Sugar Bears face unique challenge heading into season

CONWAY – The University of Central Arkansas volleyball program has a unique challenge heading into this season of opportunities. Last year the Sugar Bears faced the fire with a new head coach at the helm, and this year will be another new feat as they transfer their talents to the ASUN Conference. 

UCA has their work cut out for them as the ASUN has top-tier talent year after year. However, that will not stop the Sugar Bears as they are open to the adversaries that lie ahead. 

The Sugar Bears come into this season with a mix of veterans and youth. After graduating three history-setting Sugar Bears, the goal will be to fill those spots with the next best in line. Those three were Libro Emily Doss, setter Bailey Waddington and outside hitter Amanda Beaton. It is no question that they will be missed, but their presence will be filled with one of the most athletic recruiting classes UCA has seen. This class of seven is loaded with talent at every position as it gifts the Sugar Bears various opportunities. 

Those seven include outside hitters Jamiryana HallEsther Du’GlasandLily Taylor. Middle blockers Allison Holloway and Hannah Watkins. Defensive specialist Shelbi Owens and right-side hitter Mackenzie Vernon. Out of those seven, only one will redshirt as Watkins gets that bid. All of the other six will play crucial roles for UCA and get impactful playing time. 

“In my collegiate career of volleyball, this is definitely the most athletic group I have ever been able to coach or recruit,” head coach John Newberry said. “We got big-time jumpers, we got height, we got athleticism, we got all the components. They need to continue to understand the speed of the college game, but once they figure that out the sky is the limit.”

While some Sugar Bears may have graduated or be out for the season, such as Charlie Tidwell and Ravin Rhodes, some of the best still roam the Prince Center. UCA has several players to lean on during this season as they return for another year in the purple and grey. 

Newberry had raving reviews for each of these returners as he knows they will play a vital role in the success of the Sugar Bears. Those returners include:
Junior Alexis Stumbough

“She has been real solid, and she is one of our captains, she is a very solid player for us,” Newberry said. “She will probably see the court more then anyone else on the team and is a great passer, smart attack and a trustworthy person on the court.”

Sophomore Lexie Gregory

“Filling in a new role this year is Gregory at Libro… she has been getting constantly better and kind of filling that role,” Newberry said. “She is already extremely athletic, so getting her to be in the right spot at the right time if she listens to what she is told to, she will be a phenomenal Libro for us.” 

Senior Lexi Miller

“She has done a lot of great things throughout her career at UCA; being her senior year, expect her to double her kills from previous years,” Newberry said. “Big-time outside hitter that hits a very heavy ball and so her being able to put the ball away in crunch time, will be very big for us.”

Senior Madi Bowles

“She has been an all-conference player and has this mystery arm that is hard to figure out, has a very wide range on attacking, and is a very good volleyball player,” Newberry said. “I would expect her to do really really well for us this season as well.”

One of the headliners of this year’s returners will be fifth-year athlete Amari Mitchell. Since she first stepped into the Prince Center, Mitchell has been a unit, and her legacy is not done just yet. As she takes her extra year due to COVID-19, she will be a lifeline for the Sugar Bears from the middle blocker position. 

“She has a lot of experience and great charisma with the team; she knows how to interact with the team and get everyone going,” Newberry said. “Having her and her massive foundation is huge for the team.”

UCA will use both these key returners and young bloods to help propel their team within the starting lineup. As it goes right now, the starting lineup has some options as each position has multiple players vying for the spot. In the outside roles, it is Stumbough and Miller, with Taylor interchanging in the front and back row. Sophomore Sarah Strus will also be used as an option as a rotational player for the Sugar Bears as they are deep in the outside hitter role. The setter position will be interchangeable as junior Anna Myers and sophomore Anna Williams will be set for a game-time decision as starters. 

The middle blocking position posts a veteran leading the way as Mitchell will work alongside a rotation of Holloway, sophomores Macy Blackburn and April Conant. Right side will see former all-conference player Bowles teaming up alongside a rotation of freshman Vernon. Vernon has been impressive as of late, as she has one of the hardest-hitting abilities on the squad. Finishing out the lineup will be Gregory, who will claim the Libro position for the Sugar Bears. 

With this mix of different ages and styles, it will be encouraging for the Sugar Bears to begin this new season in a familiar place, the Prince Center. This year, UCA will return to their original home as COVID-19 pushed them into the Farris Center a season prior. Not only will they be back in their home territory, but they also get the privilege of starting the season in front of their home crowd. 

“We are really excited to start our 2021 season at the Prince Center; being able to play in your practice gym and having the only volleyball gym in the ASUN is a huge advantage to us,” Newberry said. “We have had nineteen hundred people in the Farris Center, and I would still take a hundred people in the Prince Center over that nineteen hundred any day.” 

A mix of talent and returning to an old home won’t be enough for the Sugar Bears as Newberry relies on a cast of assistant coaches to help pave the way. Former TCU product Lexi MacLeanenters her second season, and former assistant coach at East Tennesse State, Aryn Moura, will help take those reigns on the success this year. 

“We are excited to have Aryn on board as the newest staff member. Aryn has been very important with our passing and serving techniques. While Lexi has been instrumental in getting our blocking schemes,” Newberry said. “Both Lexi and Aryn have a lot of experience to get these girls in order and get our offensive side and defensive side organized.” 

UCA will head into this season with so many unknowns, but still, expectations are high. The Sugar Bears were initially picked to finish 8th in the conference but believe they have the talent to surprise some teams at the top. 

“Going into conference season, we have no idea what anyone looks like, we haven’t played anyone in a very long time,” Newberry said. “So we have to be on our A-game for every single person. We can beat everybody, and they can also beat us.”