The 2020-21 NJCAA volleyball season already presented every program in the nation with an inherent challenge unlike any other in recent memory.
The challenges, thankfully, don't stop there for the Eastern Wyoming College Lancers.
Half of EWC's early-season opponents are either nationally ranked in the NJCAA's preseason poll (released Jan. 19), or are coming off a 2019-20 season in which they were nationally ranked.
The first half of the Lancers' schedule takes the motto "no off days" to the extreme. Eight of the Lancers' first 16 matches are against opponents carrying current or recent national poll cred.
Friday's season-opener against No. 17-ranked Western Nebraska is at 2 p.m. on Friday in Scottsbluff, Nebraska. No fans will be in attendance for the Cougars' home debut, but may be by the time EWC returns for another match on March 16. Otero Junior College, which finished seventh at the National Tournament in 2019, awaits the Lancers at 3 p.m. on Saturday, also at the WNCC tournament. Otero appears again on the schedule as the opening match of McCook's tournament on Feb. 5.
EWC head coach Dante Geoffrey said the Lancers are eager to test themselves every weekend against programs that have earned national respect.
"That's where we ultimately want to be, so we're not going to shy away from those elite teams," Geoffrey said. "We need to learn how to beat the best, and the only way we can do that is by playing a schedule that challenges us to be our best every weekend."
The second weekend is headlined by Hutchinson Community College, a perennial contender which received votes in 2019 and always factor heavily in the Region VI postseason.
Perhaps the season's most competitive weekend will occur on the Lancers' home court, during the Lancer Invitational tournament Feb. 12-13. EWC opens Friday's action against Northeastern Junior College (No. 14), followed by an evening match against No. 13 Salt Lake Community College. Saturday doesn't get any easier with 12th-ranked Utah State University Eastern in the morning. The Lancers split against the Utah teams at the same tournament last year, beating USUE in four sets while falling in four to SLCC.
Northeastern Junior College is coming off an eighth-place finish at Nationals in 2019, and will also host the Lancers on Feb. 9 in Sterling, Colorado.
The Lancers will see Western Wyoming College, the reigning Region IX-North regular season champions, twice before the regional tournament -- Feb. 26 in Torrington and March 19 at Rock Springs.
"It's what we need right now -- to go out and compete to the best of our ability against these high quality teams," Geoffrey said. "After such a long layoff and so much work put in our players deserve this payoff. Let's go play."