She’s the Quakers’ not-so-secret weapon.
Looking at the statistics, it is clear that Penn volleyball’s Dani Shepherd dominates the court. The junior sits atop the Division I standings in digs per set and has held the title for almost three weeks.
However, what Shepherd does on the court that isn’t noted in the record books may be even more impressive.
This season, Shepherd has developed into a true leader.
“I can put in a defense, but if she knows the hitter is not hitting where she’s at, she moves and reads where it is,” coach Kerry Carr said. “I don’t know too many people that can be that advanced as to see who’s up there and say, ‘Alright let’s change this defense.’ I give her a lot of leeway.”
Shepherd’s ability to set up the defense to match the hitter is why Penn leads the nations in digs per set, averaging nearly two more digs than the next-closest D-I opponent.
“When she first came in she was obviously a really great player but as it’s gone on she’s developed leadership on the back of the court,” fellow junior Susan Stuecheli said. “She’s really learned how to run it smoothly and keep everyone in the right mindset.”
Her leadership skills show in her teammates’ statistics as well.
“She makes everyone around her better,” Carr said. “Which results in the fact that Emma [White] and Kristen [Etterbeek] are also on the top 10 dig leaders with her in the [Ivy] League.”
“[She communicates] her knowledge of the game with other people that might not have the same sport sense as she does,” Etterbeek said.
Her progression as a player stems from her ability to learn her body better.
During her freshman year, Carr and Shepherd worked to determine which eye she sees out of better to perfect her defensive abilities.
“I think I’ve become more of a strategic player since I’ve come to Penn,” Shepherd said. “We really break down plays and … we cater to which side of the body we want to target the ball.”
When Shepherd became the sole libero of the team this season, she had big shoes to fill.
As a freshman, she played backup to Madison Wojciechowski, who set the school and Ivy League record for career assists and school record for digs in a match — the latter of which Shepherd has now broken twice.
“As a freshman you couldn’t get her to talk or to tell people where to pass,” Carr said. “She was behind another libero, so I don’t think she felt comfortable telling her what to do.”
“It’s really a mind set,” Etterbeek said. “She knows that our team is relying on her.”
And the cycle could continue.
Freshman Alexis Genske is in a similar position as Shepherd was her freshman year.
“[Shepherd’s] … made sure that [Genske] knows how to play the defense and how to pass next to her when she does come out,” Carr said. “I think she’s kind of taken the role of big sister with her.”
“I think that the upperclassmen are all given the responsibility of showing the underclassmen the ropes,” Shepherd said.
Though the Quakers’ biggest weapon may be obvious to the rest of the League, her leadership qualities and ability to read those across the net are inherent qualities other teams can’t anticipate.
“The key for us winning the championships is our mentality on the court,” Shepherd said. “We have the talent and we have the work ethic, but it’s a matter of how we’re going to use it.”