June 8, 2011

Volleyball's 2011 schedule takes it up a notch

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GREELEY -- The usual suspects are there on Northern Colorado Volleyball's 2011 schedule -- with regional rivals Air Force, Colorado, Colorado State, Denver and Wyoming all included in the 30 match slate, which was released Wednesday.

The new additions? There are a few, and they all should help the Bears continue their march toward national recognition and up the national RPI chart.

UNLV (Mountain West Conference) is in the mix in 2011, as is Baylor (Big 12), Wichita State (Missouri Valley) and Seattle (Independent). There's even an international wrinkle, with Slovenian professional team Nova KBM Maribor scheduled to make a stop at Butler-Hancock Sports Pavilion in early September as part of a statewide tour.

Of the Bears' 30 opponents in 2011, only seven were ranked higher than 200 in last year's final NCAA Volleyball RPI report. Six were ranked in the top 120.

"We are trying to schedule a little bit tougher each year as we get better, and teams are more willing to play us as our RPI increases," Northern Colorado coach Lyndsey Benson told The Greeley Tribune. "So, those teams that wouldn't play us when we first moved to Division I are now looking at us as a worthy opponent now that we've made the (NCAA) Tournament and are at the top of the conference with a better RPI."

Northern Colorado, which finished 24-7 last season, co-champion in the Big Sky Conference's regular-season race and with a final RPI of 84, will start its 2011 effort at home with the Hampton Inn & Suites Northern Colorado Classic from Aug. 26 to 28.

UNLV (177 RPI in 2010) will be the Bears' first opponent of the 2011 season, followed by UC Davis (114) and Colorado (148). The Bears' match against the Buffs will be played at the Coors Event Center in Boulder as part of the teams' home-and-home agreement made prior to the 2009 season, when Northern Colorado defeated Colorado in straight games in Greeley.

The teams did not play last season.

Benson's squad will then travel to the Air Force Academy (266) on Tuesday, Aug. 30, before heading deep into Texas to take part in the Fairfield Inn North Baylor Classic on Sept. 2 and 3 in Waco. Texas-Pan American (287), McNeese State (226) and the host Bears (78) will be waiting.

Northern Colorado on Sept. 8 will play its first of four matches against 2010 NCAA Tournament qualifiers when it takes on Wichita State (30) on the first day of the Rams Volleyball Classic at Moby Arena in Fort Collins.

A match against NCAA qualifier and rival Colorado State (22) is scheduled for two nights later, just a few hours after the Bears and the Rams meet on the football field at Hughes Stadium.

The Bears' exhibition match against Nova KBM Maribor will be a part of the Rams' tournament but will take place in Greeley.

"They may do some different things, and we won't have a chance to scout them or know anything about them before they come in, which will be a little bit unique," Benson told The Tribune of Nova KBM Moribar. "But it will probably be a good experience for our team."

Northern Colorado will then take on Denver (166) on Sept. 13 before beginning its Big Sky Conference schedule at home against Montana (204) and Montana State (275) on Sept. 15 and 17. Conference matches are always difficult, but the Bears' contests against Portland State (105) on Oct. 1 and Nov. 3 loom largest.

The Bears will take breaks from conference play two times in October with matches against Wyoming (109) on Oct. 5 and Seattle (212) on Oct. 29. Northern Colorado will play 11 matches in October, but just three of those will take place outside Butler-Hancock Sports Pavilion.

The Bears will finish the year on the road, with Big Sky matches at Idaho State (158), Weber State (290) and Northern Arizona (222), before traveling to the 2011 Big Sky Conference Volleyball Championships on Thanksgiving Friday at the Peter W. Stott in Portland.

Northern Colorado has advanced to the championship match of the Big Sky Championship in each of the past two seasons, winning in 2009 and qualifying for their first NCAA Tournament appearance.