NAU remains perfect against Big Sky foes as it takes its third consecutive straight-set victory in conference play, this time against Southern Utah University (SUU). Over the past six days dating back to Thursday’s conference opener against Idaho, the Lumberjacks have won nine sets in a row and remain near the top of the Big Sky standings.
This win in Cedar City, Utah marks the first road victory for the Lumberjacks this season after a tough non-conference schedule that saw losses against Power 5 schools.
The Lumberjacks brought their winning ways on the road after a strong performance over Eastern Washington just three days prior. Right off the bat, NAU won its first three points thanks to SUU attack errors. Redshirt Junior Morgan Gappmayer led the way with four kills in the set that sent NAU off and running. Gappmayer once again started for outside hitter Lyla Hollis, who missed her third consecutive match due to a non-COVID-related illness.
“We’re hoping maybe two more weeks,” NAU head coach Ken Murphy said about Hollis’s timetable for her return.
While that amount of time does seem long for Hollis, particularly since her condition isn’t known, NAU seems to have found a recipe that works even in her absence.
Gappmayer continues to make her mark in the starting rotation, this time earning eight kills without committing a single error. With a performance like this, it wasn’t hard for her to be named Player of the Game.
NAU was quick to get on an early run. With the Lumberjacks leading early 9-2 after a seven-point run with kills from four different Lumberjacks, SUU head coach Kacey Nady would call a timeout to try and right the ship. This would be a common scene for Southern Utah as the team saw themselves trailing for the entirety of the match. Only in the third set did the Thunderbirds tie the match at a few points, mainly going on a four-point run to tie the set at 15 coming out of a media timeout.
As the set continued, with NAU having practically won the set early on, both teams started to play a little sloppy with four consecutive service aces between them. Despite reigning Big Sky Player Offensive Player of the Week, junior outside hitter Taylor Jacobsen getting off to a slow start, the Lumberjacks would take the set with ease, 25-16. Jacobsen earned a relatively low two kills in the first set while also committing five errors, leading to a kill percentage of -.250. She would commit five more errors throughout the match while still bringing her kill total to the double digits at 14 and her kill percentage in the positives at .077.
After one set, NAU led SUU in kills (14-4), assists (13-3) and digs (10-5).
The second set played out nearly identically as the first, with NAU opening the set with the lead. The Lumberjacks yet again managed to pull away for the Thunderbirds by starting the set with a four-point run and not looking back. SUU could not catch a break until after a media timeout when Nady challenged a Jacobsen kill claiming it went out of bounds. While the call looked close it was just enough for officials to reverse the call, giving SUU the point and Jacobsen the error.
The errors from here would be mostly committed by the Thunderbirds. Two attack errors in a row gave NAU a wide 21-13 set lead. More errors would force SUU to call a timeout on set point for NAU. After a kill from SUU freshman middle blocker Carissa Richie, NAU sophomore setter Kate Hatch tipped the ball over the net to earn the set-winning kill. The first two sets would end with the same score, NAU 21-16.
The third and closing set would once again prove to be the most difficult for the Lumberjacks, notably due to an abrupt change by the Thunderbirds on the court.
During the break before the third set, Southern Utah went back into the locker room and came out with a new libero, freshman Rachel Wieber. The previous libero, freshman Calli Johnson, left the match in the second set with an apparent injury. She would return to the bench in her practice attire, signaling she would be out for the remainder of the match. She was seen with what appeared to be an ice pack wrapped around her left wrist. This was a huge loss for SUU as Johnson was third in the conference in digs, averaging 3.87 per set. Wieber would lead the Thunderbirds with 14 digs and made some impressive saves to prevent NAU from scoring more kills.
“The libero [Wieber] did a pretty good job,” Murphy said. “She dug a few balls and gave them a little energy. I thought we leveled off for a minute there and the set kind of got close.”
The Thunderbirds would tie the Lumberjacks on numerous occasions in the final set but could never inch ahead. After a four-point SUU run filled with three kills from three different players to tie the set at 15, NAU responded in kind with a four-point run of its own that began with a kill from senior opposite hitter Ryan Davis and culminated with Gappmayer’s eighth and final kill.
With NAU leading 20-17, Jacobsen took it upon herself to close this match out for the Lumberjacks and right her stats that were dampened by her first set performance. She would earn kills on four of the last five NAU points and catapult herself to double-digit kills as per usual. The Lumberjacks would win the set 25-21 and sweep a Big Sky opponent for the third time in six days. This win puts NAU’s winning streak against Southern Utah up to 15 games dating back to 2014.
NAU moves to 5-7 on the season and most importantly, 3-0 in Conference match-ups. The Lumberjacks are the first Big Sky team to win three matches against fellow conference opponents but will have a tall task on Saturday, Oct. 2 when they will remain on the road to face the Northern Colorado Bears who are not only undefeated in the Big Sky as well, (2-0), but own the best overall record in the conference at 10-3.
Southern Utah just so happens to play Northern Colorado this Thursday, allowing NAU to study up and see what it needs to focus on before the showdown in the Bank of Colorado Arena on Saturday at 5 p.m.