When the Penn volleyball team arrives in California this weekend, it won’t feel like the visiting team.
Though traveling to the West Coast may seem like an odd homecoming, for several players the Golden State is where their volleyball careers began. Ten of the 24 Quakers hail from California.
Penn (2-1) heads to Berkeley this weekend for the Molten Classic, where they will face the University of California (2-3), Northern Arizona (6-0) and UC Riverside (3-3) in some of its toughest matchups of the season.
Despite the challenge on the court, this won’t be a typical road trip.
“It’s not as unfamiliar as it seems, even though they’re not in our conference,” coach Kerry Carr said. “People would think we’re out of our region, but it’s also a lot of people on our team’s home … and I don’t think they get that sense of playing on the road. I think we’ll have a lot more fans than they will.”
This homecoming will be especially important to the freshmen. Four of the five newcomers hail from the Golden State, three of whom grew up in the Bay Area. After having just one weekend of college-level play under their belts, this weekend it may be the freshmen who will have the edge over the other players at the tournament.
Though the Quakers traveled to California in 2010, they have never played against Cal, Northern Arizona and UC Riverside. However, many of the freshmen have recently played with or against some of the players they will meet this weekend.
“Our players have seen their players across the net,” Carr said. “They saw them six months ago at the Junior Olympics and were playing with them or against them, so I think it’s somewhat comfortable to go out there.”
Reigning Ivy League Rookie of the Week Ronnie Bither and fellow freshman Alex Caldwell both played on the same club team as Cal’s middle blocker Katarina Milosavljevic.
“It’s going to be very different,” Caldwell said. “I’ve played with her since I was 15, so we’re really good friends.”
Bither has some experience seeing Milosavljevic across the net. Though they were teammates at the club level, they were rivals in high school.
Bither, who played in her first collegiate games last weekend, served as the setter for the Quakers in last weekend’s Big 5 tournament. She recorded 113 assists — at a rate of 10 per set — and recorded double-digit digs in every match.
“For a freshman to go out and not have a little bit of a freak-out moment at the college level is really a testament to how good they are, and that surprised me,” Carr said. “I expected to have growing pains with that, and we didn’t really.”
“I’m so excited to go home,” Bither said. “It will be good to see my family again and play against some girls I know from home and just be in California. I’m really excited to play.”
Despite the comforting environment, the strong offense of the West Coast teams will be a difficult challenge. Northern Arizona has yet to lose a game this season, while the Bears’ aggressive offense garnered them a ranking as high as No. 17 in this season’s coaches poll.
“No matter how good or aggressive a team is, or [how] big, they all have their Achilles’ heel,” Carr said. “The teams we are playing this weekend are better than us in their rankings, but if we can stick to a game plan and not make unforced errors on our side of the net, while being aggressive ourselves, then we stand a shot to upset them.”