The Fresno State women's volleyball team opens the season at home this weekend in the Bulldog Invitational.

Volleyball: Fresno State opens season at home in Bulldog Invitational

The Fresno State women's volleyball team opens the season at home this weekend in the Bulldog Invitational.

The Fresno State women’s volleyball team opens the season at home this weekend in the Bulldog Invitational. Brad Soo/Collegian file photo

Beginning Friday, the Fresno State women’s volleyball team opens the season at home, hosting the Bulldog Invitational. This tournament will run from Friday through Saturday at the Save Mart Center.

The Bulldogs will face the Rice University Owls today, a team which finished 2012 with a 19-12 record. This will be a homecoming for Rice senior Mariah Riddlesprigger, who attended Bullard High School in Fresno.

This will be the first time Fresno State will face Rice since 2004, when both teams were in the Western Athletic Conference (WAC). Rice left for Conference-USA in 2005, and Fresno State remained in the WAC until 2011. The Bulldogs are 7-4 all time against Rice, dating back to 1997.

The Bulldogs will boast a veteran squad. Five seniors will return for the 2013 season, three of them are fifth-year seniors.

“[The seniors] are great,” Fresno State coach Lauren Netherby-Sewell said. “Since I’ve been rebuilding this program, we’ve worked so much on leadership and developing that. Just listening and watching these seniors relate and teach their younger classmen is really fantastic.”

Among these seniors is Lauren Albertson. The transfer student from Fresno Pacific University appeared in 120 sets as middle blocker in 2012. Her season-best 11 kills were against two teams who went to the NCAA Tournament: Colorado State and San Diego State.

“I’m just here to help my teammates,” Albertson said. “Just to be the best team player that I can be [is a personal goal] and I think that I can work on that every day.

“Our biggest strength is that we have so many people coming back, our team chemistry is absolutely amazing.”

The Bulldogs have been able to warm up before the invitational. On Aug. 24, they played in an exhibition match against Fresno State alumnae.

“It was really nice to play the alumnae game,” Netherby-Sewell said. “It got some butterflies out. We were a little nervous during the first set of that match.

“We’ve been practicing in Save Mart [Center] a lot more than we have in seasons past, so they’re getting a lot more comfortable in here. That match really helped us to look at what we really have and work through some stuff. I think that’s an advantage going into this weekend.”

On Saturday, the Bulldogs will face the Santa Clara Broncos. This will the the 33rd game between the two teams, with Fresno State leading the rivalry 22-10. The Broncos were 20-12 last season and 9-7 in the Big West Conference. Jon Wallace returns as the coach of the Broncos for his 14th year and has led the Broncos to the NCAA Tournament 13 times.

The Bulldogs will also face the Cal State Northridge Matadors Saturday. In this series, the Matadors boast a 14-9 record against the Bulldogs, but have only won once against Netherby-Sewell, in 2011. The Matadors went 21-10 in 2012, en route to finishing with their best conference record since 1996 (12-6). Jeff Stork will coach the Matadors in his 12th year.

With fresh opponents coming to the Save Mart Center to kick off the season, the team seems excited, energetic and ready to perform in front of the Red Wave.

“I’m just excited to get out there and play,” Albertson said. “We compete every day in practice against each other, and it’s going to be nice to finally not go tooth and nail with our teammates.”

“I’m hoping the house is packed,” Netherby-Sewell said. “There’s so much energy around Bulldog athletics, and we’re excited to be a part of it, so hopefully people get in and watch us.”