Two points. Just two more points. That is what the Penn volleyball team has been preaching all week.
After two five-set losses last weekend to Princeton and Towson, the Quakers (5-7, 0-1 Ivy) will look to rebound in their first full weekend of Ivy League play. Penn did not have a midweek game this week, which gave the team extra time to focus on what it can do to turn those close losses into wins.
“We need to get an extra two points somewhere, and I think we found it,” coach Kerry Carr said. “If we play at a high level and then add these two points to it, we can win the ball game this time.”
Penn travels to play Dartmouth (2-9, 1-0) on Friday and Harvard (3-9, 0-1) on Saturday. While both opponents are also off to slow starts, Carr has no plans of underestimating the team’s Ivy foes and is emphasizing the need to stay mentally strong.
“All of us, it doesn’t matter what we do out of season, it matters what we do against each other,” Carr said of the Ancient Eight squads. “[Dartmouth and Harvard] went five sets with each other, which shows it’s going to be just another battle. Just keep being patient and outplaying them, outwitting them and outlasting them.
“We play survivor all the time because it really is all about that mental battle.”
The Quakers will rely on their strong and active defense, led by junior libero Dani Shepherd. Shepherd was first-team All-Ivy last season and currently leads the nation in digs per set. Her ability to anticipate where the other team’s hitters are going allows the Quakers’ defense to be much more versatile.
“We show her where the hitters hit and she reads them,” Carr said. “If she reads them one way, then our outside back can read the other way. So we don’t have to only play this way or that way.”
The Red and Blue’s defense is further strengthened by junior Kristen Etterbeek and sophomore Emma White, who have quietly become defensive forces.
“The thing that you don’t notice, because Dani overshadows them, is that Emma and Kristen are also two of the top dig leaders in the league,” Carr said. “They are as good at reading as Dani is, and then the three of them together work really well.”
Shepherd explained how the defense has gelled as the season has progressed.
“We have a really good defense that is getting used to each other and moving a lot,” she said. “That is so hard for an offense to go against because they don’t know where our defense is going to be.”
Along with their defense, the Quakers also need big contributions from freshman duo Alex Caldwell and Ronnie Bither. Caldwell was named last week’s Ivy League Rookie of the Week, while Bither won the same award in consecutive weeks earlier in the season.
“I’ve been really impressed as their teammate,” Shepherd said. “I think our whole team has been really proud with how confident and composed they have been when they come on to the court.
“You watch them play and you don’t know that they are freshmen, and I think that’s a huge accomplishment.”
If the Quakers play to their defensive strengths and make a couple more big plays, those two extra points are theirs for the taking.