East Lansing, Mich. — Michigan State head coach Cathy George has unveiled the schedule for the upcoming 2017 volleyball season, and it is once again designed to challenge her Spartan squad – some of the best teams from around the country appear on the MSU slate. A total of five non-conference opponents are in the RPI top-100 from the final ranking in 2016, and four appeared in the NCAA Tournament a year ago. That type of aggressive scheduling is what George hopes will prepare her team for the rigorous Big Ten campaign.

“We’ve put together a pre-conference schedule with an eye on it being both challenging and rewarding,” noted George, embarks on her 12th season at the helm of the Spartans and 30th overall as a head coach. “We’ve set out to make sure we play high-level opponents who have been successful both in the NCAA Tournament and within their Conferences, and this schedule is a reflection of that emphasis. If possible, I believe that the Big Ten will be better than it was last year – we sent nine teams to the NCAA Tournament and from top to bottom, we’re probably looking at another dogfight for every win in Conference play.

“I’m really excited about this schedule, and the teams we’re bringing into Jenison Field House,” continued George. “In addition to those Big Ten teams, we’ve got high-quality opponents every single weekend – so our fans, as usual, will be treated to some powerhouse volleyball night after night. We’ll host two tournaments, and in the first one we’ll take on Florida, a team in the Elite Eight a year ago.”

The Spartans will begin the season at the San Diego State Aztec Invitational (Aug. 26-27), taking on Denver, Marist, and San Diego State. The Pioneers, with an RPI of 85 and a 27-8 record a year ago, were at the NCAA First and Second Rounds at Washington along with MSU. Marist fell just short of the NCAA Tournament with a loss in the MAAC Finals, but posted a 21-10 overall record. The host Aztecs were 9-9 in Mountain West play in 2015 for an upper-division finish.

The first of two tournaments at Jenison Field House (Sept. 3-4) will feature Morgan State out of the MEAC and Central Michigan, now under the direction of two former Spartan coaches – Mike Gawlik is the new head coach after 11 years at MSU, and Krista Rice was a two-year volunteer assistant coach who was the first hire on Gawlik’s staff. The marquee match of the weekend will be the showdown between the Spartans and Florida, which is a 3 pm match on Sept. 4. The Gators held an RPI ranking of No. 5 in the final report of 2016 and advanced to the NCAA Quarterfinals before falling in a five-set battle to No. 3 Texas.

Perhaps the most competitive field of the pre-Big Ten schedule comes in week three at Western Kentucky (Sept. 9-10), where MSU will tangle with the hosts (No. 16 RPI) Hilltoppers as well as Southern Illinois (RPI 41) and Cincinnati, all 20-win teams from a year ago. WKU went 32-4 and 15-1 in Conference USA, while Southern Illinois (23-10) was the champion of the MVC. Cincinnati posted a 13-7 mark in the American Conference and had an RPI of 86.

MSU hosts a second tournament in the final pre-Conference weekend (Sept. 16-17), its first time since 2012 that MSU will play two early-season tournaments at Jenison Field House. MSU welcomes Maryland-Eastern Shore, DePaul, and Notre Dame for a final tune-up for all teams before conference play begins a week later.

In 2015, the Big Ten Conference sent nine teams into the NCAA Tournament, and 25 Big Ten volleyball players were honored with American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) All-America and honorable mention honors – including a record-setting 16 players on either the first, second or third team, the most since 14 players earned All-America honors in 2012. A total of 29 players earned All-Region honors – and with 21 of those players returning to their teams in 2016, the caliber of play is expected to be higher than ever.

The Spartans play six of their first nine Big Ten games at Jenison Field House, beginning with a Friday-Saturday set against Iowa and reigning National Champion Nebraska (Sept. 23-24). Two game weekends follow at Penn State (Sept. 30) and Rutgers (Oct. 1) and at home against Ohio State and Maryland (Oct. 6-7). The Spartans have their first midweek tilt at Illinois on Oct. 12, then host Minnesota (Oct. 15) and Rutgers (Oct. 19) before wrapping the first half of the schedule with a game at Ohio State (Oct. 22).

MSU has just four home games in the second half of the Big Ten schedule, which it opens at Indiana and Purdue (Oct. 28-29). MSU’s four straight at Jenison follow, in a weekend series against Northwestern and Illinois (Nov. 4-5) before a Wednesday game vs. the Boilermakers (Nov. 9) and a Saturday showdown with Michigan on Nov. 12, a game which will also serve as Senior Night for the four MSU fourth-year players.

MSU has a daunting four-game stretch to end the Big Ten schedule, with games at Minnesota and Wisconsin (Nov. 18-19), at Michigan the night before Thanksgiving (Nov. 23) and a final road trip to Iowa City on Nov. 26.

The NCAA Tournament begins the weekend of Dec. 1-3, and MSU looks to extend its streak to six straight seasons with at least one NCAA Tournament win.