Armed with six returning letterwinners, Lumberjacks volleyball head coach Ken Murphy did not shy away from the competition -- or the travel -- when putting together Northern Arizona's 2019 schedule.
For the first time in program history, the Lumberjacks, the reigning Big Sky Conference champions, will make three trips this fall to the Eastern time zone, including two to tournaments hosted by NCAA Sweet 16 teams from last season.
Highlights from the Lumberjacks' 30-match slate will include the program's first-ever visits to Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Gainesville, Florida, to face Michigan and Florida. Both the Wolverines and Gators played into the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament a year ago and finished the season ranked No. 12 and No. 11 respectively in the AVCA Coaches Poll.
The Jacks will also welcome an SEC school to the Rolle Activity Center for the second consecutive year during their annual Lumberjack Classic. On Sept. 13, Northern Arizona will host LSU one year after the Lumberjacks upset Florida in Flagstaff.
Michigan, Florida and LSU all finished in the top 100 of the NCAA RPI in 2018. Northern Arizona's first four weeks of the season prior to Big Sky play will feature three postseason teams (Michigan, Florida, Fresno State) each of whom won 20 or more matches last season and six total teams who had winning records within their respective conferences.
"This is one of those years that we return a lot of our lineup and with the progress we've made in the offseason, we're ready for a really tough schedule," Murphy said. "There are a lot of high quality teams -- NCAA Tournament teams -- who we are excited to compete against."
Northern Arizona's nonconference schedule is also filled with new faces as the Lumberjacks will meet seven of their 12 opponents for the first time in program history.
After Northern Arizona unofficially opens up the 2019 season at home versus UNLV on Aug. 24 in an exhibition match, the Lumberjacks will compete in the Michigan Challenge tourney and officially open the season against Michigan on Aug. 30.
The Lumberjacks will conclude the opening weekend less than 60 miles north of Ann Arbor in Rochester, Mich. where they will match against Oakland and Tennessee Tech on Aug. 31.
The second weekend of the season will take the Jacks to South Orange, N.J. for the Seton Hall Classic. Northern Arizona will square off against the host in the tournament opener followed by Northeastern and La Salle on Sept. 6 and 7 before heading home for the Lumberjack Classic.
Along with LSU, Northern Arizona will also host South Dakota State and Fresno State at its home tourney. The official home opener will be against the Jackrabbits of South Dakota State on Sept. 13 at noon followed by the showcase match against the LSU Tigers at 7 p.m. that evening. Northern Arizona will wrap up the Lumberjack Classic versus Fresno State, last season's Mountain West second-place team and NIVC participant, on Sept. 14 at noon.
"We want to build our resume for the NCAA and put together a schedule that helps us reach our potential as a team," Murphy said. "We're also really aware of bringing high-caliber volleyball teams to Flagstaff. For the second year in a row, we've been able to fill our tournament with big-name teams that our community will want to come into our gym and support us."
Before heading into the conference schedule, Northern Arizona will make a return trip to Florida for the Gators' home tournament. Last season, the Lumberjacks took down the then-ranked No. 8 Gators in Rolle. At the Florida Invitational, Northern Arizona will take on Liberty and Louisiana on the first day, Sept. 20, before taking its shot at the host for the second year in a row the following morning.
Northern Arizona will begin its conference championship defense at home versus Weber State and Idaho State on Sept. 26 and 28. Northern Arizona's toughest stretch of conference play will come in mid-October with four matches in an eight-day span including three straight on the road starting with a championship rematch against Idaho in Moscow on Oct. 17.
The Lumberjacks' road trip will take them through Eastern Washington and Southern Utah before the stretch ends in Rolle against Northern Colorado on Oct. 24. Both matches against the Bears last season went the distance with each team winning on their home floor.
Northern Arizona will wrap up the regular season at home versus Eastern Washington and Idaho on Nov. 21 and 23. The top eight teams will meet in Sacramento, Calif. the following week at the 2019 Big Sky Championship hosted by Sacramento State.
The Lumberjacks will play an 18-match conference schedule for the second consecutive year and will face every team in the conference twice, home and away, with the exception of Southern Utah (road) and Northern Colorado (home).
"In my six years, I feel the Big Sky gets better every year," Murphy said. "The quality of coaching improves and the talent in conference improves. This year doesn't feel any different. Every year, there are new teams who push themselves towards the top and that's a credit to the conference getting better as a whole."
Season tickets at $40 general admission will be available for sale starting next Monday by heading to nauathletics.com/tickets.
A historic championship season resulted in the Northern Arizona men's tennis team finishing sixth in the Oracle/ITA Mountain Region rankings released by the ITA on Wednesday. The Lumberjacks made the biggest leap in the Mountain Region from last season's regional rankings, jumping up from No. 10 in 2018 to No. 6 this year.
Graduating senior Tim Handel came in at No. 5 in the Mountain Region singles rankings. Handel and fellow graduating senior Ruben Montano concluded their career ranked second in the doubles ranking.
Led by a senior class of five boasted by Handel and Montano, the Jacks collected a school record 22 victories, including a school record 19 consecutive wins. NAU's 22-7 overall mark earned the Lumberjacks posted their highest season-ending regional ranking in program history.
The Lumberjacks advanced to its first-ever NCAA Tournament after capturing its first Big Sky tournament title in 22 years. The Lumberjacks were a perfect 10-0 in conference play to also clinch the conference regular-season championship.
Handel earned his highest regional ranking as well, finishing the season in the Mountain Regional rankings for the third year in a row. Handel steadily rose from No. 15 as a sophomore to No. 5 in his final season – one week after landing at No. 73 in the Oracle/ITA National Rankings.
Handel was named the unanimous Big Sky Most Valuable Player once again this spring and compiled a 21-3 singles record at the top spot in NAU's lineup. He capped his career by qualifying for the NCAA Singles Championship, becoming the first Big Sky player to do so in over a decade.
The seasoned Lumberjack tandem of Handel and Montano was spectacular this season, teaming up for a for a 16-6 mark at No. 1 doubles. Handel and Montano won the ITA Mountain Region doubles championship in the fall for the second consecutive season and was stout at the top of the Lumberjacks' doubles lineup throughout the spring. The pair finished the 2017 season ranked No. 4 regionally and spent all four seasons as primary doubles partners.