FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – A home tournament, a trip for two versus one of the nation's perennial powerhouses and a revamped conference schedule highlight the 2014 Northern Arizona volleyball schedule as announced by head coach Ken Murphy on Monday.
The Lumberjacks will open serve in Houston, Texas to begin the season at the Husky Classic hosted by Houston Baptist. NAU will take on host HBU on Aug. 29 in its season opener before concluding the tournament with Chattanooga and Tulsa a day later.
NAU will then head back to the state of Texas the following weekend – Sept. 5-6 – for the UTPA Tournament. The Lumberjacks open the first day of play with a pair of matches versus Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and Lamar and will battle host Texas-Pan American in the tourney finale.
"Our biggest objective in the non-conference schedule was to challenge ourselves and make the schedule a little more competitive," Murphy said. "We have a lot of returning players and our team is ready for a bigger challenge. When you look at the balance of our non-conference, there are a lot of teams that finish high in their conference or have had a lot of success in recent years and we're going to have to raise our level of play to have the preseason we want."
Following back-to-back weekends in Texas, the Lumberjacks will welcome Albany, Grand Canyon and UC Riverside to the Rolle Activity Center for their first home matches of the season. On Sept. 12, the Lumberjacks will open with in-state rival Grand Canyon at 11 a.m. and will wrap up a full tournament day with UC Riverside at 5:30 p.m. NAU will then host Albany on Sept. 13 at noon prior to the first NAU home football game of the season later in the day.
Murphy will then guide his team across the Pacific Ocean for a pair of matches on Sept. 19-20 against Hawaii to close out the non-conference schedule. NAU will face a tall task in Hawaii, who finished last season ranked No. 18 in the country with a 25-5 record culminating in its 21st consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance having clinched its 19th consecutive conference title. Hawaii will also pack its house as one of the premier teams in the country attendance-wise averaging over 7,500 fans per match last season.
"I've been really impressed with our team's maturity over the last six months and our ability to deal with distractions and outside influences," Murphy said. "(Hawaii) will be one more challenge for us. They've got a great environment to play in and the travel is long, but if we can play really strong matches both of those nights, it's going to show the growth of our program."
After a challenging and unfamiliar non-conference schedule – NAU will face Chattanooga, Hawaii, Houston Baptist and Texas-Pan American for the first time – the Lumberjacks will head into the Big Sky portion of the season against familiar foes, albeit with a different conference structure.
With the addition of Idaho to the Big Sky Conference beginning in the fall, Big Sky Volleyball will be split into two six-team divisions for the regular season. NAU will be in the South Division with Idaho State, Portland State, Sacramento State, Southern Utah and Weber State while Eastern Washington, Idaho, North Dakota, Montana, Montana State and Northern Colorado will reside in the North Division. Teams will play each team in their division twice – home and away – and each team in the other division once creating a 16 conference match slate as compared to 20 matches the last two seasons.
The Lumberjacks will return from Hawaii to begin the conference season in Flagstaff versus Portland State and Sacramento State on Sept. 25 and 27 respectively for the first of eight home Big Sky matches. NAU will also host Montana and Montana State on Oct. 9 and 11 and will have a season-long four-match homestand versus Idaho State (Oct. 30), Weber State (Nov. 1), Eastern Washington (Nov. 6) and Senior Night versus Southern Utah on Nov. 8.
NAU will travel to Idaho and Southern Utah on Oc. 2 and 4 for its first two road conference matches and will embark on a four-match road trip across four states two weeks later at Weber State and Idaho State (Oct. 16 and 18) and at North Dakota and Northern Colorado (Oct. 23 and 25). The 'Jacks will then wrap up the regular season at Sacramento State and Portland State on Nov. 13 and 15.
"Our team knows what to expect going through conference," Murphy said. "There are challenges throughout the conference schedule and we know we have to be a better team on the road. We have tough travel partners on our schedule and that's another area of growth for our team. Our expectations are high, but for us to meet those expectations we have to be able to deal with the challenges of traveling this conference."
The Big Sky Championship will once again be hosted by the regular season champion and will be held from Nov. 20-22. For the 2014 season, the Championship will expand from six teams to eight.
The Lumberjacks return five starters and nine players in all from their 19-11 season in 2013, boosted by an 11-2 home mark which equaled the program record for most home victories in a season.
Ticket information for the 2014 season will be available later in the summer on nauathletics.com.