FORT SMITH -- The sights and sounds of an offseason have been in full swing for the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith volleyball team.
The thud of a spiked ball off the court. The claps of celebration that follow after that. The clang of weights being lifted. The Lady Lions have done their part so far in getting ready for the 2023 season, but another big piece of the puzzle was unveiled earlier this week -- the schedule.
"There is always excitement when a schedule is released for the upcoming season," UAFS volleyball coach Jane Sargent said. "Everyone had a great offseason and improved both physically and athletically. We were really happy with the progress they made. My assistant Susannah Kelley was instrumental in making sure every athlete improved their skill set and got stronger in the weight room. We like where we are at."
UAFS announced the volleyball program will have a 29-match slate for the upcoming regular season that will feature plenty of challenges along the way. The Lions are set to face off against four 2022 NCAA II Tournament participants to go along with its nine home matches and 16 conference matches.
There will be some fun mixed in there as well with a visit planned to see a national park in South Carolina.
The 2023 campaign will be the first for Sargent as a member of the UAFS Hall of Fame after being inducted in April. But the winningest volleyball coach in the state of Arkansas said she doesn't feel any added pressure entering year 26 leading the program.
"It's all absolutely the same," Sargent said. "I will have exactly the same goals -- graduate kids, win as much as possible, and have adventures along the way."
The season will start bright and early Sep. 1 at the Newberry Invitational with a season-opening match against Lander University at 9 a.m. during the Newberry Invitational in Newberry, S.C. The Lions begin the season with three consecutive tournaments also set to attend the Gorilla Classic in Pittsburg, Kan., and the Lone Star Conference Crossover in Kingsville, Texas.
Lone Star Conference play kicks off Sep. 22 against Lubbock Christian University at 6 p.m., where the Lady Lions will be at home at the Stubblefield Center for the first time all season after an 11-match road trip starts it all.
It's only natural to start to circling dates after a schedule is released, and the program is already awaiting a headline matchup on Oct. 20 at 6 p.m. in Canyon, Texas, against West Texas A&M University in Lone Star Conference play.
"Without a doubt, I'm really looking forward to playing West Texas," Sargent said. "They are the defending NCAA DII national champions and are returning a great deal of their starters, so we know they are going to be really, really good again this year. Plus we play them in their gym -- The Box -- and they have the best home record in all of Division II.
"Nothing like a big challenge to get your adrenaline going."
Another headlining match and perhaps the most anticipated home game of the season will be Oct. 10 against Arkansas Tech, which will be one for the history books. The matchup has never happened before at the Stubblefield Center.
There have been a lot of firsts over the years for the UAFS program that was started from scratch by Sargent in 1998. Another one will happen when the Golden Suns arrive in Fort Smith.
UAFS swept the matchup 3-0 last season when the two schools faced each other for the first time since 2011 and just the second time ever. The match itself against Arkansas Tech has a little more meaning to Sargent than most as well.
"My late father did go to Arkansas Tech, so we have a little wager going on in heaven," Sargent said. "We get to host Arkansas Tech at home for the first time in school history for our volleyball program. We are super excited for that."
After a breakout freshman year for outside hitter Caelyn Gunn that earned her All-Lone Star Conference honors, Gunn will again look to guide the team again on the court. She finished second on the team with 265 kills and third on the team in digs with 250 after playing just 22 games being limited with an injury to begin the year.
Gunn was a dual threat for the Lions all season, finishing 14 matches with double figure kills and digs, and Sargent said Gunn has only gotten better with more experience during the offseason.
"Gunnie had a really good freshman year," Sargent said. "She made some nice strides during the off season to adjust her hitting mindset from banging every ball to mixing up her shots a little more. So I see her having an even greater impact for our team and being a real force in the Lone Star."
It was a season full of ups and downs in 2022 for UAFS. The Lady Lions finished their season with a 16-14 record with an 8-8 mark in Lone Star Conference matches. But it did end promisingly, which has sparked hope for this upcoming season.
The Lady Lions won four of their last five games in the regular season before dropping a heart-breaking 3-2 result to Dallas Baptist in the Lone Star Conference Tournament.
"Unfortunately, we had some unforeseen things come up at the beginning of the playing season that affected our team and it took us a while to find our stride," Sargent said. "But we did have some nice momentum toward the end of the season and we were really playing our best volleyball. Although our season didn't end the way we wanted it to, we feel hopeful we can make a run at the Lone Star this year."
Date Opponent Time
Sep. 1 Lander University# 9 a.m.
Sep. 1 Belmont Abbey College# 4 p.m.
Sep. 2 Newberry College# 11 a.m.
Sep. 2 Francis Marion University# 2:30 p.m.
Sep. 8 Southwest Minnesota State$ 9 a.m.
Sep. 8 Drury University$ 4:30 p.m.
Sep. 9 Northwestern Oklahoma State$ 11:30 a.m.
Sep. 9 Pittsburg State$ 7 p.m.
Sep. 14 St. Marys (Texas)! 3 p.m.
Sep. 15 Texas A&M-Kingsville! 6 p.m.
Sep. 16 Angelo State! noon
Sep. 22 Lubbock Christian* 6 p.m.
Sep. 23 Eastern New Mexico* 2 p.m.
Sep. 27 at Oklahoma Christian* 6 p.m.
Sep. 29 at Western New Mexico* 7 p.m.
Oct. 3 at Drury University 6 p.m.
Oct. 6 Texas A&M-Kingsville* 6 p.m.
Oct. 7 Texas A&M International 2 p.m.
Oct. 10 Arkansas Tech 6 p.m.
Oct. 20 at West Texas A&M* 6 p.m.
Oct. 21 at Cameron* 2 p.m.
Oct. 25 at Dallas Baptist* 6 p.m.
Oct. 27 St. Edwards University* 6 p.m.
Oct. 28 St. Marys University* 2 p.m.
Nov. 1 at University of Texas-Tyler* 6 p.m.
Nov. 3 at Angelo State* 6 p.m.
Nov. 4 at Texas Permian Basin* 2 p.m.
Nov. 10 Midwestern State (Texas)* 5 p.m.
Nov. 11 Texas Womans University* 2 p.m.
# Newberry Invitational in Newberry, S.C.
$ Gorilla Classic in Pittsburg, Kan.
! Lone Star Conference Crossover in Kingsville, Texas
* Lone Star Conference game