The 31-match fall slate features the season- and home-opener Aug. 26 against IUPUI along with 14 other home dates. Providing a welcomed challenge, head coach Ray Gooden’s 2011 campaign also includes contests versus seven 2010 top-50 teams, five 2010 NCAA Tournament teams and four 2010 conference champions.
The 2011 Huskies return all players but their libero from a team that was just a few sets away from claiming NIU’s first Mid-American Conference championship and NCAA Tournament appearance since 2001.
With the highly competitive slate lined up for the fall, Gooden is pushing his team to take the next step by proving themselves against stout opponents.
“I really feel that this is a fun schedule,” said Gooden, who had his Huskies face two 2009 NCAA Tournament teams last season. “I say fun not because I think it’s going to be easy, though. I think we’ve always tried to put together a competitive schedule, especially in our non-conference matches, to help us prepare for the conference season. For the second year in a row, we were able to put ourselves up against some of the better teams in the country.”
Before hitting the MAC grind, which starts at home Sept. 23 against Central Michigan, NIU will face four 2010 NCAA Tournament participants and 2010 top-35 teams. The Huskies will matchup with three of those teams in the opening weekend of Aug. 26 and 27 as part of a robust NIU Invitational at Victor E. Court.
A yearly component of the schedule, this year’s invitational participants are IUPUI, Cincinnati (NCAA Tournament qualifier, ranked 16th), Iowa State (NCAA Tournament qualifier, ranked 33rd) and Northern Iowa (NCAA Tournament qualifier, ranked eighth). The high level of competition in the first weekend of the season will give the Huskies a solid foundation and understanding of where they are at both mentally and physically.
“I think our group, in this cycle, is working really hard to help put the volleyball program at a significant level,” Gooden said. “In order to do that, you need to not only find success but find it against successful programs. We are excited to play those four teams in our first home weekend.”
The next two weekends (Sept. 2-3 and Sept. 10), NIU hits the road to take part in a pair of invitationals.
The first is in Omaha, Neb., for the Creighton Invitational, where NIU will face host Creighton (NCAA Tournament qualifier, ranked 32nd), Marquette (ranked 47th) and South Dakota. The second is in Nacogdoches, Texas, for the Stephen F. Austin Invitational, where the Huskies will take on Texas A&M and host Stephen F. Austin.
The two journeys will give the Huskies a chance to get comfortable on the road before a four-match home stand that includes their first two MAC tilts.
“We are always excited to host at the beginning of the year but we know we have to find success against teams on the road,” Gooden said. “We are excited to play teams with different styles from different parts of the country.”
The home stand starts with a regional foe in Illinois-Chicago (Sept. 16) and then South Florida (Sept. 18) comes to town before NIU kicks off MAC play against Central Michigan and Eastern Michigan (Sept. 24).
NIU’s MAC slate is equally split with four home and road weekends apiece. As opposed to the past few years, the Huskies will not have any prolonged home or road stretches as their weekends alternate during league play. NIU’s eight MAC home matches are against CMU, EMU, Western Michigan on Oct. 6, Miami (Ohio) in Oct. 8, Kent State on Oct. 21, 2010 conference champion Ohio on Oct. 22, Toledo on Nov. 4 and 2010 MAC West Division champion Ball State on Nov. 5.
“We all know that once we get into MAC play the gloves fully come off and teams work their hardest to give their best efforts,” Gooden said. “We think it’s nice schedule-wise to have balance as far as home and away matches are concerned. I’ve always thought that it’s hard to have extended trips in your schedule, whether it be home or away. It’s nice not to have anything like that this year.”
For the second year in a row, NIU will close its season with a post-MAC Tournament matchup against Marquette, this time in DeKalb on Nov. 26.
Gooden scheduled a post-MAC Tournament match for the first time last year hoping to use it as preparation for an NCAA Tournament appearance. Although his hope did not come to fruition, as NIU was one of the last teams off the bubble, Gooden knows it’s a necessary match to plan for teams that have NCAA aspirations.
“Our program continues to strive to be one of the top teams in the country,” Gooden said. “The top teams play on Thanksgiving weekend to get prepared for the NCAA Tournament. We thought it was a good learning experience for our team last year. That should help us with our understanding of it for this season.”
For more information on NIU volleyball and Huskie athletics, visit www.niuhuskies.com.