For a defensive-minded team like Penn volleyball, the Quakers’ offensive fireworks this year has been uncharacteristic.
Over the past year and a half, the Red and Blue have moved to a more aggressive offensive playing style, but this doesn’t mean that Penn has abandoned its defensive identity.
“If you’re going to get blocked, you’re going to get blocked,” coach Kerry Carr said. “But I don’t care, as long as you’re swinging hard.”
Since the start of the 2012 season, the Red and Blue have led the Ivy League in both kills and errors. Like all major transitions, Penn’s change of mindset has not come without hardships.
Early in the season, the team suffered through games crippled by mistakes, including season-opening losses to LIU Brooklyn and UMKC on Sept. 6-7.
But recently, the Quakers’ offense has looked improved, particularly in Friday’s loss to Princeton. Though Penn fell, it posted a strong .340 hitting percentage.
The Red and Blue also played relatively mistake-free volleyball, committing just 16 errors in the five-set thriller.
“We’re going to have to go through growing pains and go through high errors if they’re going for the kill,” Carr said. “And we were able to put it together at the perfect time, at the start of our Ivy League season.”
The key to Penn’s transition has been a shift in team culture.
“This year we’ve gotten into the mentality where we’re taking more risks,” senior captain Kristen Etterbeek said. “Rather than just getting the ball into play, we give each other the freedom to miss a few and go for the kill.”
This high-risk, high-reward system has created many exciting games for the Red and Blue.
However, to reach the next level, the defense will have to step back up to its previous excellence.
After leading the nation in digs per set last year, Penn has fallen to sixth in the Ivy League through its first 12 matches of the season.
“We became a more offensive team, and that’s not usually us,” Carr said. “How we win ball games always has been our defense.”
One reason for this defensive regression has been the loss of injured senior libero Dani Shepherd, who returned to action in Monday’s four-set win over La Salle after missing seven games.
Shepherd has been the mainstay of the team’s defense for years, leading the nation in individual digs per set last season.
Sophomore Alexis Genske, typically an outside hitter, has done her best while filling in at libero for the two-time first team All-Ivy selection.
“Alexis gained strides that she normally wouldn’t have as an outside hitter by playing all defense the past couple weeks,” Carr said. “If we could just get everybody playing that same level of defense.”
With a renewed focus on team defense in recent practices, Carr and the rest of the coaching staff hope to rebuild some of the same success they had last year.
“We’ll get back to the basics and get back on track with that,” Carr said. “Hopefully without losing any of our offense.”
If the Quakers can return to their stellar defensive play while maintaining their current level of offense, they should be a force to be reckoned with.
“The attitude of people this year,” Etterbeek said, “Is that instead of playing not to lose, we’re playing to win.”
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