FORT SMITH -- Faces have come and gone from the sidelines of the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith volleyball team over the years. That's just the nature of college athletics.
One constant has remained though. Jane Sargent now enters her 24th season leading the Lady Lions program after starting it in 1998, and she couldn't be more excited to continue her legendary journey as Lone Star Conference play is underway.
"It has been a dream," Sargent said of her career. "Because I enjoy this so much, I don't feel like I've worked a day here. What has made it special is the people that I've gotten to meet along the way -- the student-athletes, the coaches, the administration and the supporters of our program. That has made this really extraordinary for me."
Sargent, a Fort Smith Northside graduate, played volleyball in high school but went on to play basketball in college. Volleyball was always on her mind.
After her collegiate career ended, she played recreational volleyball and flourished as a coach taking over the Chaffin Junior High program while also coaching club volleyball. That's when Westark College (now UAFS) came calling with an opportunity, which she initially turned down.
"I was a little afraid I couldn't handle it all, starting a program from scratch," Sargent said. "But I called a former player who was in the junior college ranks. I asked, 'can I do this?' She told me I was already doing what they do at the next level.
"It was the best decision of my life."
The highlights along the way have been plentiful. She has more than 700 career wins and has guided the team to plenty of recent success, including six regular season and postseason tournament championships, two Elite Eight and a Final Four appearances.
It was almost destiny that Sargent, who has earned more than six Coach of the Year honors in recent history, became a coach. She recalls as early as the third grade wanting to pursue the profession.
"I remember I had a line of fellow kids doing jumping jacks that I ordered," Sargent said with a laugh. "My teacher said at the time I'd be a good coach. I probably didn't quite understand it all at the time, but it's worked out for me."
The on-the-court accomplishments are special to Sargent, but she takes greater joy in catching up with former players and the full lives that they have built after their time at UAFS. It's easy for Sargent to rattle off the success of her former players that she has had over the years. She loves to keep in touch with players long after their competing days are over and is always lining up trips to visit them while on the road.
The winning ways have continued early in the season for the Lady Lions, who are picked to finish eighth in the 12-team Lone Star Conference. The program entered conference play with a 6-5 record against a tough nonconference schedule, which included three road trips near (Arkadelphia and Texas) and far (Alaska).
Plenty of players have made an impact early in the year with sophomore outside hitter Reagan Macha and junior setter Chloe Price (Siloam Springs), among others, playing a big role. Macha, who has already earned All-Tournament team honors twice this year, has continued to lead the team in kills after doing so the past two seasons.
Entering conference play, Macha had 133 kills, 56 more than any teammate, while averaging 3.17 kills per set. Chloe Alderson, Caelyn Gunn, Hannah Holland (Fort Smith Southside), Abby Cagle (Greenwood), Kaelyn McDonald and Hannah Watkins (Greenwood) also have helped the Lady Lions this season in kills.
"I try not to get too settled in with the mindset that I will get the kill every time," Macha said. "I just try to maintain the consistency of helping out. My teammates have been stepping up and having big games with kills. It opens up the block a lot for me. We are very balanced and teams don't know where the ball might be going."
The team has been very balanced as well defensively with Lauren Weber having more than 200 digs while teammates Macha and Price also have more than 100 this season. Price has been an assist machine for the Lady Lions so far. Through the initial 11 games of the year, she had 421, which was 390 more than the next teammate.
UAFS returns to the Stubblefield Center on Wednesday at 6 p.m. against Oklahoma Christian before hosting Western New Mexico on Friday at 6 p.m.
SCHOOL University of Arkansas-Fort Smith
NOTABLE Sargent enters her 24th season as coach at UAFS after starting the program in 1998. … The Fort Smith Northside graduate in her time had a regional power and national contender in the junior college ranks and now has the Lady Lions in a successful run in the Division II ranks. … Sargent in recent years has won six regular season and postseason conference championships, two South Central Region Tournament championships and two Elite Eight and one Final Four appearances.