NAU volleyball pulls of massive comeback to spoil Idaho State’s senior night, 3-2

Photo courtesy of NAU Athletics

The comeback to end all comebacks! For the first time since Nov. 28, 2019, against Idaho in the Big Sky Tournament, NAU came back from two sets down to win.

After falling behind 2-0, NAU channeled all of its energy to steal its season finale match in Pocatello, Idaho against Idaho State on the Bengals’ Senior Day in five sets, 3-2 (23-25, 23-25, 25-15, 25-16, 15-11).

Junior outside hitter Taylor Jacobsen had the match of a lifetime, earning a season-high 25 kills and matching her season-high of 18 digs she earned against Weber State on October 16. She was just one kill shy of her career-high which she established last season against Montana State on Feb. 6.

Aubrea Bandfield backed Jacobsen's career day with one of her own, as the NAU senior setter finished with a career-high 56 assists.

While both teams’ postseason fates were set, NAU was still playing for seeding in the Big Sky tournament next weekend. Idaho State (7-21, 3-13 Big Sky) had already been eliminated from playoff contention. Coming into their last match against Southern Utah, the Bengals were on an 11-match losing streak which included 10 straight set losses. The Bengals ended the losing streak with a four-set win over Southern Utah in four sets — and were just points away from ending the season with a winning streak.

The Lumberjacks opened the first set with a pair of attack errors from Jacobsen and junior middle blocker Neche Newton. The Lumberjacks committed six attack errors and four service errors overall in the first set. 

Idaho State started to break away and scored six of seven points on a couple of three-point runs which gave the Bengals a 10-6 lead, as the Lumberjacks continued playing from just a few points behind in the first two sets. The first set consisted of 10 ties and four lead changes. 

Idaho State, once again, showed its strength with two kills from senior middle blocker Kaia Rhodes and a kill from junior middle blocker Rachael Warren to force an NAU timeout.

The Lumberjacks jumped out of the timeout with a three-point run of their own and kills from Jacobsen and Newton, forcing the Bengals to take a quick timeout.

Bandfield ended the first set with an attack error in a four-point run. This was the only attack error she made in the match.

The second set seemed identical to the first one, even down to the score. Both teams traded short runs and NAU was led by sophomore outside hitter Lyla Hollis, who earned her fifth and sixth kills early in the second set.

Hollis, who made her first appearance since September and earned a double-double on Friday against Weber State, made her first start in 15 matches with redshirt junior outside hitter Morgan Gappmayer coming off the bench.

Gappmayer, who was pulled from Friday’s match, shook off her struggles and made an impact when she was on the court. She matched her teammate, senior opposite hitter Ryann Davis, with nine kills.

Hollis got off to a hot start by recording all seven of her kills in the first two sets. However, Gappmayer came in to relieve her in all three of NAU’s winning sets.

“I think for today that was the right adjustment,” NAU head coach Ken Murphy said. “I think Gappmayer is a little better defender and blocker and we needed that at that time of the match. Offensively, we were in good shape but we just needed a little more defense and I thought she gave us a little lift there.”

The back-and-forth nature of set two was even more noticeable: 12 ties and six lead changes. With Idaho State leading 22-20, NAU called a timeout after two consecutive kills by freshman outside hitter Jamie Streit. After back-to-back kills by Davis, Idaho State used another quick timeout to stop an NAU run before it could start. That move may have given the Bengals the set, as they won the next three points with the final two being service aces from Streit.

The situation looked dire for the Lumberjacks, but it was still possible to make a comeback. NAU swept Idaho State earlier in the season on Oct. 14 with a 3-0 win at the Rolle Activity Center. If NAU was going to turn the game around, it would be against a team they’d won three-straight sets against less than a month ago.

The first two sets were close enough to where the match could have easily been 2-0 in favor of the Lumberjacks. After the first two sets, NAU actually had the better hitting percentage at .269 percent to the Bengal’s .262.

The momentum shifted near the beginning of the third set. After a 6-6 start, the Lumberjacks went on a five-point run that burned one of Idaho State’s timeouts. Jacobsen had one of the best sets of her already storied career. She started the NAU run with a pair of kills and followed up that run with three consecutive kills. Overall, the Lumberjacks went on a 12-3 run to take an 18-9 lead.

“We put a big focus on our blocking,” Murphy said. “Idaho State was doing whatever it wanted offensively. For our defense to work right, we had to focus on that.”

Davis earned one of her two aces on the night to force another Bengal timeout. Jacobsen, who was the first player to reach double-digit kills, with 10 after set two, nearly repeated it in the third set with nine more. She got two of the NAU’s last three points in the set to match her season-high in kills of 19 he had set against Southern Utah on Nov. 4, as NAU stifled Idaho State’s momentum by taking the third set, 25-15.

The Lumberjacks were off to an even better start in set four. Down 4-3, NAU went on a four-point run due to errors from the Bengals and kills from Gappmayer and sophomore middle blocker Jordan Elder. Elder had herself a solid match too. She finished with eight kills, which is only two behind her career-high she got against Southern Utah almost two weeks ago. 

The Bengals finally responded to NAU’s comeback with a five-point run, which consisted of three NAU errors. That run would be nullified by a six-point run immediately after, as Jacobsen and Gappmayer led the Lumberjack attack.

Idaho State head coach Sammi Stuart took matters into her own hands by challenging a kill by sophomore middle blocker Savannah Bloom. However, the call did stand, giving NAU a 16-13 lead.

NAU ended the fourth set with a run that was even more impressive than one earlier in the set. A 7-0 run was started thanks to a Davis kill. After only two points of the run, Idaho State called a timeout but to no avail. The Lumberjacks finished off the run thanks to two kills from Gappmayer and a pinpoint kill from Elder, her last of the match.

Against all odds, the Lumberjacks forced a fifth set and had all the momentum on their side.

The final tiebreaking set couldn’t have started any better for NAU, which jumped to a 4-0 lead. An 11-point run, when combined with the end of the fourth set, was finally ended with a service error from Bandfield. NAU then went on a quick three-point run that was bookended by a kill and an ace from Jacobsen. 

Down 7-2 in a first-to-15 set, Idaho State needed to regroup with a timeout. Streit opened the next set of plays with a kill, one of her team-leading 14. NAU then jumped on another four-point run that included consecutive aces from sophomore libero Millie O’Ketter and forced the Bengals to use their final timeout.

Murphy used his only challenge on an attacking error called on Jacobsen. Her spike looked to just barely hit the end line and, after a review, the call was reversed and NAU was suddenly at match-point. 

In the true nature of this match, Idaho State wouldn’t go away. The Bengals went on a four-point run in a last-ditch effort to mount a comeback of their own. A pair of kills from senior outside hitter Raegan Kunz caused NAU to use a final timeout. 

Fittingly, it was Jacobsen who earned the winning kill to give NAU a 15-11 set win and complete the comeback.

Jacobsen was the only Lumberjack with double-digit kills while the Bengals had four players reach that threshold.

This was only the second time NAU went to five sets this season. The only other time was a five-set loss to Montana State on Oct. 21. 

With it being the final day of the regular season, seeding was determined for the Big Sky Tournament that starts on Nov. 18. With the win, NAU appears to have locked itself in the No. 5 seed for the second season in a row. This puts them up against the No. 4 seed Montana State Bobcats. 

The Lumberjacks finished the regular season with a 12-13 overall record and a 10-6 conference record.

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