Last Sunday was a really good day for Avery Acker.
That morning the Southern Methodist University senior setter got some thrilling news — she had been accepted to medical school. She was one step closer to realizing her dream of becoming a doctor.
Later in the day, Acker led the Mustangs to a share of the program’s first volleyball conference championship as SMU defeated Houston, 3-1, in American Athletic Conference action. The Mustangs are now a giant step closer to securing SMU’s first NCAA Tournament berth.
“It was the coolest thing ever,” said SMU head coach Lisa Seifert.
The elation Acker felt this past Sunday was a far cry from the disappointment she felt almost a year ago when SMU was left out of the NCAA Tournament. The Mustangs finished 2014 with a 26-6 overall record and 15-5 mark in AAC play, good for second place in the league standings.
SMU’s 2014 squad was ranked No. 41 in the final RPI, and as an at-large team, that put the Mustangs on the so-called NCAA Tournament bubble. Unfortunately, SMU didn’t get one of the 64 coveted bids.
“There’s no worse feeling than sitting there and not hearing your name be called,” Acker said.
Seifert, who is in her 20th season at the helm of the SMU program, felt the same frustration. After all, her school, located in the Dallas suburb of Highland Park near some of the richest club volleyball the country has to offer, was on the outside looking in again.
“I can’t tell you how many years we’ve been that bubble team staring at the TV and praying that our names came up,” Seifert said.
But the veteran head coach was extremely encouraged when the players declared they would not be left out for a second consecutive year.
“Last year, when we missed it, the girls came up to me that night and said ‘we’re not going to allow the committee to make this decision again,’” Seifert said. “It was probably the most profound statement any team could make. They’ve stuck with that and working toward that since that day.”
The team’s motto this year is a play on the school’s colors — “RED and BLU, SMU!” — and also holds a double meaning. BLU stands for “Business Left Unfinished.”
So far, the Mustangs living out their motto.
Heading into the weekend, SMU has won a program-record 15 consecutive matches. The Mustangs boast a 25-3 record and are 15-1 in the AAC, and — perhaps most significantly — are ranked No. 25 in the most recent RPI. They need just one win in their last four matches to clinch the outright league title and assure they get an invitation to this year’s NCAA party.
“We have quality kids in every position and the kids coming of the bench are actually contributing,” Seifert said. “I know that sounds silly, but sometimes you need to make substitutions and that substitute is not at the same level. Top to bottom, we have 13 kids who are not only on the same page, but are able to help from a technical perspective.”
Acker, who is from Poth, Texas, which is southeast of San Antonio and almost 300 miles from SMU, credits the players who came before the current team for the accomplishments the program is making this year. By the way, she is one of nine Texas players on the roster.
“It’s taken 20 years of women putting in their all and building this program,” Acker said. “That’s why we’re at where we are today.”
Acker’s contributions on and off the court have played an integral role in the program’s history-making season. She has served as the team’s co-captain for three years and ranks second in the nation with 12.37 assists per set.
“She’s an incredible leader,” Seifert said. “People follow her because she leads by example.”
Seifert says Acker is everything you could possibly want in the setter position. She’s got 1,237 assists this season, all but 101 by SMU. Acker’s also got 50 blocks, including five solo, and 295 digs, third on the team.
“She’s athletic and she’s a winner,” Seifert said. “She played multiple sports in high school and won at everything she did. She understands how to win and figures out the best way win. She’s competitive, passionate and has a great work ethic.”
Acker, who carries a 3.95 GPA, is also a star in the classroom and was a member of the 2014 Capital One Academic All-America Team. She is majoring in accounting with minors in biological sciences and chemistry — an interesting mix of academic subjects that is helping her prepare to one day have her own medical practice.
Acker earned acceptance to three medical schools — UT-San Antonio, UT-Houston and Texas A&M — and is still deciding where she will study. She is interested in pursuing pediatric oncology or orthopedic surgery, perhaps combining her love of athletics and medicine.
“It’s extremely exciting that my career is just starting and I’m going to use my mind to help people,” Acker said. “I’m reveling in the fact that I got in and I’m going to be a doctor.”
She knows her volleyball experience will serve her well later in life.
“Learning to be a teammate has been extremely beneficial and I think that will make me extremely valuable in society in the future,” Acker said.
And, the chemistry Acker and her teammates have is certainly serving the Mustangs well now.
“When you have elements like love and chemistry and the technical ability, those things will win,” Seifert said. “I have always believed that chemistry is the X-factor.”
The Mustangs will look to continue their stellar season with a road trip to the East Coast this weekend. SMU heads to Connecticut on Friday and then to Temple — the second place team in the AAC — on Sunday.
“We want to run the table,” Seifert said. “We want this by ourselves — we don’t want to share it. We’re talking about going as deep into the NCAA Tournament as we can. We’re not going to be satisfied with one round.”
(Photos courtesy of SMU)