In the week leading up to Penn’s match with Princeton, volleyball coach Kerry Carr changed her team’s practice philosophy, shifting focus from drills to in-game situations.
The practices worked.
For the first time in Ivy play, the women’s volleyball team came from behind to steal a victory, dropping the first two sets before sweeping the final three in Friday’s 3-2 decision over the Tigers.
“It was completely different than the first time we played them,” Carr said. “It was a different mentality out there, and I think the girls know the way they practice is going to play out in games, so it was a great success all around.”
Penn (10-9, 5-3 Ivy) had previously lost to Princeton (9-9, 6-2) in five sets on Sept. 22.
The Quakers looked well on their way to doing it again after losing the opening two sets, 25-18 and 27-25.
“Our offense was very good but Princeton’s was better,” Carr said. “We just weren’t following our defensive game plan too well … I also think our freshmen were worried about the crowd — Princeton was pretty loud there, in our face and talking to us.”
The Tigers were just two points away from a sweep before the Quakers ran off seven straight to take the third set, 25-23.
It was high-pressure situations like this that Carr and her coaching staff prepared her team for all through practice last week.
“I feel like the girls just thought we were never going to lose,” Carr said. “We felt everything was in our control, we were correcting our defensive mistakes and we were going to be able to pull it out.
“That’s where practice came in because we played exactly how we practiced.”
Penn carried its momentum into the fourth set, taking it easily, 25-17. The winner-takes-all fifth set was a nailbiter at 15-13.
“It was rough, but we pulled it out,” Carr said. “We knew we’d have to go five [sets], and the girls fought for every single point. In game five they just took it to a whole other level.”
Junior Kristen Etterbeek led the Penn offensive attack with 19 kills and 10 digs, while the all-around presence of sophomore Emma White, who finished with 16 kills and 19 digs, steadied the Quakers’ ship.
“In practice [Etterbeek and White] decided to take some ownership over mental toughness, and when games are on the line, and I think they showed that during the match as well, by playing super aggressive,” Carr said. “That allows everyone to get into the flow a little better.”
While Etterbeek and White finished with superb stat lines, the leadership and poise of junior captain Susan Stuecheli, can’t be overlooked.
“The one person that really showed that tenacity and determination and perseverance at key points was Susan Stuecheli,” Carr said. “She came up with some huge blocks against their number-one hitter and put away some balls at key points. She was very loud and her voice was directing our game. Her captainship came out big time this weekend.”
Freshman Alex Caldwell, whose 17 assists and 12 digs gave her yet another double-double, and Ronnie Bither, who collected 37 assists, had solid nights as well. Fellow rookie Michellie McDonald-O’Brien finished with a career-high seven kills and a hitting percentage of .312, a timely showing that proved invaluable on Friday night.
“[McDonald-O’Brien has] been playing really well in practice and giving us a lot of positive energy, so it was good to see her come out swinging,” Carr said. “That’s the attitude we need from our players, and she did that.”
Penn will be home for its next four matches, hosting Harvard on Friday and Dartmouth on Saturday at the Palestra.