Don’t tell Northern Arizona that Idaho’s volleyball team is the youngest and least experienced in the Big Sky Conference. So far in 2019, it’s looked anything but unseasoned.
In large part, it’s looked efficient on the pins and formidable on the block, with a few splashes of crafty, defensive sprawl-outs tossed in.
In a 22-25, 25-18, 25-21, 25-14 victory Thursday against the Lumberjacks at Memorial Gym, UI looked the part of an older team — like it could read deficiencies, adjust and capitalize. The Vandals piled up runs and jumped out to a 14-2 lead in the deciding game, suffocating NAU’s perplexed defense as if they were wily vets.
Although many of them might not remember it, UI exacted some revenge on the Lumberjacks, who’d booted the Vandals in the Big Sky championship last year.
A new-look Idaho team handled a new-look NAU, further promoting the notion that this is a year to compete, not rebuild.
But as for the impression of payback, “it wasn’t really that mindset,” said the night’s star, Kyra Palmbush, who’s appropriately a true freshman.
It was partly about exploiting NAU’s tendency to give middle blockers — like herself — one-on-one opportunities.
So Idaho (9-10, 5-2 Big Sky) banked heavily on Palmbush, who delivered. She appeared a sly, four-year starter, oftentimes “blooping” the ball right over the top of the Lumberjack block, landing it safely in the “doughnut,” the shallow center of the court.
“I kinda had that idea going in, that I was definitely gonna try to use that,” Palmbush said. “They tend to back up.”
The 6-foot-2 rookie from Mountain View, Calif., compiled 17 kills on a match-best .484 percentage. Her strikes sparked UI’s second-set rally, from down three to up three; cemented its late-game domination in the third and provided a fitting match conclusion — she logged kills in four of the final seven volleys.
“Our distribution was really good, and it hasn’t always been like that,” Vandals coach Debbie Buchanan said. “This was probably the best, combined, that Nikki (Ball) and Kyra have done.”
Ball, a sophomore middle blocker and one of the league’s top net barricades, assisted on seven blocks and added six kills. Ball and Palmbush frustrated the Lumberjack attack enough to draw pressure off UI’s outside hitters, who were tasked to avoid NAU’s star blocker in Abby Akin, and fire around her. They were led by sophomore Kennedy Warren’s 10 kills. The Vandals finished with 14 blocks.
Buchanan said a few crucial defensive tweaks changed the match’s tone after NAU controlled first set — UI’s back row shifted where “(NAU) had been trying to go” and it had a defender assigned to watch for tipped balls, among other things.
By all appearances, the Vandals’ modifications limited and flustered the Lumberjacks, who couldn’t regain their composure from the opener and ultimately committed 40 total errors, almost half of those on serves. Meanwhile, UI tallied eight aces.
When NAU (10-9, 3-4) managed one of its few rallies, UI’s defenders — standout libero Delaney Hopen, in particular — eventually quelled it. Hopen had a match-high 29 digs, many that saved points or led to momentum-turning kills.
“We got some big kills at critical times, and that’s kinda what it’s all about,” Buchanan said. “We have to be able to use everybody.”
The Vandals, who Buchanan noted “typically do better as the matches go longer,” started sluggishly, committing many unforced errors and leaving spaces open in the back row.
NAU got 10-plus kills from four players, but only hit .185 and blocked four shots.
But UI began to warm up after a tit-for-tat first half of the second, and scored opportunistically to stamp out NAU late in that game and in the next two, one of which was tightly contested. The fourth? Not so much.
“We were just all so locked in, and we just wanted it and it came together,” Palmbush said.
For a team that features only three upperclassmen, and three freshmen starters, it’s coming together quicker than anticipated.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re a freshman or a senior, it’s whoever comes out and competes,” Buchanan said. “When you watch our team right now, you don’t really see a difference.”
Clark may be reached at email@example.com, on Twitter @ClarkTrib or by phone at (208) 848-2260.