Cheney, Wash. – The Eastern Washington University women's volleyball team's 2015 schedule includes a number of challenging nonconference matches along with an always-tough Big Sky Conference slate, head coach Wade Benson announced Tuesday, May 11.
After taking a leave of absence during the Eagles' 2014 season to regain his health following the successful treatment of throat cancer, Benson is back at the helm and will direct a young team made up of 14 freshmen and sophomores. For that reason, Benson carefully crafted EWU's nonconference schedule, including matches against nationally ranked programs along with tilts against foes that will allow Eastern's young players to gain valuable experience.
"It's important that this team build some confidence," Benson said. "However, even though we're young, I'm not interested in saying, 'We're here to learn.' I'm not talking about this being a growth experience. We're going to play against high-caliber programs, and I'm saying, 'Learn how to win against anybody.'"
EWU opens its campaign with a three-match tournament hosted by California in Berkeley, Calif., facing a Seattle program that won 14 matches a season ago and advanced to the championship game of the WAC Tournament in its season opener on Friday, Aug. 28. The following day will see the Eagles square off with the host Golden Bears before wrapping up their Bay Area stay against Nevada, who hired former Miami assistant Lee Nelson to lead its program during the offseason.
"The first weekend is going to give us a nice understanding of two high-level teams in Seattle and California, along with Nevada, who I think will be very similar to us," said Benson. "We're going to have to play well to get a win in the first weekend."
Eastern will then make a cross-country journey to the state of Louisiana, where it will play four matches, three as part of New Orleans' tournament. It marks the Eagles' first-ever appearance in the Pelican State. EWU will take on Providence to open the tournament on Friday, Sept. 4, before going up against host New Orleans and La Salle the following day. Eastern concludes its Louisiana stay with a match at Southeastern Louisiana on Sunday, Sept. 6.
"The second weekend was based on a couple of things," Benson said. "It will give us a chance to build depth and get our players some valuable playing time against teams that we should have a chance to compete against, even with some youth in the match for a long period of time."
The Eagles wrap up their nonconference slate in Honolulu, Hawaii, where they will take part in the Outrigger Resorts Volleyball Challenge, hosted by Hawai'i. There, EWU will face its toughest tests of the season, opening things on Thursday, Sept. 10, against a Florida team that won 28 matches last season, including a perfect 18-0 record in SEC play, before falling in the Elite Eight at the NCAA Championship. Eastern takes on San Diego State the next day before facing the host Rainbow Wahine, a team that also earned a spot in last year's NCAA Championship, on Sunday, Sept. 12.
"Our third weekend of matches is a combination of things," said Benson. "Hawai'i is playing in front of 6,000 fans, which will give us a good understanding of a tough road environment. Florida is going to be a top three team in the country, maybe preseason No. 1, and San Diego State is always athletic. I think that's going to be real learning tool for us."
Eastern will take the next weekend off, partly to recover from its round trip from Cheney to New Orleans to Honolulu and back, and partly to spend crucial time before conference play begins watching film, evaluating and training.
The Big Sky scheduling gods blessed EWU with a chance for success to start the league season, giving Eastern five of its first six league matches in the friendly confines of Reese Court. The Eagles' home opener comes Thursday, Sept. 24, against North Dakota before they face Northern Colorado in Cheney on Saturday, Sept. 26.
A road contest at Southern Utah on Thursday, Oct. 1, comes next before EWU returns home for tilts against Idaho (Saturday, Oct. 3), Sacramento State (Thursday, Oct. 8) and Portland State (Saturday, Oct. 10).
The only caveat to Eastern's seemingly advantageous start to conference play is that five of its first six opponents qualified for the Big Sky Tournament a season ago, something the Eagles have failed to do in each of the last four seasons. Benson will be the first to acknowledge that returning to the league tournament is EWU's primary goal heading into its 2015 campaign.
"Our first goal right now is to get back to the tournament," Benson said. "With 14 freshmen and sophomores on the roster, facing these teams early can be good and bad. I'd prefer to play them later in the schedule because I believe this team has the potential to be very dangerous, especially in the second half of the season. We've got to play them eventually, however, and I'd rather play them at home first."
EWU's next four conference matches come away from home with contests at Montana State (Thursday, Oct. 15), Montana (Saturday, Oct. 17), Idaho State (Thursday, Oct. 22) and Weber State (Oct. 24). All four of those programs chanced coaches this past offseason, creating a sense of uncertainty in terms of playing style.
"The positive for us to those changes is that they're going through the same thing we're going through," said Benson. "They're learning their system, too, but at the end of the day, volleyball is volleyball. I'm not too concerned about what they're doing. I believe that the change over may cause some weaknesses in the beginning for some of those teams, but I think it will be a long-term pro for the conference."
The Eagles' next three matches are at home and feature rematches with the Griz (Thursday, Oct. 29) and the Bobcats (Friday, Oct. 30), along with a contest against Northern Arizona (Thursday, Nov. 5). The Lumberjacks won 21 matches last season and lost in the semifinals of the Big Sky Tournament.
Eastern's regular season concludes with three consecutive road matches at Idaho (Saturday, Nov. 7), Northern Colorado (Thursday, Nov. 12) and North Dakota (Saturday, Nov. 14). Ideally, EWU will have done its work early and be in position to secure a spot in the conference tournament by that point considering how difficult it is to win on the road in the Big Sky.
"We'll have incremental goals within our season based on our schedule and what we see happening," Benson said. "We want to be 'no worries' at that time, if possible, and then just go sling it, but we'll see what happens. We're going to have to play well before that trip in order to get prepared for it, and we'll need to learn how to win on the road anyway."
The 2015 Big Sky Tournament will take place over three days beginning Thursday, Nov. 19, and will be hosted by the league's regular season champion. The eight teams with the best records will secure bids to the tournament with the eventual winner earning an automatic bid to the 2015 NCAA Championship.
While Benson admits that, down the line, the Eagles' goals include winning a conference title and earning an NCAA Championship bid, he's the first to acknowledge the lack of experience of this year's team. Going forward, however, Eastern is set up to have a talented roster for many years to come, and the foundation for future success begins with a solid 2015 campaign.