Kevin Meagher A Fresh Start Flashback to the 2007 season. The NAU’s women’s volleyball team had struggled the whole season but had still earned a birth into the Big Sky Tournament for the first time in three years. Now they were up 2-1 in matches to the third seeded Eastern Washington but were falling apart. Eastern was having their best match and dominating the Lumberjacks; now the match was tied 2-2. This final match was the most important. Whoever would win went on in the tournament while the loser packs their bags and went home. Even with the nation’s kills leader, Kim Babcock, the Jacks still struggled and ended up losing the final match. With their heads down, the NAU women’s volleyball team walked off the court. They were used to losing. NAU finish their 2007 season with a 12-15 record. 12-15 was not a winning record but still better then their 8-18 finish the year before. The NAU volleyball team had been struggling for sometime now and needed to get on track. Changes needed to be made by the NAU athletic department. Changes began after the resignation of volleyball head coach Chris Campbell. This was no surprise as Campbell compiled a bleak 31-71 record over four seasons at NAU. With no head coach and the loss of their senior leaders Kim Babcock and Kelly Verboom, the NAU volleyball team was in disarray. Girls began to quit the team and with only nine players in the offseason, NAU sports followers didn’t know what the athletic department was going to do. That all changed when Craig Choate was hired as the new head coach. Choate had been the men’s assistant volleyball coach at Pepperdine University before coming to NAU but had also served as the head women’s volleyball coach at San Jose State for 14 years. Choate, himself was the first brick laid in NAU’s rebuilding process. “I was very excited for the opportunity to come to NAU,” said Choate. Now Choate had to turn this dismal team around. With only nine players on the offseason roster, Choate’s first problem was recruiting. No team can function with nine players so Choate worked in the offseason and came back with another nine newcomers to add to the team. This still wouldn’t seal NAU’s fate. With half the team having no game experience at all, the 2008 season expectations were not very high. Players had quit and offseason injuries had hampered the team enough to have an almost completely new lineup from the previous season. How would this lineup do? Would they struggle with so many newcomers to the team? Would Coach Choate have as big of an impact as expected? How would they start the season? These were all questions being asked of the volleyball team before the start of the season. Even the players weren’t quite sure how they would do. “We were a little nervous and little excited just to get out there,” said senior outside hitter Roni Greenwood. “It’s tough when you have a new coach and new players.”
But it seems the team has responded to the questions with positive results. With a 10-2 record, the NAU women’s volleyball team is off to its best start in 17 years. NAU is also a perfect 7-0 at home. They have won three straight tournament titles and just beat the 11-time defending Big Sky champs Sacramento State. “We have had the feeling of winning and we like it,” says transfer junior setter Janalee Mays-Robinson. “We know we have to bring our best to every match we play.” Something is different about the way NAU is playing. A majority of NAU’s success is built around senior Libero Brittany Stowers. Stowers is currently leading the nation in digs as well. “Brittany is a great example of leadership by example. It is good to know you have the best Libero in the country playing behind you; instant confidence,” says Coach Choate. But how has the team been so successful with so many newcomers to the program? “Experience is overrated,” says Choate. “New people can have solid fundamental skills also. Experience doesn’t guarantee a big heart.” Even without experience, the newcomers have had an instant impact on the court. This recruiting class has done quite well as shown by the recent success of transfer Janalee Mays-Robinson and freshman Lexi Sullivan. Mays-Robinson is currently 11th in the nation as well as 1st in the Big Sky in assists per set while Lexi Sullivan is 3rd in the Big Sky in kills per set and was Fiesta Bowl tournament MVP. Those are very impressive honors for two players who had no division 1 college experience until this year. “Lexi and Jana have more than lived up to expectations,” says Choate. By all looks, NAU’s volleyball teams looks to have made huge strides from last season. With a new coach and new players, what is the reason for this recent success? From all accounts, Coach Craig Choate seems to have made the biggest impact on the program. “Our new coach has brought a good change in attitude to our program,” explains Roni Greenwood. “He is so knowledgeable and expects an extremely high level out of every player.” It seems a winning attitude has changed every player on the team. As one can clearly see, the NAU women’s volleyball team is not the same team of years past. They do not expect to lose. They do not expect to struggle in conference play. This year’s team has been built from the ground up on a solid foundation of hard work and a new attitude. They are young yet still have found ways to play like an experienced cohesive group. The rebuilding of the NAU volleyball program is in full effect now and is only getting better. With conference play in full swing, NAU looks to take a driver’s seat in 1st place with hopes to win conference. The dismal team of 2007 has transformed into a powerful force in the 2008 season. Setter Janalee Mays-Robinson explains it best by saying, “all we can do is play every match, every set and every point with one hundred percent effort and heart and we will be ok.” It looks as if NAU is off to a fresh start.