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Despite struggling with its blocking all season, the 2008 Penn volleyball team finished third in the Ivy League.

With a new season kicking off this weekend as the Quakers host Temple, La Salle and Villanova in the Big 5 Tournament, coach Kerry Carr knows that improved blocking, especially by the middle hitters, will be the key to success in 2009.

"Our right-sides and outsides have gotten better, and when the middles are there and they get to the block and they close it, no one gets through that block," Carr said. "I think that [the middle hitters] will determine how much better we get in the blocking."

The Penn middles will feel the loss of last year's co-captain Kathryn Turner, who graduated with the second most block assists in program history. Her void will be filled by a crop of six middle hitters led by senior Ashley Hawkins.

The middle blocking will also be helped by the return of senior Natalie Drucker, who led the Quakers with 86 blocks in 2006 and 99 blocks in 2007 but missed the entire 2008 season with a knee injury.

"To have her back 100 percent healthy this season and to go through the grueling preseason with no hints of her injury is really special for us," Carr said.

The 12th-year coach cannot yet tell whether Drucker will be as effective on the block as she was before her injury, but praised the leadership the senior will bring back to the team.

"It's great to have her voice out there and to have her positive energy," Carr said.

Senior Brit Danneman and sophomore Corinne Rich round out the experienced middles, but Carr also expects a big contribution from 6-foot-1 freshman Amanda Pacheco.

Pacheco was one of the biggest prizes of a stellar eight-man recruiting class. The other top recruit in the class is Lauren Martin, a 6-foot right side hitter from Bedford, Texas, whom Carr called "one of the top recruits in the country."

And she wasn't exaggerating. An American Volleyball Coaches Association second team All-American in high school, Martin was the product of a bold new recruiting strategy.

"We went after top kids that other Ivy schools weren't going after because they didn't think they could get them … and we got them," Carr said.

The freshmen will improve an offense that Carr considers the strength of her club. The attack will be led by junior outside hitter Julia Swanson, who earned 2008 first team All-Ivy honors after leading the Ivy League with 359 kills.

Swanson will get some help from the team's senior co-captains, outside hitter Elizabeth Semmens and right-side striker Anne Magnuson.

Carr's confidence in her outside and right-side hitters means the middle hitters must focus on their blocking to see playing time.

"I would say out of our middle hitters I think their blocking skills will determine over their offensive skills who plays and how our team progresses," Carr said.

And when they struggle, the blockers can rely on solid support from junior libero Madison Wojciechowski, who has broken Penn's single-season record for digs in each of her first two years.

She also provides plenty of confidence for the Quakers. She recently said to Carr, "You know we're going to win the Ivy Championship, right? You know we are."

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