FORT SMITH, Ark. – They’re back.

After missing the NCAA Division II National Tournament a year ago and, at times this season, appearing to likely miss the tournament for an unprecedented second season in a row, the suddenly-surging UAFS volleyball team again finds itself among the field of 64 teams as tournament play begins this week throughout the country.

The No. 8 seed Lady Lions will play the No. 1 seed Tarleton State TexAnns in the first round of the South Central Region at 5 p.m. on Thursday at Wisdom Gymnasium in Stephenville, Texas.

The Lady Lions, who have won four matches in a row, captured their sixth Heartland Conference Tournament championship on Saturday afternoon and with it received an automatic bid to the national tournament. It’s the Lady Lions’ sixth national tournament appearance in eight seasons.

UAFS (20-11) beat St. Edward's in four sets to claim the final conference tournament title in the 20-year history of the conference. The conference will disband in July with all but two teams – Newman and Rogers State – joining the Lone Star Conference. Newman and Rogers State will join the MIAA Conference.

The Lady Lions, who reached the 20-win mark for the 20th time in its 21-year history, are the only team representing the conference in the South Central Region of the national tournament.

Tarleton State received one of the five at-large bids and will host the region for the first time in school history. The TexAnns (29-4), who are ranked No. 13 in the latest AVCA Coaches Top 25, won the Lone Star Conference regular-season title but lost in four sets to regular-season runner-up Texas A&M-Commerce in the conference tournament championship match.

Only eight teams from each region advanced to the national tournament – three conference champions and five at-large teams. Along with UAFS and Tarleton State, the South Central Region features No. 2 seed Texas A&M-Commerce, No. 3 seed Colorado Mesa, No. 4 seed Colorado School of Mines, No. 5 seed Metro State, No. 6 Dixie State and No. 7 Angelo State.

The South Central Region consists of three teams from the Lone Star Conference, four teams from the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference and one team from the Heartland Conference.

It will be the second meeting of the season between UAFS and Tarleton State and the sixth meeting in the all-time series between the two programs.

UAFS leads the all-time series 3-2, but the Lady Lions lost the last match against the TexAnns in five sets on Sept. 1 during the Dixie State/Desert Garden Inn by Wyndham Classic at Burns Arena in St. George, Utah.

The Lady Lions are hitting at a 0.197 clip. Junior outside hitter Anna Demmer, a First Team All-Conference selection and MVP of the conference tournament, leads the team in kills (387) and kills per set (3.49). Senior middle hitter Debra Rogers, a First Team All-Conference selection and Conference Offensive Player of the Year, leads the team in hitting percentage (0.343).

Freshman setter Taylor Stoops, an Honorable Mention All-Conference selection and a member of the All-Conference Tournament Team, leads the team in assists (892) and assists per set (8.58). Redshirt sophomore right-side hitter Erin Black leads the team in aces (32).

UAFS holds its opponents to an average hitting percentage of just 0.150. Rogers leads the team in blocks (105) and blocks per set (1.05), while redshirt freshman libero Pilar Onstad leads the team win digs (534) and digs per set (4.90).

Tarleton State, which is the two-time defending, regular-season Lone Star Conference champion, won a school-record 24 matches in a row during one stretch of the season, but the TexAnns have lost two of the past four matches – a five-set loss to the University of Texas of the Permian Basin in the regular-season finale and a five-set loss to Texas A&M-Commerce in the conference tournament title match.

The TexAnns are hitting at an impressive 0.256 clip – 18th-best in NCAA Division II. Junior outside hitter Adriana Darthuy, a First Team All-Conference selection, leads the team in kills (322) and kills per set (2.80), while senior middle hitter Hannah McManus, a First Team All-Conference selection and the Conference Defensive Player of the Year, leads the team’s hitters in hitting percentage (0.321).

Senior setter Blanca Izquierdo, a Second Team All-Conference selection, leads the team in assists (686) and assists per set (5.97), and Darthuy, an All-Conference Tournament Team member, leads the team in aces (41).

Tarleton State is holding its opponents to an average hitting percentage of just 0.137. McManus, an All-Conference Tournament Team member, leads the team in blocks (165) and blocks per set (1.43), and senior libero Adrianna Knutson, a Second Team All-Conference selection and an All-Conference Tournament Team member, leads the team in digs (519) and digs per set (4.51).