UAFS is accustomed to being the team to beat in the Heartland Conference, and this season is no different for the Lady Lions volleyball team.
The Lady Lions received 11 of the 14 first-place votes cast by the league’s coaches and sports information directors in the recently-released preseason conference poll, and since becoming eligible to compete for conference championships in the fall of 2011, UAFS has been the favorite each season.
This season, UAFS will look to add to its legacy as the most-dominant volleyball program in the conference, which will disband in late June following the completion of its 20th season. Eight of the nine conference members – UAFS, St. Mary’s, Lubbock Christian, St. Edward’s, Dallas Baptist, Texas A&M International and non-volleyball playing schools Oklahoma Christian and Rogers State — will become members of the Lone Star Conference, while the remaining current member — Newman — will join the MIAA Conference.
“Our team motto this year is ‘#ChasingSeven.’ The significance of the number seven is that it means completion/perfection. That’s our mission this year — to go out on top of the Heartland Conference as the most dominant volleyball program in its history,” UAFS coach Jane Sargent said.
UAFS begins its 21st season of competition at 8 a.m. on Friday when the Lady Lions play the East Central Lady Tigers in the opening match of the Kathleen Brasfield Invitational at the Junell Center in San Angelo, Texas.
It will be the first of two matches on Friday for the Lady Lions, who will play the Texas A&M-Kingsville Javelinas at 2 p.m. UAFS will finish the two-day event on Saturday with a 10 a.m. match against the New Mexico Highlands Cowgirls and a 6 p.m. match against the host Angelo State Belles.
Live statistics and live stream will be available for each match.
UAFS has compiled a 236-59 win-loss record during its first nine seasons of NCAA Division II competition — an eye-catching 80-percent winning percentage — and an overall 124-14 win-loss record against conference opponents — a gaudy 90-percent winning percentage.
Since becoming an active member of NCAA Division II and eligible to compete for conference championships in 2011, UAFS has won six-consecutive regular-season conference titles, qualified for the conference tournament all seven seasons and won five conference tournament titles.
No team in the history of the conference has won more regular-season championships or conference tournament championships or made more national tournament appearances than UAFS, which also is the only conference team to ever advance to the Elite Eight (2014, 2015) and the Final Four (2014).
“We try and keep it simple, and I realized a long time ago that winning has everything to do with your players and the people you surround yourself with,” Sargent said. “If you’re fortunate enough, they buy into you and your program and then tell their friends. Before long, you have an amazing pipeline of talent so that every year all you have to do is reload.”
Those, however, are past accomplishments. Sargent and her staff, which includes new assistant coaches Gary Preston Jr. and former Lady Lions volleyball player Macy Ayulo, had to fill some key vacant positions on the roster in the offseason.
It's a relatively new team with only seven returning players from last year's team — redshirt freshman libero Pilar Onstad from Blaine, Minn.; senor right-side hitter Taylor Clay from Catoosa, Okla.; sophomore setter Laryssa Correa from San Antonio, Texas; junior outside hitter Anna Demmer from Lee's Summit, Mo.; senior middle hitter Debra Rogers from Tulsa, Okla.; sophomore outside hitter Rachel Williams from Mesquite, Texas; and junior outside hitter Lauren Wood from Plano, Texas.
Last year, Demmer led the team in kills (455) and aces (45) and was named Heartland Conference Player of the Year, First Team All-Conference, First Team AVCA All-South Central Region and Second Team D2CCA All-South Central Region. Rogers led the team in total blocks (144) and blocks per set (1.22) and was First Team All-Conference.
Demmer and Rogers were each named to the Preseason All-Heartland Conference Team.
UAFS also welcomes back redshirt sophomore right-side hitter Erin Black from Greenwood, who returns to the team after not playing last season. She is the former Heartland Conference Freshman of the Year.
“We have a very strong core group of players back from last year’s team, and they doing a great job of leading by example both on and off the court,” Sargent said.
The Lady Lions have eight new players — redshirt sophomore middle hitter/right-side hitter Balie Stamps from Salina, Kan.; junior setter Averi Foster from Round Rock, Texas; freshman libero Lexi Castillow from Greenwood; freshman defensive specialist Delanie Coroiescu from New Caney, Texas; freshman defensive specialist Jazzlyn Wells from Lebanon, Mo.; freshman right-side hitter Faith Marabella from Friendswood, Texas; freshman setter Taylor Stoops from Waxahachie, Texas; and junior middle hitter Brylee Burroughs from Arkansas City, Kan.
“We have an impressive group of new players, and they are all working hard and learning our system. The expectations are for some of them to compete for a starting position,” Sargent said.
Following this weekend’s invitational, UAFS will make its home debut at 6 p.m. on Tuesday when it hosts in-state foe University of Arkansas-Monticello at the Stubblefield Center. It will be the first of nine regular-season home matches for the Lady Lions this season.