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Junior setter Alex Caldwell will play a cruical role in Penn’s upset hopes against Harvard and Dartmouth this weekend.

Photo: Freda Zhao

Volleyball is a team sport, but this weekend, the Quakers will need to deal with a pair of standout individuals.

As Penn (5-11, 2-3 Ivy) enters a crucial slate of games, the Red and Blue face some of the most powerful players in the Ivy League: Dartmouth libero Julia Lau and the bane of the Ancient Eight, Harvard setter Corinne Bain .

“Both [teams] are very physical at the net,” coach Kerry Carr said. “Harvard is balanced across the front row ... [and] Dartmouth has one of the better defenses. We have our hands full both sides of the coin this weekend.”

Starting this weekend in Hanover, Penn faces Dartmouth’s stout defense. The fifth-best Ivy team based on RPI rankings, the Big Green (12-4, 3-2) have found success in league play, sweeping Harvard in their Ivy opener. Led offensively by outside hitter Paige Caridi and right side Emily Astarita , Dartmouth’s excellent blocking unit will likely challenge Penn’s squad.

However, the Big Green’s 5-foot-3 sophomore libero poses the biggest threat to the Quakers. Lau is the only Dartmouth player to have played in every set this season, and she ranks sixth in digs and top-20 in assists in Ivy League play.

“We know the ball’s coming back,” Carr said. “Dartmouth is very well-coached defensively. We have to be patient, and we have to kill the ball three or four times to get one kill.”

The Quakers face even stiffer competition as their road trip ends in Cambridge. Harvard (10-6, 3-2) is rated as the second-best Ivy in RPI behind only Yale, which the Crimson defeated.

The team’s strength lies in its front line, headlined by sophomore powerhouse Bain. Though officially listed as a setter, the reigning Ivy Rookie of the Year doubles as a hitter and leads Harvard in kills, assists and digs in league play. Seemingly on her way to her second straight All-Ivy recognition, Bain could be the reckoning of Penn’s vaunted defense.

“[Bain] is still a young player,” Carr said. “She’s learned a lot. We’ve studied her tapes. We know where she hits, so it’s designing a defense around her.”

While adjusting to these stars will be Penn’s biggest challenge, the team can win despite dominating performances from a single player. In their victory against Brown, the Red and Blue allowed 33 kills to Maddie Lord but held the rest of the Bears to only 8.4 kills per set.

“Our ‘x-factor’ is focusing on us,” junior setter Alex Caldwell said. “We had a homework assignment this weekend to watch our film and to see where we got our most kills and to keep improving on that.”

Rather than focus on the effort to capture the team’s first Ivy title since 2010, Carr has emphasized the importance of looking only as far as the upcoming games.

“I think every week in practice we get in the gym, get after it and continue to improve,” Caldwell said. “A big thing for us is to be consistent out there. We really focus on the game plan for each team coming up.”

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