As the Howard Payne Lady Jackets embark on their third season under head coach Ken Carver, inserting themselves into the thick of the American Southwest Conference volleyball race is at the forefront on their list of goals.

The Lady Jackets return six members of last year’s 9-20 team that finished 3-15 in ASC action, while welcoming five new faces. Carver stated that athletically, Howard Payne is fielding the best team of his tenure.

“One of the biggest things I am excited about for this season is our team’s overall athleticism,” Carver said. “This year’s team has more athletic depth up and down the roster than I have ever had.

“Additionally, there are several players capable of playing at a high level in multiple positions, so the opportunity to have the flexibility in creating multiple lineups is equally exciting.”

Among the key returnees for the Lady Jackets are senior setter Patricia Brown, an honorable mention all-ASC West Division selection last year, along with outside hitters Sydney Bryant, a junior, and Megan Pick, a sophomore.

“Patricia’s role is going to change slightly for us in that we are going to be changing to a two-setter system from a one-setter system,” Carver said. “She has done a great job in getting our other setter up to speed and comfortable in our offensive system. Patricia was one of the conference’s top three setters last season and I can see her continuing that into this season. Her leadership and enthusiasm are also valuable assets she brings to our team.

“Megan was our team MVP last season and she led our team in kills and attack percentage, aces and was second on the team in serve receptions. We’ll continue to utilize her extensively in our offensive system at the right side. Sydney was second only to Megan in terms of offensive production. What we’ve been working on with her in the offseason and preseason are her continued improvement as it relates to offensive efficiency. Megan and Sydney both put a lot of balls down really hard.”

The Lady Jackets are adding a pair of juniors to the roster in setter Amy Crouch and middle hitter Amanda Gutierrez.

“Amanda joined us during our offseason training and just elevated our team’s presence in the middle,” Carver said. “While she has not played at the collegiate level yet, she brings a high level of skill and athleticism. We converted her from a right side player to a middle, so she is still learning the position and all the nuances that entails. She already is playing it at a fairly high level, so when she gets completely comfortable at the position, it could be downright scary what she could be capable of doing at that position.

“Amy is one of two junior college players joining our team this year. Due to her addition to the team, along with a more athletic and tall front line, we are switching to a two-setter offense as opposed to a one setter system. Coupled with Patricia, Amy will help lead our team on the offensive front.”

Among the freshmen to keep an eye on are defensive specialist Kristin Hammond and outside hitter Tamika Heline.

“Kristin, during our preseason testing, graded out to be one of our most athletic players,” Carver said. “ She is lightning quick on the floor and has very good ball control. She is going to be one of our anchors in our serve receive and back row defense.

“Tamika is a very versatile player who can excel at the outside and right side hitter positions. She brings a wealth of high-level experience when it comes to volleyball. Her high school team was a perennial postseason qualifier and in the offseason she played for the Alamo volleyball club. Her club team qualified for the Junior Olympic National Championships and finished 10th in the nation in their division.”

The Lady Jackets were projected to finish sixth out of seven teams in the ASC West in the conference preseason poll, but Howard Payne will have to move into the top three to be eligible for the conference tournament, which the program hasn’t won since 1996.

Carver anticipates the improvements made by the returnees, coupled with the influx of new talent, pushing the Lady Jackets into tournament contention.

“The keys to success don’t really change from year to year no matter how much the roster may change,” Carver said. “One of the key elements will be for us to be focused and patient. With the improvements made by our returning players over the past two years and the addition of a talented recruiting class, we are on the verge of a tipping point.

“We have the potential to have a very good year and be very successful on the court, should we play at our ability level. We will just have to be patient and focus on what we can control on each and every point. One contact, one point, one rally, one set, one match at a time. We expect a level of excellence from ourselves in everything we do. We will need to remain patient and know that a conference playoff berth is not secured overnight, but is gained with each contact of the ball. As long as we continue to look to ‘better the ball’ on each contact and play each contact to the best of our ability, the points, wins and success we want to have will be there.”

Howard Payne opens the season today with games against Oglethorpe and Principia in the Sewanee University tournament in Tennessee. HPU then plays Sewanee and Wilmington on Saturday. The Lady Jackets return to face Texas Lutheran in Seguin Wednesday in the conference opener, then head to UT-Tyler for tournament action the weekend of Sept. 5-6.

The Lady Jackets play their first home game on Sept. 9 against Texas College, then host Concordia on Sept. 16 in their first American Southwest Conference home game.