The 2009-10 sports season kicks into high gear this weekend for Howard Payne University, as the volleyball, women’s soccer and men’s soccer squads all see regular season action for the first time.

The Lady Jackets and Yellow Jackets soccer teams, both in search of their first postseason appearance in the fourth year of each program, open the season at Citizens National Bank Field.

The Lady Jackets (10-9, 7-6 in ASC in 2008), picked to finish seventh in the American Southwest Conference, will host Milwaukee School of Engineering at 2 p.m. Friday and Southwestern at 2 p.m. Saturday. Meanwhile, the Jackets (6-7-4, 5-6-2 in ASC), projected to place ninth in the ASC, will tangle with Milwaukee School of Engineering at 4 p.m. Friday.

The Howard Payne volleyball team will trek to the East Coast to open the season, as the Lady Jackets have four matches scheduled at the Eastern Mennonite University tournament in Harrisonburg, Va. HPU (16-13, 8-10) will face North Carolina Wesleyan and Lynchburg Friday, then challenge Mary Baldwin and Eastern Mennonite Saturday.

Head volleyball coach Ken Carver, who last year guided the Lady Jackets to their first winning season since 2001, welcomes back all-conference returnees Tamika Heline and Amanda Gutierrez, along with key contributors Megan Pick, Sydney Bryant and Kristen Hammond. Newcomers to keep an eye on include Amber Cantu-Curry, Carlee Ammons, Sarah Davies and Jessica Guerra.

“Our team is excited to open our season this weekend,” Carver said. “The practice intensity and level of execution by this year’s team has been very high. Our returning players have really stepped up and shown a lot of hunger and desire to continue to build upon the success we had last year, and our new players have picked things up quickly and really help to push our practices to new heights.

“This weekend’s tournament at Eastern Mennonite will be a good first test for our team. Two of the teams we’ll face had winning records and went deep into their respective conference’s postseason tournaments. The other two teams were young last year, but should be much improved. The EMU tournament will be a great tune-up for our first conference match against Schreiner two days after we get back.”

The Lady Jackets are targeting back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since the 1996 and 1997 campaigns, as well as a berth in the ASC championship tournament.

“Our goals for this year are to get a little better each time we step on the floor, build on last year’s success and work towards back-to-back winning seasons, and put ourselves in a position to qualify for a postseason tournament berth,” said Carver, whose team was picked to finish fifth in the ASC preseason poll. “With our experience and much improved depth, I’m confident we’ll be able to be successful this season on all three fronts.”

HPU’s first home volleyball contest is slated for 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 15 against ASC rival McMurry.

The Lady Jackets soccer team boasts the reigning and preseason ASC offensive player of the year in sophomore forward Ta’Kenda Cotton, a Brownwood product. Head coach Sam McCutchen also feels that HPU has lured its best recruiting class to date to the program.

“Ta’Kenda is stronger than ever and is really stepping up in the leadership role of the team,” McCutchen said. “We’re also enjoying our best recruiting class ever and we’re currently in the early stages of assessing our new talent. With time and experience, these young ladies should represent HPU well in the ASC this season.”

The Lady Jackets finished tied for sixth last year in the conference race, and lost a tiebreaker that could have sent them to their first ASC championship tournament. Despite a seventh-place prediction in the preseason poll, McCutchen feels 2009 is the year the Lady Jackets burst onto the postseason scene.

“The ASC coaches and SIDs have picked us to finish seventh in the conference race this year, but I feel the road to the playoffs will be through Howard Payne,” McCutchen said.

Kevin Wright enters his second season as the Yellow Jackets head coach, and the team is looking to continue the improvement it has shown in each of its previous seasons. The Jackets are expected to be led by senior midfielders Malcolm Wentworth, Dennis Benitez, Brice Reusink, senior defender Hugo Uribe and senior Malcolm Framjee in goal.

“We’re excited about the season,” Wright said. “With a solid core group returning and a strong recruiting class, we feel this could be a breakout season for the program. The program has improved every year and the group of seniors we have will prove to be the deciding factor in the success of the season.”