FORT SMITH – UAFS volleyball coach Jane Sargent had a noticeable smile as she talked about the Lady Lions’ first practice of the preseason on Wednesday.

It’s understandable.

All 19 players reported for the start of preseason practice and, most importantly, reported in great shape. That made for a spirited first practice.

"I’m happy that everyone came back in really good shape," Sargent said. "We are really happy with everyone’s fitness level coming back. We have good leadership with the kids coming back, and we have a strong group coming back."

It was the first practice of a rigorous week of two-a-day practices for the Lady Lions, who are once again the preseason favorites to win the Heartland Conference. It will be a busy week for Sargent and her two new assistants – the husband and wife tandem of Jonny and Stephanie Neeley – as they begin to put together some semblance of a possible starting lineup.

"We’ll be working on trying to see who we need to put where and whether or not the returners are going to keep their positions or if we are going to have some new blood in there. Everyone is going to have a fair shot," Sargent said. "We are just super excited about it."

Sargent said she is excited about working with a new coaching staff. Jonny Neeley was previously a teacher and volleyball coach in the Russellville (Ark.) Public School system, while Stephanie Neeley is a former NCAA Division I setter who competed for the University of Utah.

The Neeleys also have coached several club volleyball teams in Utah and Arkansas.

"I am super excited about having them on staff with what all they bring to the table," Sargent said. "They just know so much, and I am learning from them. It’s going to be an exciting year."

The Lady Lions will host their annual Blue-White intrasquad scrimmage at 5:30 p.m. on Aug. 25 at the Stubblefield Center.

UAFS will open the regular season and Heartland Conference season at 5 p.m. on Sept. 4 at Oklahoma Panhandle State University in Goodwell, Okla. The match will be the first of 12 non-home matches to start the season. UAFS will make its Stubblefield Center debut at 7 p.m. on Sept. 18 against conference foe Lubbock Christian University.