Caroline Furrer burst onto the scene for Penn volleyball in 2016, racking up a whopping 226 kills to finish as the second-highest scorer on the team in her first collegiate season. But with just four games left in the 2017 season, Furrer has tallied just five kills in her sophomore campaign.
And yet, if you ask anyone on the team, they'll tell you "Red" is playing better than ever.
Until this season, Furrer had spent her entire Penn career — and her entire life — as an outside hitter, one of the players whose job it is to go up in the air, spike the ball with authority and finish off as many points as possible with devastating attacks.
Now, everything has changed for the redheaded Texan: her position, her role, her stats, her spot on the court and even the color of her jersey.
Since the preseason, Furrer has been slotting in as the "libero," a defensive specialist position designated by a unique uniform. The libero stays in the back, and can sub in and out of the game with more freedom than any other player. A libero often finds herself diving on the floor to keep a ball in play and give the offense a chance to make something happen. Whereas Furrer had been used to a role in which her job was to finish points, she now keeps them alive, anchoring the Penn defense and giving her teammates a chance to rack up kills.
Furrer's switch to the libero role was necessitated in part by the emergence of freshman Parker Jones as a stellar outside hitter. With several terrific options at the net and only so many spots on the floor, new coach Katie Schumacher-Cawley decided to move Furrer to the back line in order to keep her athleticism in the lineup.
"We knew [Caroline] had to be on the floor, and it just happened to [work best in] the role of the libero," the coach said. "She's earned it, and she's getting better and better every match."
While the special jersey puts the libero on a visual pedestal compared to an outside hitter, the role is a far less glamorous one when it comes to the stat sheet. But Furrer didn't think twice when approached about the possibility of switching from high-flying spikes to knee-scraping "digs."
"Caroline said, 'Hey, whatever you need me to do,'" Schumacher-Cawley recalled. "That's the type of player she is. [She said,] 'Wherever you need me to be on the floor, I'll be there and I'll do whatever it is we need.' That's what I think makes her so special."
"I'm all for doing whatever the team needs," Furrer echoed. "[So] I was just like, 'Let's do this, this is so cool!'"
While moving one of your highest scorers to defense might seem like an odd move, Furrer was particularly well-suited for the switch.
"A libero, basically all they do is play defense and serve-receive," senior captain Sydney Morton said. "Caroline was already really good at that anyway, so transitioning to being a libero was easier for her.
"She also has the personality for a libero," Morton continued. "You have to be tough, you have to go for every ball, and not be afraid to offend people, to tell people to get their 'beep' together. Caroline does that, and she does a really good job of it."
After nearly leading the Quakers in kills last season, Furrer now leads the squad by a healthy margin in digs (points kept alive with a defensive save that would have otherwise been a kill for the other team). More impressively, her 252 digs are good for sixth in the entire Ivy League. But Furrer has still found a way to win points on the offensive side; her 26 service aces are by far the most from a Penn player this season, and fourth-most in the league overall.
"In the beginning, I was like, 'I can't score anymore!'" Furrer laughed. "But really, my mindset is about providing opportunities for other players, and so I love when I get to set my teammates up for success. That's what makes the game so fun for me."
"She's a competitor," Schumacher-Cawley said. "She works hard in practice and she wants to get better. I think her work ethic and her will to be great in that position--- it sets her apart."
Nobody on the team gets more excited than Furrer when the Quakers win a point, whether through their own excellence or the opponent's lack thereof. It should be no surprise, then, that Furrer is willing to go anywhere on the floor — often literally — to help the team celebrate as many points and as many wins as they possibly can.