After years of tough scheduling, the 2012 Rams have looked composed and experienced on the way to a 12-1 record, the best start in school history.

RICHMOND, Va. – August and September haven’t always been friends to VCU Volleyball. In recent years, the Rams have been pinned with some ungainly non-conference records during those months.

But after years of bruising gauntlets during the early weeks of the season, VCU is reaping the benefits. On Sunday, the Rams completed a sweep of the field at the West Point Challenge to improve to 12-1 for the first time in school history. VCU has played four non-conference tournaments this season and won each one. On Friday, Sept. 21, the Rams will begin Atlantic 10 Conference play at Duquesne. They hope their gaudy record is evidence that VCU is ready to chase down its first league championship and NCAA bid since 2005.

“I’m absolutely thrilled,” said Head Coach James Finley, 138-111 in eight seasons with VCU. “It’s so exciting to start like this. I think it allows the girls to have a great level of confidence going into conference.”

Finley firmly believes in challenging non-conference schedules, even if the payoff is years down the road. In 2010, the Rams played six ranked teams. Four core members of this year’s team were either freshmen or sophomores on that squad, which VCU limped to a 2-14 record before winning 11 of its last 17.

Last season’s schedule was similarly tough and included matches with Purdue, Baylor, Xavier, Michigan State and others. The Rams were 4-11 at one point, but won eight of nine down the stretch to reach the Colonial Athletic Association Championship match.

If there was a turning point for VCU, that was it. The Rams are 18-4 since Oct. 22 of last season.

“The way we finished last year was the beginning of it,” said senior Jasmine Waters. “At times it felt like we may have been just content with competing and didn’t know how much further we had to go to get the win. In conference we pushed over the hill and got those wins.”

Finley knew the Rams would take some lumps against their difficult non-conference schedule each year, but felt the experience would prove invaluable. So, he traded the potential for short-term frustration for long-term equity.

Finley, pictured with Waters, led VCU to the program’s first NCAA bid in 2005.

“We worked really hard scheduling the last few years, and I’m so excited for this group of seniors to have success after getting beat up the last few years in non-conference,” he said. “I still am absolutely a 100-percent believer that it was necessary because it made these kids really hungry to play at this level and be successful.”

Although this year’s schedule doesn’t have the same top-25 heft as 2010, the Rams have played – and beaten – six teams that were ranked in the RPI top 100 at the end of last season. But the Rams aren’t just playing at a higher level this year. They’ve stared down disaster without blinking a few times too.

VCU is 4-0 in fifth set tiebreakers. The Rams trailed 12-7 in the fifth at N.C. State and rallied to win 16-14. VCU dropped the first set at Army last weekend and fell behind 22-16 in the second, but pulled out that set and the next two for the victory. There are other examples, but the point is the same. When a match has been on the line, VCU has responded, and it can presumably thank those bleak Septembers of years past.

When you play in front of 4,500 at four-time National Champion Penn State, as VCU did two years ago, it’s hard to get rattled now. When you’ve pushed a ranked Colorado State team to the brink, also in 2010, what’s another fifth set tiebreaker? When you’ve got battle-tested players, they can pull experience from their back pockets when the game is on the line.

“I think the team that’s been the most exciting from a coaching standpoint is that I’ve been able to challenge this team at different times in matches and they’ve stepped up,” Finley said. “They have just said, ‘you’re right, we have got to do better than this right now, and let’s get it done.”’

Picked sixth in the A-10 preseason poll, the Rams are riding high following their splendid four-week run and are acting and talking like a team with championship aspirations.

Senior Anett Farkas says the Rams have NCAA Tournament aspirations.

“We’re just going to keep going and push as far as we can,” said senior Anett Farkas. “If we can accomplish our goal of winning the A-10 or even just getting really high up there and make it to the NCAA, that would be really amazing for us seniors.”

While the Rams have enjoyed August and September this season, it’s November and December that are really on their minds.

VCU Volleyball will have the honor of playing in the first Atlantic 10 Conference competition in school history Friday at Duquesne in Pittsburgh, Pa. The Rams, who have also been members of the Sun Belt and Metro Conferences, are playing in their inaugural A-10 season after 17 years as members of the CAA. The Rams have won three volleyball conference championships, two in the Sun Belt (1984, 1985) and one in the CAA (2005).

VCU ranks 22nd nationally in blocks per set (2.76) and is just outside the top 50 in hitting percentage (.250). Freshman Martina Samadan is 42nd nationally in blocks per set (1.30) and 43rd in hitting percentage (.384).