Penn volleyball knows the sting of a massive upset.
Fortunately for the Red and Blue, they won’t have to wait too long for a chance to dish one out of their own.
Only six days after a stunning upset at the hands of Columbia — the 279th-ranked team in Division I RPI, worst among Ivy League teams — the Quakers (9-8, 3-2 Ivy) will travel to Yale to take on the four-time defending conference champions on Friday night, before finishing their doubleheader at Brown on Saturday.
“We struggled with our blocking and our defense, and those are usually points that we’ve been pretty solid with,” coach Kerry Carr said about the surprising 3-1 loss to the Lions, in which the Red and Blue hit only .145. “It served as a wake-up call.”
While Penn is entering this weekend on a negative note, the Bulldogs (8-6, 3-2) have had their own recent troubles. Heading into last weekend undefeated in conference play, Yale dropped matches against Dartmouth and Harvard, losing both ends of an Ivy doubleheader for the first time since 2010.
As a result, Yale has fallen to 181st in the RPI, only 11 spots ahead of the Quakers, giving Penn players and coaches optimism that they can finally end an eight-match, four-year losing skid to the Elis.
“We know that if we play our best, we can beat anybody in this league,” Carr said. “They’re vulnerable, but so are we, and it’s the team that recovers best from defeat that’ll win.”
Despite Yale’s recent struggles, the talent cupboard is by no means bare for the Bulldogs, as they feature 6-foot-2 senior setter Kelly Johnson, the only three-time first team All-Ivy selection still playing collegiately. Overall, eight of Yale’s top-ten scorers measure at least six feet compared to only three for the Red and Blue.
But the Quakers feel that technique and quickness can help diminish the impact of this size disparity.
“One thing that’s really great about our offense is that we have smaller players; one thing we have over [taller players] is being court-smart,” said sophomore libero Michelle Pereira, who ranks sixth in the Ancient Eight with 3.79 digs per set. “We have people who can put the ball in a smart place.”
While countering Yale’s bigs will certainly be a focus for the Red and Blue, Friday will also feature a showdown of elite setters. 5-foot-8 Penn senior Ronnie Bither leads the conference with 9.23 assists per set, while 5-foot-9 Yale sophomore and reigning Ivy Rookie of the Year Kelsey Crawford ranks third at 8.57.
“I try not to think about those things during the match,” Bither said. “We’ve been working on some new offenses that’ll definitely challenge the other side, so I’m just playing for the team.”
Regardless of Friday’s result, Penn must be careful to avoid a letdown against the Bears (8-8, 2-3), who split the season series with the Quakers in 2014. Despite their lowly 221st RPI rank, Brown features the Ivy digs leader in sophomore libero Melissa Cairo and two-time 2015 Ivy League Rookie of the Week Sabrina Stillwell.
The Red and Blue have lost the second match of both of their Ivy doubleheaders in 2015, forcing the team to buckle down mentally in order to avoid continuing that streak.
“We have felt that letdown the last two weekends, so if we haven’t figured out our lesson by now, I don’t know when we’re going to learn it,” Carr said. “We’re preparing equally for both teams, and I think the girls have seen that we have to play our best to win.”
Although Penn remains only a game back of the conference leaders, no Ivy champion has finished with more than two league losses since 2004. Thus, after last weekend’s shocking result, the margin of error is slim for the Quakers.
“There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that we can and will win Ivies,” Pereira said. “That loss to Columbia makes the road a lot tougher, but if we win everything from here on out, the title will be ours.”
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