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Credit: Alex Fisher , Alex Fisher

Facing the defending champions is always a challenge. Facing the defending champions along with the team that just upset them is a nightmare.

Such is the schedule for Penn volleyball, who travel Friday to Leede Arena in Hanover, N.H., to battle a hot Dartmouth side, followed by a Saturday trip the Malkin Athletic Center in Cambridge, Mass., to face the 2014 Ivy League victors, Harvard.

The Quakers (7-6, 1-0 Ivy) seem to be in good standing and could be ready for this challenge, coming off of a three-game winning streak, including a 3-1 triumph at Princeton last Friday and a shutout of NJIT on the road the following day. 

Despite its extensive non-conference schedule, coach Kerry Carr was not concerned about the team’s fatigue going into the weekend's strenuous doubleheader.

“I got a lot of different players experience in the preseason, so I feel like we're rested going into the Ivy League,” she said.

One of the standout players for Penn this past weekend was senior captain Alexis Genske, who recorded 14 kills and 14 digs against the Tigers and had another 12 kills with four out digs against the Highlanders.

“I think our whole team played really steady, which made it easy to be more aggressive on plays [I] might not normally take a risk on, so that definitely gave me the confidence to swing harder,” Genske said. 

“Also, passing and defensively, we were communicating really well, so I knew which balls my teammates were taking, and which ones were my responsibility.”

The Red and Blue will certainly need their strength when they take on the Big Green, who narrowly squeezed past the Crimson in a dramatic five-setter last Friday. This effort was led by junior and 2014 honorable mention All-Ivy Emily Astarita’s astounding 23 kills and captain Paige Caridi’s double-double. Dartmouth is currently 4-6 overall, touting its big win to kick off conference play.

Saturday’s match against the defending Ancient Eight champs might be even trickier, as Harvard boasts a veteran team full of firepower despite its 4-7 record. In their narrow loss to Dartmouth, the Crimson were carried by junior Corrine Bain, already a three-time Ivy League Player of the Week, who nearly recorded a triple-double with nine kills, 29 assists and 23 digs.

Last year, the Quakers beat Dartmouth and fell to Harvard. But with a new breakout performer, they hope to come away with two wins this time.

Now one of the starters and stalwarts of the Penn formation, senior Michellie McDonald-O’Brien is finally getting her chance to shine and has been putting on a quite a show at middle blocker. This past weekend, she led the team both days in hitting percentage, to the tune of .471 and .467 against the Tigers and Highlanders, respectively. 

Her prowess is a recent revelation for the Quakers, who are experimenting with a new attacking system.

“We’ve been working on quickening our offense, especially as middles, since Kendall Covington and I are both on the shorter end of all the other middles in the Ivy League,” McDonald-O’Brien said. “But it’s more of an endurance game, a speed game and a finesse game for us rather than a power game. It’s all about being patient and knowing when to kill a ball, and when to just keep it in.”

Penn was back on the courts Monday afternoon in preparation for the daunting task it faces in this weekend’s matches.

“We could have easily taken a day off with midterms and sickness,” Carr said. “But I think the attitude of this team is we can get better every day — and need to get better every day — to beat the teams across the net.”

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