have to know that we are not perfect and that we will make mistakes," Murphy said. "It’s as long as we go and improve. This team is pretty dedicated to that, so I have confidence in that area.”

Another setback for Northern Arizona is that redshirt senior middle blocker Victoria Ewalefo was using crutches to get around at practice on Tuesday.

There are plenty of reasons to point to showing the start of the season was a success for the Lumberjacks. Northern Arizona sits atop the league in hitting percentage at .262, and resides in the top three of four other major stat categories -- opponent hitting percentage, assists, kills and service aces.

And now that it's not playing three matches across two days on a regular basis, Northern Arizona gets to utilize one of its strengths: preparation. 

“In the preseason, that’s really hard to do," Murphy said of finding time to scout opponents thoroughly.

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They've already been working on stuff to use on Weber during practices this week.

Weber sits at No. 1 in the conference in opponent hitting percentage, kills and assists. The Wildcats also lead the Big Sky in blocking, so Lumberjacks setters Abby Stomp and Aubrea Bandfield will be tested in how well they can get the NAU offense to produce.

While Northern Arizona is good at scouting opponents before matches, Stomp and Bandfield have shown they can do it during matches in order to help put their hitters in positions to win a ball.

When one setter sits, the other learns.

“They can see what’s happening across the net," Murphy said of his setters when they are off the court, "so they say, 'I see these gaps and when I jump in there we’ll emphasize this a little more.’”

It helps that they have right-side hitters like Ryann Davis and Harris, who sits sixth in the conference in hitting percentage at .335 and seventh in kills at 3.05 per set.

“Their decision-making is so good," Murphy added of his setters. "We talk about really small things when we talk about priorities, and then you look at the stat sheet from a match and see that they hit it right on the head. If there is any coaching during a match, just little things here and there, like, ‘Hey, let’s do this a little more, let’s go after this gap a little more,' whatever, they just do it so well and so naturally.”

Here are a few more things to watch for when Northern Arizona opens Big Sky play this week at 6:30 p.m.:

HOT HITTERS

While Harris sits at No. 6 in the league in hitting efficiency, teammate middle blocker Abby Akin holds the top spot at .418. Meanwhile, Weber's Hannah Hill and Sam Schiess are second and fourth in the category.

WEBER ON THE RISE

Jeremiah Larsen has turned the Wildcats volleyball program around since arriving in 2014. His first year ended with the team sitting at 7-24, marking the sixth straight year the team had suffered a losing season. The Wildcats had another losing season in 2015, but have only had one since.

IDAHO STATE

Northern Arizona will host Idaho State Saturday at 1 p.m. to close out the short homestand.

The Bengals went 3-9 through nonconference matches. Last season, Idaho State spoiled Northern Arizona's conference opener in five sets in Flagstaff.

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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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