FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – Highlighted by two 20-win teams ranked in the top 75 in the NCAA RPI rankings last season, the Northern Arizona volleyball team will face the task of navigating another exciting non-conference schedule included in their 29-match regular season slate released on Wednesday. The 2016 schedule features 10 home matches for the defending Big Sky Champions who carries a school record 17-match win streak on their home court into the season.
"We always want to make sure our (non-conference) schedule challenges us in the right ways and prepares us for conference," said head coach Ken Murphy. "The schedule has several opportunities to get top 50 wins and gives us opportunities to play teams with different styles. We want to get through the first four weeks learning a lot about ourselves and improving as a volleyball team."
NAU opens serve on the season with the Temple Invitational on Aug. 26-27 against Temple and Hampton and its home opener will be Sept. 9 versus Bethune-Cookman. NAU's first Big Sky match in the Rolle Activity Center is a Big Sky Championship rematch against Idaho State on Sept. 29, less than a year after the 'Jacks swept the Bengals to lock up their second NCAA Tournament berth.
The two marquee opponents before NAU hits the Big Sky season are Temple and Southern Illinois, both of whom the Lumberjacks will go head-to-head with on their home courts. Starting immediately with its season opener, NAU has a big challenge in Temple, who finished last season ranked No. 72 in the RPI and compiled a 24-8 overall record. A week later on Sept. 3, the 'Jacks will take on Southern Illinois, who received an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament after a 23-10 season and an impressive national RPI finish of No. 41.
Following their season-opening cross country tip to Philadelphia, Pa. for the Temple Invitational, NAU will make an extended road trip that will take them to Carbondale, Ill. for the Saluki Invitational from Sept. 2-3 for matches against Western Michigan and Central Florida in addition to host Southern Illinois. Before returning home, the Lumberjacks will make a pit stop in Martin, Tenn. for a rare Monday doubleheader against Alabama A&M and UT Martin on Sept. 5.
After seven consecutive matches on the road, the Lumberjacks will finally have the opportunity to play in front of their home crowd with a pair of matches versus Bethune-Cookman on Sept. 9-10 before wrapping up the non-conference schedule with a four-match stay in Bakersfield, Calif. for the Roadrunner Classic from Sept. 15-17. The Lumberjacks will take on CSU Bakersfield, UC Riverside, UC Irvine and San Francisco before jumping into the conference schedule.
While Temple and Southern Illinois are the headliners, a total of five of NAU's 12 pre-conference opponents finished last season as their respective conference runner-ups. San Francisco (No. 118), Central Florida (No. 123), CSU Bakersfield (No. 129) and UC Irvine (No. 143) all ranked in the top 150 in the RPI. Central Florida and Western Michigan also each won at least 22 matches as recently as two years ago.
"Each match will present a different challenge to us, but over the last few years Temple, Central Florida, Southern Illinois and Western Michigan in particular have been really strong programs," Murphy said. "Even in the last weekend, San Francisco, UC Irvine and Bakersfield could all be potentially significant wins for us."
Including conference opponents Idaho State, Sacramento State and North Dakota – all of whom won more than 20 matches in 2015 – NAU will face nine opponents who ranked in the top 150 last season. The Big Sky season gets under way on the road on Sept. 22 and 24 on the road at Northern Colorado and Southern Utah respectively before the Lumberjacks host Idaho State and Weber State on Sept. 29 and Oct. 1 for their first conference home matches.
NAU will welcome all five of its Big Sky South Division foes – Idaho State, Portland State, Sacramento State, Southern Utah and Weber State – to the Rolle Activity Center along with Montana, Montana State and North Dakota to round out its eight home conference matches. The Lumberjacks will travel to all five of their division counterparts in addition to the North Division's Eastern Washington, Idaho and Northern Colorado in year three of the Big Sky's unbalanced schedule.
The conference tournament will once again be hosted by the regular season champion over three days from Nov. 17-19 to determine the Big Sky's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Murphy returns five letterwinners including three starters in seniors Lauren Jacobsen and Jensen Barton and redshirt sophomore Brittni Dorsey from last season's championship squad. Barton is one of just three returning All-Big Sky First Team selections in the entire conference, while Jacobsen was voted to the Second Team. Senior Addy Lofstedt also returns for her fourth and final season.
The 'Jacks registered a 15-1 Big Sky record in 2015 on their way to a school record 28 victories. The title season concluded with the program's first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1999 and NAU wound up No. 33 in the RPI standings after capturing both the Big Sky regular season and tournament championships.
Six of NAU's eight home conference matches are currently scheduled to be broadcast live by NAU-TV and distributed to the Fox Sports Arizona and Fox College Sports networks. For complete TV details and all match times, click here.
Season tickets as part of NAU Athletics' Sports Pass are available now for NAU's 10 home matches by clicking here or calling 928-523-0639. For a price of $50, the Sports Pass will allow fans entry to all NAU Volleyball, NAU Soccer, NAU Women's Basketball and NAU Track & Field home events. Individual match tickets will be made available at a later date.