FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – The continued rise of Northern Arizona volleyball's national profile coupled with the ever-improving Big Sky Conference led to the uncharted territory that is the Lumberjacks' 2017 schedule – just as head coach Ken Murphy designed it. In what could very well be the most formidable non-conference schedule in program history, at least in recent history, NAU will test itself early, often and throughout its 27-match fall slate.
"To continue to raise expectations of our program and our players, we have to challenge ourselves and when you look at this schedule, it's really tough beginning to end," Murphy said. "Our team will have to be really focused every match and focused on our long-term goals. We want to develop that character in ourselves and this schedule is going to allow us to do that."
NCAA Tournament participants Hawaii, Western Kentucky and Miami (Ohio) are featured in NAU's pre-conference schedule. All three won their conference championships last season and all finished in the top 50 of the NCAA RPI rankings. Six of the Lumberjacks' nine non-conference opponents were ranked in the top 150 of the RPI, and four posted 20-win campaigns. Looking a little deeper, eight of their nine opponents all have enjoyed massive success within the last four years, posting at least one 20-win season in that span.
In particular, Murphy looks at both Hawaii and Western Kentucky as barometers for his program. The pair serves as the benchmark for teams like NAU, when looking at schools from mid-major conferences that have established their footprint among the elite. Hawaii, the defending Big West Champions, finished 2016 at No. 17 nationally in the final AVCA poll and has made 24 straight NCAA Tournament appearances. Meanwhile, Western Kentucky is coming of its fifth 30-win season in the last six years and reached the NCAA Tournament for the sixth time in seven years following its third straight Conference USA title.
"We were intentional with adding teams like (Western Kentucky and Hawaii) to our schedule," Murphy said. "We're trying to develop our program where we can be in the same conversation as a mid-major team that competes at a really high level consistently. Playing teams like them serves as a measuring stick for where we are and where we need to go and it's appropriate to compare ourselves to those teams at our stage of development."
Not even mentioned yet is the return of Arizona State to the Rolle Activity Center during the Lumberjacks' home opening weekend. NAU's in-state Pac-12 rival highlights its home tournament during the third weekend of the season, marking the Sun Devils' first appearance in Flagstaff since 2004.
Before opening up play in the Rolle Activity Center, where the 'Jacks have won 26 of their last 27 matches, NAU will have to navigate through arguably its stiffest challenge right from the get-go. In the first weekend of the season, NAU will travel to Oxford, Ohio where it faces a trio of teams who all ranked in the NCAA RPI top 75. Along with the host and defending MAC regular season champion Miami (Ohio) – who finished No. 42 in the RPI – and Western Kentucky (No. 16 RPI), the Lumberjacks will also see Southern Illinois (No. 71 RPI) for the second straight season at Miami's tournament from Aug. 25-26.
A return trip out east, specifically Brookings, S.D., follows with the South Dakota State Tournament the next weekend, Sept. 1-2. There, NAU squares off against Valparaiso and CSU Bakersfield in addition to South Dakota State. Prior to last fall, Valparaiso had posted 14 consecutive 20-win seasons.
Arizona State awaits NAU for the Lumberjacks' home tournament on Sept. 8-9. For the second straight weekend, NAU will see CSU Bakersfield – a team the Lumberjacks lost to in a dramatic five-set match last September on the road. The 'Jacks also welcome Utah State to the Rolle to round out the four-team field before NAU flies across the Pacific Ocean to close out non-conference play with a pair of matches against Hawaii (No. 27 RPI) on Sept. 15 and 16. NAU's trip to the islands will be its second in four seasons.
The lofty non-conference slate will prep the Lumberjacks for an increasingly grueling Big Sky schedule. Including NAU – which finished the 2016 season at a Big Sky high No. 91 in the RPI rankings – half of the 12 teams in the conference placed in the top 150 nationally. The ascension of the top of the Big Sky combined with the already demanding travel only increases the nightly competitiveness throughout the second half of season.
"One of the things you realize after a few years in this conference is that you're going to have tough matches every night regardless of where you are," Murphy said. "The quality of competition is so good and the places you have to go to play are so grueling, and that means we have to be tough to get through it. Going through the Big Sky and winning a championship is difficult."
NAU opens up conference at home versus Northern Colorado on Sept. 21, but will only play three of its first 10 Big Sky matches in Flagstaff. However, down the stretch, NAU will play five of its final six matches at home with its only road match in the last three weekends coming at North Dakota on Nov. 9 in a rematch of last season's tournament championship.
The Lumberjacks will look to dethrone the Fighting Hawks and reclaim their position atop the conference through a 16-match Big Sky schedule and the end-of-season conference tournament hosted by the regular season champion from Nov. 16-18.
Home Big Sky matches will include matchups versus NAU's five Big Sky South Division counterparts Idaho State, Portland State, Sacramento State, Southern Utah and Weber State in addition to Eastern Washington, Idaho and Northern Colorado. NAU will travel to each of its division opponents along with Montana, Montana State and North Dakota.
The Lumberjacks' middle blocker tandem of redshirt junior Brittni Dorsey and sophomore Abby Akin, both of whom were All-Big Sky Second Team selections a year ago, are among six returning letterwinners. NAU also returns the services of four key contributors in senior Brooke Donnelly, redshirt junior Kaylie Jorgenson, junior Jordan Anderson and sophomore Sydney Lema from last season's 24-8 squad who reached the Big Sky tournament finale for the second straight year.
Home match times and season ticket information will be announced at a later date.