A certain championship expectation has begun to manifest itself within the Northern Colorado Volleyball program.
And it appears that same feeling has spread to the Bears' Big Sky Conference counterparts, who have tabbed Northern Colorado as this year's preseason favorite to win the league crown and represent it in the 2011 NCAA Tournament.
The Bears, which finished 24-7 in 2011 and ranked a Big Sky-best No. 84 in the NCAA's final RPI report, received 63 points and seven first-place votes in the league's annual survey of its nine coaches, released today by the conference office.
Coaches weren't allowed to vote for their own teams.
In the five previous seasons Northern Colorado Athletics has competed in the Big Sky Conference, none of its teams have entered a season with the championship bull's-eye. And Bears Volleyball has never been picked higher than third in the league's preseason poll.
"We've always overachieved what the preseason rankings have said, so this year will be a little different going in as No. 1," Northern Colorado coach Lyndsey Benson said. "We've always been able to play the underdog role, but I think our girls will embrace this new challenge.
"We have a mature group going in that will definitely be able to handle that -- there's not going to be pressure for us. We'll just take each match for what it is."
The expectations surrounding the Bears in 2011 are largely because of the talent returning in Greeley.
Junior outside hitter Kelley Arnold, senior libero Amanda Arterburn and junior setter Marissa Hughes are all back for Benson's squad, and they all bring with them tremendous accolades.
Arnold, a unanimous All-Big Sky selection last year, has the look of a potential league MVP in 2011. Arterburn, last year's Big Sky Libero of the Year, and Hughes, a two-time All-Big Sky second-team pick, are two of the Big Sky's best players.
Add in Benson, who's just a year removed from the 2009 Big Sky Conference Coach of the Year award, and a team featuring nine returning letterwinners from a program that tied Portland State for the Big Sky regular-season title last year and won the Big Sky Championship tournament two years ago, and today's preseason poll features little surprise.
Now, it's just up to Benson's program to back up the hype.
"It's an honor to be No. 1," Benson said. "The coaches in our conference are recognizing we're going in the right direction, and that we have a lot of talent going into the season. That's about all a preseason poll means. It won't matter once you play that first match of the season, and, of course, a lot can happen even between now and then.
"We're excited to get going on Monday and begin living up to that No. 1 spot."
2011 Big Sky Conference Volleyball Preseason Coaches Poll
1. Northern Colorado, 63 points (7 first-place votes)
2. Portland State, 55 (2)
3. Montana, 44
4. Sacramento State, 40
5. Idaho State, 36
6. Eastern Washington, 34
7. Northern Arizona, 26
8. Montana State, 15
9. Weber State, 11
Poll | Big Sky release | Northern Colorado 2011 schedule |
Northern Colorado preseason notebook