FORT SMITH, Ark. – All of the hard work the UAFS women’s cross country team has put in the past few weeks during preseason practice will be put to the test on Saturday when the Lady Lions open the season in the University of Central Oklahoma Land Run at Santa Fe High School in Edmond.

It will be the fifth season of competition for the cross country program and the third as season as an active member of NCAA Division II eligible for conference championships and postseason play.

The Lady Lions will begin the season with a new head coach. Lauren Unger begins her first season as Lady Lions head coach, She succeeds former coach Shohn Doty, who coached both them women’s and men’s teams for the past two seasons before relinquishing his duties this summer to concentrate solely on his responsibilities as associate head baseball coach.

Unger has been pleased with the progress of her team, which is nine-runners strong. The entire roster is made up of underclassmen with four juniors, two sophomores and three freshmen. All nine runners are expected to compete in Saturday’s meet.

"Preseason has gone extremely well so far. The girls have continued to show their dedication by working hard every single practice," Unger said. "Our biggest strength is that we have a determined group of runners who are eager to prove themselves. The only weaknesses we face are keeping everyone healthy throughout the season, which is an obstacle for most cross country runners."

Five runners return from last season’s team that finished fourth in the conference meet, including All-Conference performer Katy Carter, a sophomore from Magazine,; and Honorable Mention All-Conference performer Carlee Rodriguez, a sophomore from Rogers.

They join returning juniors Danielle Brecht from Rogers; Lydia Humphrey from Ozark; and Emily Nobles from Roswell, N.M. Junior Kelsea Geschwentner from McCook, Neb., who is a transfer from Garden City (Kan.) Community College, leads a group of newcomers that includes Natalie Flippo, a freshman from Pea Ridge; Hannah Holstein, a freshman from Mansfield; and Jaycee Mayfield, a freshman from Sallisaw, Okla.

"The biggest surprise for me in the preseason was seeing the continued effort that each runner puts forth every day. They come ready to practice every morning before the sun is even up with smiling faces, which is not easy to do," Unger said. "I can tell my runners have a great mindset. I also feel that working out with the men’s team is a great motivational factor for the girls and gives them added support and challenges, which are keys to improvement."

Another pleasant surprise has been the return of Brecht. She missed most of last season because of an injury, but Unger said she has worked hard in the offseason to return to competition form.

"From day one until now all of my runners have made huge personal gains and improvements on their physical conditioning level as well as on their time and speed. I really expect to see all of my returning runners post better times than their previous season(s)," Unger said. "Danielle Brecht has also put in tremendous work in the offseason and preseason in order to get herself back into competition shape after her injury last season. I am very proud of her commitment and dedication, and I am thrilled to be able to see her back on the course this season."

Unger said she is excited about the season-opening meet and is eager to see how her runners perform against other Division II teams in the 5k Land Run, which UAFS will compete in for the first time.

It will be the first of six regular-season meets for UAFS, which also will compete in the Missouri Southern State University Stampede (Sept. 21), the University of the Ozarks Invitational (Sept. 28), the University of Arkansas Chile Pepper Run (Oct. 5), the Oklahoma Baptist Invitational (Oct. 12) and the University of Arkansas-Little Rock Invitational (Oct. 19).

"I feel like the first meet will be a great indicator of where each runner stands and where their physical conditioning level is," Unger said. "I plan on using it as a learning lesson and take notice of what needs to be improved and also what our strengths are. I expect to have a great meet, and I am very excited about the meet and to see my runners compete."