Top 10 non-conference matches to follow in 2013 season

The 2013 college men’s volleyball season begins this week and there are plenty of intriguing non-conference matches to keep an eye on throughout entire regular season.

Everything from early season matches that could be previews of Final Four matches to underdog teams traveling out west looking for a signature victory highlights the non-conference lineup this year.

Off the Block dissected all the NCAA Division I-II teams’ non-conference schedules to come up with the top 10 non-conference matches for fans to follow during the 2013 season.

1. BYU vs. Lewis
Match vitals:
7 p.m. Jan. 11-12 at Provo, Utah
Last meeting: 2011 regular season (BYU won in three games)
What to know: A potential Final Four match-up will take place within the first 10 days of the season as Lewis travels to BYU for a two-match series. Lewis returns five starters, including two All-Americans, after advancing to the Final Four last season for first time in eight years. In addition, the Flyers were picked to win the MIVA in the conference preseason coaches poll. BYU finished in second in the MPSF Preseason Coaches Poll and ended last season just missing out on the lone at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. This series also features two of the top outside attackers in the nation. BYU’s two-time All-American outside attacker Taylor Sander was second in the nation last season with a 4.89 kills per game average, while Lewis All-American outside attacker Jay Petty averaged 4.01 kills per game last season to finish sixth in the nation. The other big plus for this non-conference series — both matches will be nationally televised on BYUtv.

2. Penn State vs. UC Irvine
Match vitals:
7 p.m. April 13 at Irvine, Calif.
Last meeting: 2012 NCAA Tournament semifinals (UC Irvine won in four games)
What to know: After UC Irvine defeated Penn State in the NCAA Tournament en route to winning the national championship last season, the two teams will play again less than one month before the 2013 NCAA Tournament. Both teams return a majority of their starters from the Final Four match and each team had players named Off the Block Preseason All-Americans — Penn State middle attacker Aaron Russell and UC Irvine outside attackers Kevin Tillie and Jeremy Dejno. In addition, Penn State and UC Irvine were both projected to win their conferences in the preseason conference coaches polls.

3. Loyola vs. Harvard
Match vitals: 5 p.m. Feb. 1 in Springfield, Mass.
Last meeting: 2004 regular season (Loyola won in four games)
What to know: One of the most historic NCAA volleyball non-conference tournaments will have a new look with Harvard and Loyola playing each other in the first semifinal. Loyola will return to the four-team Volleyball Hall of Fame Morgan Classic for the first time since winning the tournament in 2000. In addition, this will be the first time Harvard has competed in the Morgan Classic. Both Loyola and Harvard return a majority of their starters after ending last season in the national rankings. The Crimson were ranked No. 15 in the final coaches poll, their highest ranking in program history. The Ramblers ended last season at No. 12 and reached the MIVA Tournament semifinals.


4. Penn State vs. Lewis
Match vitals:
7 p.m. Jan. 18 in University Park, Pa.
Last meeting: 2012 regular season (Lewis won in four games)
What to know: The early season status of the Best Team East of the Mississippi River will be decided in this non-conference match between Penn State and Lewis. Both teams last season won their conference tournaments to advanced to the NCAA Tournament. In addition, Lewis and Penn State are projected in their conference preseason coaches poll to once again win the conference championships and return to the Final Four. This match within the first three weeks of the regular season could also have significant ramifications at the end of the season if both teams reach the NCAA Tournament. Among the criteria used by the selection committee to determine NCAA Tournament seeding includes head-to-head match-up and non-conference record. Lewis’ victory against Penn State last season was one of main reasons the Flyers earned the No. 3 seed over the Nittany Lions for the NCAA Tournament.

5. Penn State vs. UCLA
Match vitals:
5 p.m. Jan. 10 in Honolulu
Last meeting: 2011 regular season (UCLA won in five games)
What to know: The Nittany Lions following a one-year hiatus will return to the Outrigger Invitational and won’t have to wait long to play the marquee match of the non-conference tournament. Penn State and UCLA will open the three-day Outrigger Invitational against each other. UCLA is the two-time defending tournament champions, including only losing one game and going undefeated at Outrigger Invitational last season. Penn State before last season had participated in every Outrigger Invitational since the inaugural event in 1995, but was unable to travel to Hawai’i in 2012 because of scheduling conflicts. Both UCLA and Penn State return a majority of starters and finished last season ranked in the top 10.

6. Stanford vs. Grand Canyon
Match vitals:
7 p.m. Jan. 4 in Palo Alto, Calif.
Last meeting: Never played each other before
What to know: This will be the least hyped and most overshadowed match during the season’s opening weekend because it goes up against the UC Santa Barbara Invitational. However, Grand Canyon versus Stanford has plenty of intrigue for both teams and conferences. Both teams are poised to dark horse contenders for conference titles this season after each finished in fourth place in their conference’s preseason coaches polls. The Antelopes are coming off their first 15-win season in program history and return a majority of starters, including All-MIVA outside attacker Ben Ponnet. In addition, Stanford had two Off the Block Preseason All-Americans after reaching the MPSF Tournament championship match last season.

7. Loyola vs. Long Beach State
Match vitals:
10 a.m. Jan. 4 at Santa Barbara, Calif.
Last meeting: 2012 UC Santa Barbara Invitational (Long Beach State won in three games)
What to know: Loyola and Long Beach State will open their seasons with the marquee match for the UC Santa Barbara Invitational quarterfinals. The 49ers were picked to finish the MPSF in sixth place in the conference preseason poll but will have head coach Alan Knipe back on the sidelines this season. Knipe returns to Long Beach State after taking a three-year leave of absence to coach the U.S. Men’s National Team in the 2012 Olympics. The match against Loyola will also be Knipe’s first collegiate match since his Olympic experience. Loyola will make its second consecutive appearance at the UC Santa Barbara Invitational. The Ramblers last season went winless at the non-conference tournament, including a quarterfinals loss to the 49ers.

8. Princeton vs. UC Santa Barbara
Match vitals:
7 p.m. Jan. 29 at Santa Barbara, Calif.
Last meeting: Never played each other before
What to know: It is Princeton’s season opener and this could be the match that launches outside attacker Cody Kessel’s All-American candidacy. Kessel, the 2012 EIVA Newcomer of the Year, led all freshman and was seventh overall in the nation with a 4.00 kills per game average. If Kessel is to become the first Princeton player since 1997 to earn All-American honors the sophomore may need a big performance against a MPSF opponent to get the West Coast votes. In Princeton’s last match against a MPSF school, Kessel had a match-high 22 kills in a five-game victory against UC San Diego — the Tigers first victory against a Division I-II West Coast school since 1997.

9. Ohio State vs. Penn State
Match vitals:
8 p.m. Feb. 9 at University Park, Pa.
Last meeting: 2012 regular season (Penn State won in five games)
What to know: The two Big Ten schools will renew their annual non-conference rivalry. This will be the second of third regular season meeting between the Nittany Lions and Buckeyes in the 2013 season. Penn State and Ohio State will first play each other to close out the Outrigger Invitational in January. The February match will also be an early season opportunity to see how the new-look Buckeyes fare against top quality opponent. Ohio State return four starters but will have to replace All-American outside attacker Shawn Sangery, who last season had the most kill attempts of any player in the nation.

10. George Mason vs. Long Beach State
Match vitals:
7 p.m. March 15 in Long Beach, Calif.
Last meeting: 1995 regular season (Long Beach State won in four games)
What to know: George Mason is vying to upset Penn State as the EIVA championships in 2013 and has set up a non-conference schedule to prepare it for the EIVA Tournament. George Mason will travel to the West Coast for a second time in the regular season as it makes its first appearance at the Active Ankle Tournament. The Patriots and 49ers return a majority of their starters and could both be in national rankings when they play each other. How George Mason fares in the mid-season non-conference tournament against Long Beach State will be a big indication of whether the Patriots are ready to return to the Final Four for the first time in more than 20 years.

Ball State vs. Penn State
Match vitals:
2 p.m. March 10 in Muncie, Ind.
What to know: After one year of not playing each other, the two most historical significant non-West Coast programs will renew their non-conference rivalry.

Pacific vs. George Mason
Match vitals:
7 p.m. Jan. 4 in Stockton, Calif.
What to know: This is a quality non-conference match that is a good fit for both teams. Both teams have made improvement during the last two seasons and big non-conference early-season win could go a long way to jump starting their 2013 seasons.

Pfeiffer vs. Ball State
Match vitals:
7:30 p.m. March 30 in Muncie, Ind.
What to know: Pfeiffer returns a majority of starters after winning the Conference Carolinas championship. For an emerging conference looking to get a quality non-conference victory this could be the Conference Carolinas’ best opportunity.