captains

California native Michellie McDonald-O'Brien is one of five senior team captains for Penn volleyball in 2015.

Photo: Alex Fisher

It’s hard for any foray into the topic of veteran leadership to hit on something new, but Penn volleyball coach Kerry Carr finds herself with a truly unprecedented embarrassment of riches.

Carr, the winningest and longest-tenured coach in program history, has rarely appointed more than two captains during her 18 years at the helm and never more than three. This season, five players — all seniors — have been given the title.

The reason? Carr said she didn’t have much of a choice.

“Before the season, I said to myself, ‘There’s no way we can have five captains,’” she said. “But then I went through each one of them and I realized [we] need all of them. You can’t not have one of them.”

What makes them so indispensable? Five very different people require more than one answer.

Alexis Genske, the Quakers’ star outside hitter, is the team’s lone returning captain, after having received the honor as a junior.

“Alexis is the stable leader on the floor,” Carr noted. “She has leadership experience, and she leads by her actions.”

“Alexis is one of those lead-by-example type of people,” standout freshman Courtney Quinn added. “She’s someone that’s consistent throughout the entire game, and if you need a point, you go to her.”

After she was named second team All-Ivy in 2013, Genske received honorable mention All-Ivy honors in 2014. Following a junior campaign in which she posted the fourth-highest kill total in the Ancient Eight, she could certainly let her game do all the talking.

But Genske is perhaps the most talkative of the bunch, and her “killer” mentality gives way to lightheartedness once the game ends.

“My favorite part of being a captain is that we get to gossip with the coaches now that we’re seniors,” Genske says. “Now that we’re —”

“Part of the staff,” Alex Caldwell interrupts, drawing laughter from her four co-captains. Caldwell, who also received All-Ivy honors in both 2013 and 2014, is a jack-of-all-trades.

Prolific as both a setter and hitter, the San Jose native finished second on the team in kills and assists; third in blocks, digs and hitting percentage and first in aces. She is versatile, both as an athlete and a captain.

“Alex is really good at knowing what people need in terms of feedback,” Quinn said. “She knows whether she needs to go to someone and say ‘Hey, you need to get this ball,’ or ‘It’s O.K., you’ll get the next one!’ She knows how people will respond, so that she can always pick them up.”

Of course, sometimes an athlete needs something other than a morale boost to get on track. What goes on inside a player’s head is crucial, but much of what happens on the court is decided right there: on the court.

So when somebody isn’t playing up to her usual standard, Jasmine DeSilva is the one who steps up.

“Jasmine is a tough, tough person,” Carr said. “She’s the one who’s going to get on you, she’s going to hold people accountable on the court.”

“Jazz is tough, and she’s not afraid to take risks,” Quinn added.

But don’t mistake DeSilva’s toughness for coldness.

“She’s one of those people you can go to talk to about anything,” Quinn said. “She’ll help you out no matter what, she’s really supportive.”

For DeSilva, the only captain who does not hail from California, constant intensity comes with the job, both as a skill and as a necessity.

“I feel more comfortable in being louder on the court, stepping out of that comfort zone,” DeSilva said. “Being a captain means that you have to be 100 percent on, not just physically, but mentally. The team deserves for you to be in the game mentally at all times.”

As a result, during a game, DeSilva might not be outwardly peppy. That role belongs to Michellie McDonald-O’Brien.

“Michellie is one of the funniest people I have ever met,” Quinn said. “She’s someone who brings all the energy to the court. If we’re down by 10 points, you wouldn’t know, because she’s still cheering her heart out. On the court, off the court, she’s always an awesome energy source for our team. It’s really fun to play next to her and it gets everyone else hyped up.”

DeSilva and McDonald-O’Brien have different dispositions, but both consider the uniqueness of the each captain a blessing.

“It makes it easier for all of us, the fact that we all serve different purposes,” DeSilva said.

“We balance each other out really well,” McDonald-O’Brien agreed.

If McDonald-O’Brien is the soul, setter Ronnie Bither is the brains.

“Ronnie is really smart on the court, she has a great volleyball I.Q.,” Quinn said. “She knows what’s open without even looking. She has a very good court awareness that’s really cool to watch.”

But Bither’s contributions aren’t just mental.

“She’s the quiet leader, but she’s also the one that’s the bulldog. She’ll run through a wall to win, so you want her leading a team on the floor,” Carr said.

Bither’s ability to “lead on the floor” is a trait she shares with her co-captains, something crucial to the team’s success. She may be in charge, but Carr knows that, at the end of the day, she can only do so much from the bench.

“As a player, you relate to and believe the people right next to you — your peers,” she said. “For the younger players, the peer aspect of the captains’ leadership is so much more powerful than anything I can say to them.”

With five student-athletes who share a title yet fulfill their responsibilities in such unique ways, it’s hard to put a finger on what their common purpose is.

But McDonald-O’Brien summed it up perfectly.

“The rest of the team is super young — there are no juniors. So we are trying to build a backbone, a framework for the future. What it means to be a captain is to show the younger players what it means to be a Penn volleyball player.”

But Carr also realizes that a junior-less 2015 team ensures that there won’t be any senior captains in 2016, let alone five of them.

“Next year’s captains should really be interesting, right?”

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