The UAFS volleyball team will look to complete another repeat this weekend when it hosts the Heartland Conference Tournament at the Stubblefield Center for the second consecutive season.
UAFS won its second-consecutive, outright, regular-season conference championship, earning the No. 1 seed and the right to host the conference tournament. The Lady Lions will be one of four teams vying for the coveted tournament title. UAFS is the two-time defending conference tournament champion, beating St. Edward’s in each of the past two championship matches.
UAFS coach Jane Sargent is excited about hosting the tournament for a second time.
"It means we made some good decisions with our 2013 recruiting class and brought in some quality players that were able to buy into our system and mesh well with our returning players," said Sargent, referring to the significance of earning the right to host the tournament.
"It means we stayed the course and accomplished one of the goals we set for ourselves at the beginning of the season. And, it means that once again we will have home-court advantage."
The Lady Lions (21-8) will open tournament play at 5 p.m. on Friday against the No. 4 seed St. Mary’s Lady Rattlers (14-14), and the No. 2 seed Dallas Baptist Lady Patriots (16-15) will play the No. 3 seed St. Edward’s Hilltoppers (14-15) at 7:30 p.m. The winners will play at 1 p.m. on Saturday in the championship match.
Live stats and webcast will be available by visiting Lions Fan Central on the UAFS athletics website.
The tournament winner will receive an automatic bid to the NCAA Division II South Central Region Tournament.
"This particular field of four is very comparable in the fact that we have all beaten up on each other throughout the course of the season," Sargent said. "We all have different strengths and weaknesses, and as always, the team that is playing the best at the end will be crowned the winner."
UAFS finished 16-2 in conference play during the regular season with its only league losses coming against St. Edward’s and McMurry. The losses were consecutive and snapped what had been a 14-0 start to the conference season for the Lady Lions.
The Lady Lions won 14 of their 29 matches in three sets, but the remaining 15 matches were decided in either four or five sets. Ten of the Lady Lions four- or five-set matches were conference matches, too.
UAFS was 11-3 in three-set matches, 6-2 in four-set matches and 4-3 in five-set matches.
"I think that this particular team gave me and my coaching staff many challenges. Sometimes when you have a deep bench, it doesn’t give you a clear cut idea about who your starters should be. That being said it has been a blessing to be able to play so many different players and still have success," Sargent said.
"What it has also given us is time – time to develop some of our freshmen and transfer players who right now are playing with confidence and playing really well. We received our wake-up call two weeks ago when we lost on the road, and we all know that to lose at this point will end our season. Believe me when I say that none of us are ready for that."
The Lady Lions are led offensively by junior outside hitter Michelle Walker (3.2 kills per set), senior middle hitter Jordan Erz (2.63 kills per set) and senior outside hitter Jordan Pickett (2.42 kills per set). All three earned All-Conference honors, and Walker was named Conference Player of the Year.
Senior setter Stephanie Brock and freshman setter Maja Krstonosic lead the team with 7.45 and 6.8 assists per set. Brock was named Conference Setter of the Year.
Defensively, freshman outside hitter Payton Hamilton leads the team with 75 total blocks, while Erz and Pickett have 67 and 61 blocks, respectively. Freshman libero Emily Tripp leads the team with 433 digs and averages 5.7 digs per set.
"I believe we are playing with a sense of excitement. It’s tournament time, and it’s what we have worked for all season. These last few weeks have been really tough on all of us," said Sargent, who was named Conference Coach of the Year for the second year in a row.
"We have had players with concussions, broken fingers, sore knees and shoulders problems, along with strep throat, high fevers and the common cold. So after being home for the last 10 days and having the opportunity to get ourselves better, we feel a renewed sense of confidence going into the tournament."
It will be the third meeting of the season between UAFS and St. Mary’s and the second in the span of a week. UAFS is 2-0 against St.Mary’s this season and is coming off a sweep of the Lady Rattlers on Saturday in the regular-season finale at the Stubblefield Center.
It also will be the 10th meeting in the all-time series between the two teams. UAFS leads the all-time series 8-1.
St. Mary’s is led offensively by junior outside hitter Kelsey Huber (2.82 kills per set), sophomore middle blocker Lauren Holman (2.17 kills per set), sophomore outside hitter Jenna Paul (2.2 kills per set) and junior outside hitter Melissa Heft (2.14 kills per set). Setter Rachael Scicchitano leads the team with 6.34 assists per set.
Defensively, libero Victorria Martinez leads the team with 6.34 digs per set, while Holman and freshman middle blocker Lauren Slaughter lead the team with 99 and 90 total blocks, respectively.