The Ivy League volleyball championship trophy is already prominently displayed in the Palestra. By all rational standards, the Penn volleyball team should be resting, preparing for its first NCAA tournament berth since 2003. And yet today’s game is “the most important game of the whole season,” according to coach Kerry Carr.
That’s because the Quakers (21-5, 12-1 Ivy) will resume their archrivalry against Princeton (11-13, 9-4) at 7 p.m.
“We want to finish the season with a big bang, against that team that’s always just been jabbing us,” senior Ashley Hawkins said.
For Hawkins and the rest of the senior class, it will be their last time playing on the Palestra floor, their last chance to hear the home crowd rattle the rafters of the historic arena.
“It’s a special gym [with] a lot history,” senior Elizabeth Semmens reminisced.
It’s particularly meaningful for the seniors “to have our last game in the Palestra be [against] the team that we always struggled with all of these previous years,” Hawkins added.
The Red and Blue hadn’t fared well in the rivalry recently until this season, when they bucked a seven-game losing streak Oct. 3 in Princeton, N.J., with a decisive sweep.
“It’s important for us to continue our hard work and our focus, especially leading up to the NCAAs,” Semmens cautioned.
Although the team has no collective NCAA tournament experience, Carr dismissed a trap game scenario with an opponent like Princeton today and the NCAA regionals over three weeks away.
“There’s no loss of focus in practice this week,” Carr said. “We’ve had some of the best practices we’ve ever had.”
Princeton’s on a roll after a four-game Ivy win streak. The Tigers are coming off a 3-1 win against Harvard, which ended the Quakers’ hopes of going undefeated in the Ancient Eight with a 3-2 win Friday at the Palestra.
Carr stopped short of a formal prediction but “I will predict that two teams will bring their very best game,” she said. “Every point will be a long, dragged out rally. And the team that composes themselves through that, which I believe our team can, will win.”
Semmens, in particular, will be counted on to continue her excellent season tonight, which Carr noted is worthy of Ivy Player of the Year honors.
“Her senior year she exploded with power and confidence and being a captain of the team,” Carr said. “She’s a big part of why we won the title this year.”
Because it’s Senior Night, all five seniors will see substantial playing time, though the class has already made significant contributions.
“Their journeys and how they overcome whatever obstacles that came in front of them is why and how we won the title this year,” Carr said. “It’s on the backs of them. They never gave up. And any of them could have quit.”
Hawkins went from walk-on to stud, Mary Russell went from a backup setter to a starting defensive specialist, and Natalie Drucker came back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
The journey isn’t lost on the seniors, who all live together in an off-campus house.
“I just feel like we work so hard,” Hawkins exclaimed, emotionally drained after her last regular season practice. “We deserve it.”
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