In a short span of time, the once-fledgling UAFS men’s cross country program has established itself as one of the up-and-coming programs in the Heartland Conference with serious aspirations of a conference championship.

The Lions will open the season on Saturday when they compete 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 season as an active member of NCAA Division II eligible for conference championships and postseason play.

The Lions will begin the season with a new head coach. Justin Bailey begins his first season as head coach, He 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.

Bailey inherits a program that has posted consecutive third-place finishes in the conference meet and was again picked to finish third in the recent preseason conference poll. Bailey said he has been pleasantly surprised with how well preseason workouts have gone.

"My guys came back in better shape than I first imagined. As long as we stay healthy, we will continue to excel as a team," Bailey said.

Seven runners return from last season’s team, including All-Conference performers TaBaris and TaTaris Earnest, who are senior twin brothers from Conway, Ark.

They join returning juniors Ian Brecht and Mariano Mendez, who are both from Rogers, Ark.; sophomores Isai Carranza from Rogers, Ark.; Juan Zermeno from Springdale, Ark.; and Hunter Westbrook from Clarksville, Texas; and freshmen newcomers Ian Carter from Greenwood, Ark.; Nico Hall from Poteau, Okla.; and Nate Stanton from Hutto, Texas.

"I believe our strength right now is definitely our experience from the returning runners we have," Bailey said. "They know the ins and outs of preparing for the season and are helping the younger runners get ready. If we want to compete for a conference championship, we have to become stronger mentally and find a way to push through adversity. Day by day, we are getting better with that."

There has been intense competition during preseason workouts, Bailey said, and he said that will only make the team better.

"So far, Ian Brecht has been having really great workouts. He has been pushing the twins (TaTaris and TaBaris) every day, and that is what we need – a little competition between the runners," Bailey said.

Bailey said he is excited about the season-opening meet and is eager to see how her runners perform against other Division II teams in the 8k 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 expect our guys to perform well," Bailey said. "We are definitely a long shot away, but I do feel like we are in good enough shape to have decent times for the first meet."