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Sophomore libero Dani Shepherd is tops in the Ivy League and sixth in the nation in digs per set.

Photo: Ellen Frierson / The Daily Pennsylvanian

Casual volleyball fans and players tend to focus on the high-flying jumpers and fast-paced kills, but on coach Kerry Carr’s team, the focus has always been singular: defense.

“Defense is the building block,” junior right-side hitter Lauren Martin said. “Hitting is the last thing we have to worry about. We have to focus on the defense and the passing first.”

In her 14 years at Penn (4-7, 0-1), Carr has discovered a defensive formula that produces victories — with nine 15-win seasons and five Ivy League titles to show for it.

“If you don’t let a ball drop on your side of the court, you’re going to win,” Carr said. “It’s our strength, and we’re going to play up our strengths.”

Volleyball requires all of the players on the court to play both offense and defense. Every team has the option of designating a defensive specialist, or libero, who can remain on the court on all rotations.

During the last four years, the Quakers had a great libero in 2011 graduate Madison Wojciechowski. With the daunting task of replacing the Ivy assists record holder, Penn turned to sophomore Dani Shepherd.

“She’s that little bug in your ear that’s right behind you telling you what’s open and yelling at you to get the ball over,” Martin said of Shepherd. “When our setters get the ball hit to them, it’s up to Dani to run the offense at that point, so she’s a big part of our team.”

Shepherd saw limited time on the court last year, playing mostly behind Wojciechowski, her former high-school teammate. However, the now full-time libero has made the most of this opportunity to step up.

The Los Angeles native currently ranks sixth in the nation and first in the Ivies in digs per set at 5.9. On top of that, she set a school record for digs in a game, notching 41 against Alabama earlier this month, breaking Wojciechowski’s old record of 40 set in 2008.

“It’s been really fun to play more this season and breaking the record was really cool,” Shepherd said. “But going into every game, I’m just trying to get the ball up so we can get a good set and a good kill. I think that if we have good defense, then our offense is going to perform just as well.”

The Quakers will need to be sharp on both sides this weekend when they take on two strong teams in Dartmouth and Harvard.

Penn has won the last nine matches against the Big Green and has lost only once in the last 12 contests against the Crimson.

The Big Green (9-3, 1-0) are riding a five-game winning streak behind the stellar offensive play of Madeline Baird and Annie Villanueva, each of whom has already won an Ivy League Player of the Week Award this season. The team has also had great success in keeping the ball alive, ranking eighth in the nation in digs.

Meanwhile, the Crimson (7-4, 0-1) come in with a stable group of seven players who have provided solid all-around play. Junior Taylor Docter has provided the offensive punch while senior libero Christine Wu trails only Shepherd in Ivy digs per set.

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