Sugar Bears picked to win Southland title

The University of Central Arkansas Sugar Bears were the favorites to win the 2012 Southland Conference title on Wednesday when the preseason polls and All-Conference teams were released.

The Sugar Bears, who have won four consecutive SLC division titles, were picked first in both the head coaches’ poll and the sports information directors’ poll. UCA received 75 points in the coaches’ poll and 74 in the SID poll. The Sugar Bears received four first-place votes in both polls, with the others going to newcomer Oral Roberts, Lamar and Sam Houston State.

UCA led all schools with four players named to the preseason All-SLC team, including two first-teamers. Junior setter Marissa Collins and junior right side Jessica Nagy were first-team selections, while senior middle blocker Taylor Hammonds and senior outside hitter Jessica Hays were on the second team.

Collins, from Pearland, Texas, was the 2010 SLC Freshman of the Year and a second-team All-SLC selection in 2011. She finished second in the league in assists (1,048) and averaged 11.64 assists in conference play a year ago. Nagy, from Carleton, Mich., had a team-high 295 kills last season and was third in the conference in services aces per set.

Hammonds, from Tomball, Texas, amassed 258 kills and finished seventh in hitting percentage (.285). Hays, one of the league’s top players throughout her career, missed most of the 2011 season with a knee injury. She was the 2008 SLC Freshman of the Year and a was a first-team selection in 2010.

Under the direction of second-year coach David McFatrich, the Sugar Bears return four starters and a libero from a team that claimed its fourth straight division title last season with a 10-6 conference mark.

UCA will host its annual Alumni Game at 2:30 Saturday at the Prince Center, and its Purple-Gray Game at 7 p.m. Monday. The Sugar Bears open the regular season at the Southern Miss Tournament beginning Friday, Aug. 24. The first home date for UCA is Thursday, Sept. 6 when they host the first day of the Sugar Bear Classic.

The 2012 Southland Conference Tournament will once again be played at UCA’s Farris Center on Nov. 16-18.