MORAGA, Calif. -- The Saint Mary's volleyball team won't have time to get its feet wet this season when it comes to the early part of its schedule.
It's more like jumping straight into the deep end to see if the Gaels can swim.
A challenging schedule awaits head coach Rob Browning's squad again this season, beginning with a pair of matches against Pac-12 foe Colorado. Miami and Air Force visit Moraga on the first weekend of September, followed by a trip to Lincoln, Neb. for the Ameritas Players Challenge.
The West Coast Conference season begins Sept. 19 and 21 against Portland and Gonzaga, and sandwiched in between those two is a trip to Stanford, which begins the year as a consensus top-5 team.
"As usual, we've got some really challenging and exciting matches, starting off with Colorado, a Pac-12 school that finished the year pretty strong last year," Browning said. "That continues with our home matches here, and then on to Nebraska, which is a really tough tournament with Nebraska, Iowa State and Dayton. Then we've got Stanford after that."
From a philosophical perspective, Browning doesn't have to go hunting for all challenges near and far. Instead, in the course of looking to prepare his team for a daunting conference schedule, good competition serves as important preparation to gauge where the Gaels are heading into WCC competition.
"It's not that we necessarily say 'hey, we want to play all the best teams,' but we've never shied away from playing them because we might lose too many," Browning said. "We're all about let's throw ourselves in there and do the best we can and see what we can learn and how good we can get and see who we can knock off. We've got that opportunity again."
There won't be any respite once the conference portion of the season begins. The final weekend in September will see the Gaels travel to take on the two teams selected ahead of them -- BYU and San Diego -- in the preseason coaches' poll.
Saint Mary's will spend the entire month of October in the Bay Area, beginning with a three-match homestand against Pacific, Loyola Marymount and Pepperdine. Trips to rivals San Francisco and Santa Clara follow, and then its back home for crucial home contests against BYU and San Diego.
Once the calendar turns to November, the Gaels will turn into road warriors. They'll visit Pacific, Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount in succession, then return home on Nov. 14 and 16 for the final home weekend of the conference season against Santa Clara and San Francisco. The regular season wraps up on Nov. 21 and 23 with matches at Gonzaga and Portland.
"The WCC schedule is bigger than ever with 10 teams now. We've got 18 matches. Pacific is a very good addition. They're a good team. I think they're going to surprise most teams in the conference," Browning said. "Then we have all these teams that are returning great players and that were very good last year and didn't lose a whole lot and they're coming back and will be really good. "
Add it all up and the message from the very beginning isn't tough to figure out. The Gaels will need to be at their best each and every match to compete for a conference title and trip to the postseason.
"I love it. I think we all love it," Browning said. "I think all of us in the WCC are proud of how good we are and thrive on the competitive environment in the WCC in women's volleyball. We want each other to do really well leading up to conference and then go toe to toe."