By ZACH BOND
OGDEN, Utah – Over the past several years there has been a championship environment growing inside the Northern Colorado Volleyball program.
And it appears that other schools are starting to take notice as the Big Sky Conference announced the Bears as the preseason favorite to take home the conference title on Monday morning. It is the second-straight season the Bears will go into the year with that specific bull's-eye on their back.
Northern Colorado was far-and-away the top choice in the preseason coaches' poll – earning nine out of a possible 11 first-place votes and a total of 99 points.
"It's always nice to be voted No. 1 in the preseason, but our goal is to be No. 1 at the end of the year," Northern Colorado coach Lyndsey Oates said. "As everyone knows, preseason polls don't always mean a whole lot and we understand that there is a long ways to go even before conference play starts."
Last year, the team was unflinching with the added pressure of being the conference's preseason favorite – putting together an absolutely dominant campaign and capturing its first outright regular season Big Sky championship and making its second trip to the NCAA Tournament.
Northern Colorado finished 2011 with a 22-9 overall mark and a 13-3 Big Sky record before sweeping both Eastern Washington and Portland State in the Big Sky Championship to advance to the NCAA Tournament. The Bears finished a Big Sky-best 99th in the national RPI rankings.
Portland State (88 pts.) was picked second while Eastern Washington (71 pts.) and conference-newcomer North Dakota (70 pts.) round out the top-four in the coaches' poll.
"I really think the addition of both North Dakota and Southern Utah will make the Big Sky that much better," Oates said. "We know that the conference is going to be tougher than ever and every match we will play is important."
The Bears' topping the preseason polls shows that the other conference coaches understand how much talent is coming back to Greeley even after such an outstanding year last season.
The Bears and head coach Lyndsey Oates will have the luxury of returning last year's conference MVP Kelley Arnold and last year's conference tournament MVP Marissa Hughes. Oates will also return last season's Big Sky Freshman of the Year Andrea Spaustat.
Before 2011, the Bears had never been picked higher than third in the annual preseason poll. Now, with back-to-back picks as the conference's preseason favorite, it appears the Bears might have a dynasty-in-the-making on their hands.
1. Northern Colorado, 99 points (9 first-place votes)
2. Portland State, 88 points (1)
3. Eastern Washington, 71 points
4. North Dakota, 70 points (1)
5. Montana, 62 points
6. Sacramento State, 61 points
7. Idaho State, 48 points
8. Northern Arizona, 33 points
9. Southern Utah, 30 points
10. Weber State, 24 points
11. Montana State, 19 points