GRAND FORKS, N.D.-- University of North Dakota head volleyball coach Mark Pryor's team will be battle-tested when it comes to November as it looks to defend its Big Sky Conference title with a demanding slate of matches against quality opponents. The fourth-year coach's team is coming off a historic year in which it won both the league's regular season and tournament titles en route to the school's first NCAA Division I Tournament appearance.
"This year, we are just trying to add on what we have been doing from a scheduling standpoint for the past couple years. We are going to challenge ourselves early on, and hopefully those challenges pay dividends when it counts in November, and hopefully, December," Pryor said. "We know we are going to play a bunch early on. We know it is going to be challenging and very tough physically, mentally, and even socially. It is designed that way by choice."
The early portion of the schedule sees UND head to Oxford, Miss., for four matches beginning August 25. Chattanooga, a team that was in the Southern Conference Tournament championship match a year ago, kicks things off. Southeastern Conference's Ole Miss is the opponent later that evening, one of three "Power Five" conference schools on this year's docket. Louisiana Tech and Florida A&M (MEAC championship match) close out the Rebel Invitational a day later before North Dakota plays its fifth match in three days with a trip to Atlantic Coast Conference's Georgia Tech.
The next weekend will be spent in the Southwest United States, beginning with New Mexico State on Aug. 31. The Aggies are perennial NCAA Tournament qualifiers and a power in the Western Athletic Conference. UNLV, an NCAA team last season, is the early match on Sept. 1 before UND heads to El Paso, Texas for a night tilt againt Youngstown State in the Glory Road Invitational. New Mexico and host UTEP finish off the grueling first two weeks.
"I highly doubt there is one other program in the nation that is going to play 10 matches over nine days traveling through eight states to do so," Pryor noted. "If we want to continue to grow as a program, we have to challenge ourselves. Anyone that has seen us play knows that our team identity has been defined by a relentless mentality. This schedule will continue to solidify that. There are no more moral victories for just playing well against a larger school. There is no column for ‘well, we played so hard against them'. There are only two columns-- wins and losses. Now, it's only about succeeding in those matches, and making a statement to anyone that we can not only compete with those teams, but put a mark in the left hand column after that match is done."
An old rival will open the home portion of the schedule as North Dakota State visits the Betty Engelstad Sioux Center for the final time as a non-conference foe on Sept. 6. The annual UND Classic follows that weekend with George Washington, Appalachian State and another future Summit League opponent, South Dakota State, all making the trek.
One final pre-conference tournament will be in Green Bay, Wis., with the host Phoenix, IUPUI and Cal Poly in the mix. Cal Poly is one of eight teams on this season's UND schedule that finished in the top 100 of the Rating Percentage Index (RPI). Iowa State, from the Big 12 and another NCAA Tourney team, is the last non-conference tilt, an Oct. 30 tilt in Ames, Iowa.
UND opens its final season in the Big Sky Conference with a trip to Southern Utah and Northern Colorado to start things off. Idaho and Eastern Washington are the first home opponents, on Sep. 28 and 30, respectively. Four straight road tilts (Sacramento State, Portland State, Montana State, Montana) precede a four-match homestand with Idaho State, Weber State before return visits from Montana and Montana State. The final league road swing runs through Eastern Washington and Idaho before big home matchups against Northern Arizona and Northern Colorado, both of whom finished two games back of UND in the league race last season. The conference's tournament once again will be played at the regular season champion, with UND looking to repeat after sweeping all three matches in Grand Forks, N.D., on the way to the NCAA Tournament.
The Fighting Hawks lose just one of their league-record four All-Big Sky First Team members from a year ago (senior Chelsea Moser). League player of the year Sydney Griffin along with the conference newcomer of the year, Tamara Merseli join three-time all-Big Sky honoree Faith Dooley to form a solid nucleus of talent returning for Pryor, who has amassed an impressive 73-32 record (.695) at North Dakota in three seasons.
*Eight teams on UND's schedule finished in the top 100 of the RPI last year: UNLV (30), Iowa State (37), Georgia Tech (49), Cal Poly (52), Green Bay (74), NMSU (79), Northern Arizona (91), Ole Miss (95).
*UND is 5-2 against NDSU in the Division I era.
*North Dakota tied the school record with 26 wins last season on the way to its first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance.
*North Dakota holds a 113-44 (.720) record all-time at the Betty, including a 91-18 (.835) mark in the Division I era.