Penn volleyball coach Kerry Carr has been coaching the Red and Blue for longer than some of her current players have been alive. Few things have been a part of the program longer than she has. But “Dirtyball” is an exception.
What IS Dirtyball?
“It’s basically like a very complex — I would call it an Ivy League version of dodgeball,” Carr said.
In Dirtyball, the team splits into two groups and each takes one side of the net. People must throw the ball, under the net, and hit opposing players to get them “out.” Once a player is out, they go to the baseline, and their teammates must throw smaller balls across the court for them to catch in order to be back “in.” If you get the entire opposing team out, your team wins.
Sounds an awful lot like dodgeball, right? But the balls being thrown under a net isn’t the only twist. The “dirtyball,” a designated ball that looks different from the volleyballs-turned-dodgeballs, can be thrown over the net by a player, and for each time it bounces on the opposing side, the throwing team gets one point. Score fifteen points, and your team wins.
“I was shocked when we first did it by how many depths of levels there were to win the game and strategies involved,” Carr recalled. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Carr uses the game as a start-of-practice warmup. The team usually begins with a cardio activity and a dynamic activity, the latter of which includes dirtyball and other grade-school improvisations such as tag-based games.
“I found out that people actually sprint harder when they don’t realize they’re doing sprints,” Carr laughed as she explained the dynamic exercises.
Of course, while the point of the game is to help the players loosen up, the coach doesn’t want her team to get TOO into the game.
“I think I’ve had more injuries in these games than in actual volleyball, because the girls will do all sorts of different things [to win].”
Junior outside hitter Hayley Molnar, whom Carr referred to as the most competitive Dirtyball player on the squad, admits to being open-minded when it comes to tactics for pursuing the victory.
“Sometimes we’re stealing or [hoarding] volleyballs, which, well, we don’t know if we’re really allowed to do that,” Molnar said. “That’s usually when you’re losing, you get really competitive.”
“When your team loses, you’re like, ‘that can’t happen again,’” junior libero Emmy Friedler said.
“So maybe I’m more on the losing side,” Molnar laughed, remembering Carr’s remark about her competitiveness.
Sophomore outside hitter Courtney Quinn views the game as an added chance to bond with the entire team.
“In practice we usually start off in position groups, so it’s fun to do stuff with everyone else beforehand,” she said.
But, as the players noted, new position groups are often formed when the game begins.
“Our liberos are all really good at getting people out because they’re pretty low to the ground, so they can just throw at people,” junior captain Sydney Morton said. “And then tall people like our outside hitters and middles are good with the dirtyball because they just jump over and throw it over the net. So we kind of have positions for people within the game.”
The origins of the game are unclear, even to Carr. But her alumni, both recent and long-since-departed, remember the game fondly.
“It was definitely the team’s favorite thing to do my freshman year,” 2016 graduate and former captain Alexis Genske said.
“It was a special treat, when Kerry was in a good mood,” laughed 2004 graduate and former Ivy League Player of the Year Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan.
One mystery the Daily Pennsylvanian did manage to solve was the origin of the game’s name.
“We only had white volleyballs back 20 years ago, there were no color-volleyballs,” Carr recalled. “We’d put out all the pristine, nice white volleyballs out as the dodgeballs. And we would find the dirtiest ball in the whole bin, and that would be the dirtyball.”