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Senior Meghan Schloat goes up for a block last year against Dartmouth. Penn goes for a program-record third straight Ivy League crown this year. [Eric Sussman/DP File Photo]

Three words characterize the Penn volleyball team's practice efforts so far this season: earth, wind and fire.

No, it's not the '70s R&B; group. Rather, it's an intense series of sprints, 100 push-ups and 300 sit-ups that were a part of the Quakers' conditioning workouts during their first week of practice.

Penn returned to the courts on Aug. 27 with two practice sessions a day for three hours each.

"It's been tough to come back and go into intense practices for six hours a day," Penn coach Kerry Major Carr said. "But for the most part, everyone came in really great shape this year."

Carr used the morning practices -- which ended on Tuesday as the classes began yesterday -- for conditioning drills and the afternoon practices for volleyball drills and scrimmages.

Penn senior outside hitter Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan, a former Daily Pennsylvanian columnist, was encouraged by the team's practice efforts during the past week.

"It's definitely been difficult, because it's been really hot in here and we've been going really hard for six hours a day," Kwak-Hefferan said. "But I think we're really improving a lot and we're playing really hard in our scrimmages, which is really heartening to see."

Kwak-Hefferan, along with right-side hitter Lauren Carter, middle hitter Heather Janssen and setter Meghan Schloat, lead a team with high expectations for the 2003 season.

Penn's goals this season include winning its third-straight Ivy League Championship and moving past the first round of the NCAA playoffs -- neither of which have been accomplished in program history.

These goals have kept the Quakers excited about the upcoming season after a dominating 13-1 tear through the Ivies in 2002.

"I don't feel like there's any less excitement among the girls this year than the past two years," Carr said. "Not with these girls -- they're very competitive and pumped up to go for their third-straight" Ivy title.

Before their title defense begins, however, the Quakers will play 11 non-conference games. Penn opens its season on Sept. 12 at the Nike Invitational in Stockton, Calif.

"I'm excited to go out to the Northern California area because so many of the girls are from there, so they're going to feel right at home," said Schloat, a native of Bedford, N.Y. "And we East Coast girls get a little vacation."

While there, the Quakers will face Pacific, Radford and West Coast Conference powerhouse Pepperdine, currently ranked No. 8 in the nation.

Each of these teams have already played in at least one match or tournament and have been practicing twice a day since Aug. 10.

"The competition is going to be stiff, and they also had a month more of practice time than we had, so my expectations can't be too high," Schloat said. "I just want us to have fun and give them a good game."

To prepare for next weekend's tournament, the Quakers will be holding a mini-scrimmage in the Palestra on Saturday night.

"We're going to treat it just like a real match, with coaches on each side, to try and get the pregame jitters out," Carr said.

The Quakers are expecting the majority of the lineup to return from minor injuries or illness by this weekend as well.

"They all came back [to school] with different variations of sickness," Carr said. "So some people are out because they're not feeling well, and some people have little muscle strains, but they're on their way back."

Carr hopes Penn can come all the way back to the heights it has achieved the past two seasons.

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