FORT SMITH — Most coaches might be a little anxious about starting the season with a team loaded with new players, but UAFS volleyball coach Jane Sargent, admittedly, doesn’t seem to mind at all.
The Lady Lions will open the season on Friday and Saturday at the Angelo State Invitational in San Angelo, Texas, with 13 new players on their 20-player roster. It’s arguably the most new players Sargent has coached since the Lady Lions were competing as a junior college program.
"Honestly I love it," said Sargent, who begins her 16th season at UAFS. "As a former junior college coach, having a large number of new players is very familiar for me. Besides, we have great players returning that do a terrific job of showing them the ropes."
The Lady Lions’ newcomers will be tested early. UAFS will open play in the ASU Invitational with matches against the University of Colorado-Mesa and Tarleton State University on Friday and will play Colorado State University-Pueblo at noon and No. 15 Angelo State University at 6 p.m.
After nearly a month of preseason workouts, Sargent said the Lady Lions are eager to get the season started. Considering the highly-competitive invitational field, Sargent said the two-day affair will be a good gauge as to how the Lady Lions compare to other region tournament caliber teams.
"We are so ready to play and face some outside competition," said Sargent, who boasts a 508-111 all-time win-loss record. "We will definitely use this tournament as a teaching tool on what worked and didn’t work. As a coach, I know the importance of starting out strong, but I also know the season is long and that hopefully our best is yet to come."
Even with so many new players – eight of the 13 newcomers are freshmen – the Lady Lions are still considered by their peers to be among the elite teams in the Heartland Conference and South Central Region.
UAFS is the defending conference regular-season champion and the two-time defending conference tournament champion. Recently, the Lady Lions were picked to win the conference by the league’s coaches and sports information directors.
Sargent, however, said she doesn’t mind the high expectations placed on her team.
"We like to set high goals for our teams, and it’s important for them, especially our seniors, to take ownership," Sargent said. "This particular group will welcome all challenges."
It will be a daunting task for the Lady Lions to repeat their feats from last season – 28 wins, a national ranking, an undefeated conference championship season, a conference tournament championship and a berth in the national tournament – but it’s certainly not impossible, Sargent said.
"It will take all of us coming together day in and day out, accepting our roles and keeping our eyes on the bigger picture," Sargent said. "We’ve always said, ‘It’s amazing what can be accomplished when no one cares who gets the credit.’ That’s what it will take for us to have a remarkable year."
Seven players return from last year’s team that finished 28-3 overall – seniors Stephanie Brock, a 5-foot-7 setter from Arlington, Texas; Taylor Jordan, a 5-5 libero from Ozark, Mo.; Cori Bruce, a 5-8 outside hitter from Austin, Texas; Jordan Erz, a 6-1 middle hitter from Carleton, Mich.; and Jordan Pickett, a 6-1 outside hitter from Temple, Texas; and sophomores Whitney Mills, a 5-7 setter from Denton, Texas; and Macy Ayulo, a 5-6 defensive specialist from Denton, Texas.
Pickett is the lone returning All-Conference performer and earned All-Conference Tournament Team honors, too.
They’ll be joined by juniors Michelle Walker, a 5-11 outside hitter from Sugarland, Texas, who transferred from the University of Montevallo; Melissa Goncalves, a 5-9 opposite hitter from Belo Horizonte, Brazil, who transferred from Frank Phillips College; Jessica Anderson, a 6-2 middle hitter from Columbus, Kan., who transferred from Coffeyville Community College; and Shakendra Mumphrey, a 5-10 middle hitter from Tyler, Texas, who transferred from Trinity Valley Community College.
Liz McVicker, a 5-11 middle hitter from Owasso, Okla., transferred from Oral Roberts University, and the senior will redshirt this season.
Along with those transfers are incoming freshmen Payton Hamilton, a 6-foot middle hitter from Fort Smith; Taylor Hamilton, a 5-10 opposite hitter from Fort Smith; Olivia Navato, a 5-3 defensive specialist from Lee’s Summit, Mo.; Emily Tripp, a 5-5 defensive specialist from Shawnee, Kan.; Maja Krstonosic, a 5-11 setter from Kikinda, Serbia; Katarina Krstonosic, a 5-11 outside hitter from Kikinda, Serbia; Lauren Darby, a 5-9 outside hitter from Olathe, Kan.; and Paige Beckner, a 6-2 opposite hitter from Van Buren, Ark.
"We have been more than happy with all of our new players," Sargent said. "They all bring something very special to our team. I think the biggest surprise for me has been Michelle Walker, Melissa Goncalves and the Krstonosic twins because I only had the opportunity to see them on video. They have all lived up to our expectations and more."
With such a deep, talented roster, Sargent will have many options when it comes to the starting lineup throughout the season. Going into this weekend’s invitational, Sargent said the likely starters will be Brock at setter, Katarina Krstonosic and Walker at outside hitter, Pickett at opposite hitter, Erz and Payton Hamilton at middle hitter and Tripp at libero.
Goncalves, Maja Krstonosic and Anderson will likely see playing time off the bench, as well.
"Our strengths are going to be just how balanced this year’s team is both offensively and defensively," Sargent said. "We have a deep bench, and they battle every single day for a starting spot. The more competitive your practices are the better your team will be in the long run."
After this weekend’s invitational, UAFS will make its home debut on Thursday when it hosts Heartland Conference foe Oklahoma Panhandle State University at 7 p.m. at the Stubblefield Center.