Tough early schedule puts SMU volleyball at the top of AAC

Last season, SMU volleyball was a force to be reckoned with, setting a school record with 27 wins and going 17-3 in the American Athletic Conference to take the AAC title, its first league crown, and earn a berth in the NCAA Tournament.

The Mustangs were led by 2015 AAC Player and Setter of the Year Avery Acker. Morgan Heise, named AAC Libero of the Year for a second straight season, and middle blocker Janelle Giordano, were first-team all-conference selections while outside hitters Cailin Bula and Abbey Bybel earned second-team honors.

But with Avery, SMU’s co-captain the past three seasons, graduating last spring with Bula and Bybel, coach Lisa Seifert, the 2015 AAC Coach of the Year, needed two upperclassmen to step up this fall to fill that leadership vacuum.

One player asked to step up was Heise, named AAC Defensive Player of the Week for the 15th time in her career on Monday. Heise was named co-captain prior to the season along with junior middle blocker Kristen Stehling, and Seifert couldn’t be happier with her two veterans.

“[Heise and Stehling] have been awesome because Avery [Acker] had been a co-captain for three years and was a pretty dominant person,” Seifert said. “Morgan and Kristen had to pretty much take that over. That was a big adjustment, but they’re doing a great job with it.”

After winning 3-0 at UCF on Sunday, the Mustangs now occupy first in the AAC at 9-1 and are 16-6 overall.

SMU’s lone AAC loss came Oct. 9 against Temple when the Owls edged the Mustangs 3-2 at Moody Coliseum.

But Seifert, in her 21st season coaching on the Hilltop, takes solace knowing her Mustangs will get another crack at Temple on Nov. 23.

“Yeah, I’m ecstatic. I couldn’t be happier [with how we’ve started conference play],” Seifert said. “Even though we have one blemish, it was a hard-fought match. I can look at the match and say we had a couple people who didn’t perform as well as they had been performing and Temple was outstanding. The best part of that is we get to see them again. We have to go to Philly to do it, but still, I like the idea of being allowed to play them again.”

Heise and Seifert have both been impressed with how well true freshman Kendall Patterson has performed while stepping forward to fill Avery’s sizeable shoes as setter, a big responsibility for any player let alone a newcomer to the program.

And Heise feels that playing a tough non-conference schedule that saw SMU play tournaments at Arizona and N.C. State prepared the Mustangs for the rigors of AAC play while also helping the group come together as a single, cohesive unit.

“The start of the season, preseason, was a little rough just because we were playing really high-ranked teams and it was a new team for us missing key players from last year. But once [conference] season hit, we finally found what we needed, everyone jelled together,” Heise said.

“I think the freshmen, sophomores and juniors have all come along, taken pride in their jobs and really wanted to win. We became more consistent, which we struggled with at the beginning, and I think that all came with teamwork and us saying we want to repeat what we did last year.”

But as the reigning AAC champs, does SMU feel any pressure to repeat? Not exactly.

“We’re just coming out and trying to play because it is a new season and I think we’re just having fun with it, which is nice instead of treating it as pressure,” Heise said.

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