In college athletics, every new season brings plenty of new faces and, more painfully, a host of goodbyes. But this was not the case last season for one Penn team, a rarity which will make the end of this season all the more bittersweet.
The Penn volleyball class of 2017 was a complete non-factor on and off the court. This is not an attack on their playing ability or leadership qualities, but merely a consequence of the fact that they did not exist. After the star-studded class of 2016 with its five captains departed following the 2015 campaign, last year's team had zero seniors, relying on an extremely young squad for both production and leadership.
While the Quakers struggled on the court last year, the constant refrain around the program was that it was a "two-year team," and that the 2017 season would be an opportunity to build the learning experience of 2016. This year, the team is once again top-heavy in terms of age, with six seniors leading the way.
Kendall Covington, Sydney Morton, Aimee Stephenson, Michelle Pereira, Emmy Friedler and Hayley Molnar all enter their final season with a full year's experience of being the elder stateswomen of the team. For all intents and purposes, they've been the old kids on the block since before they were even upperclassmen. Gathering before practice one afternoon, they reflect on their journey:
"Sophomore spring [after the seniors played their final game in the fall of 2015] we all had to step up and be leaders," says Morton, one of three captains along with Covington and junior Taylor Cooper.
"Having been the oldest on the team for two years now, I feel like we seem, really, REALLY old," Friedler says. "And we're kind of used to that role, so it doesn't seem like a shift for us at all."
"It's more of a habit now," Stephenson (or "Steve," as she is known) says. "I don't really remember not having been a leader on this team."
But if you push them hard enough, the senior six can remember their earliest days with the Red and Blue — and even further back than that.
"We remember our official visit," Morton says, before her teammates reveal that for the setter from Atlanta, the road almost ended there. The seniors recall how Morton was sick (or "deathly ill," as Molnar puts it) during that first trip to Penn.
"We thought she was really quiet, but she was actually dying the whole time," Pereira (or "Perry") says.
The team laughs as they recall Morton wearing sweats in a seemingly 100-degree ice rink. Friedler remembers thinking, "We don't know her, but she does NOT seem OK," before the players decided to take their future captain to the hospital.
But things have changed. These six know each other as well as anybody now, and they've each grown into their own roles on and off the court. As Pereira explains, "Sydney's the mom" ("Yeah, you're very mom-like," confirms Molnar, who is "the fun one," but also "very competitive").
Pereira continues dishing out roles, calling Stephenson the "team therapist." The senior from San Diego agrees, saying, "people come to me with a lot of personal problems."
"I feel like K-Cov is the energy provider. She's the spark. She's someone we can look to when we need energy or leadership by example, and I feel like Sydney is someone who is really good behind the scenes, good at coordinating things."
Pereira struggles to give herself a role, ultimately settling on "the chill one." But her teammates, even the younger ones, have no shortage of things to say about her.
"Perry is very, like, weird in a good way," star junior Courtney Quinn says with a smile. "If you're sitting next to Perry at dinner, it's not going to be a surface-level conversation. It's gonna be something weird, and extroverted, and it's gonna blow your mind."
Friedler is the smallest in stature, but nobody takes her lightly.
"I would say that I'm probably more of the lay-down-the-hammer type," the Illinois native says as she makes her fist into her palm.
"Emmy, she'll tell you how it is. If you want blunt, you really want to know what's going on, she'll tell you," Quinn laughs. "If I want to feel good about how I'm doing, I'll go to Steve.
"They all have such big personalities that are so unique and fun," Quinn adds.
But while the seniors (even Friedler) are lighthearted in front of a microphone, they're dead-serious (even Molnar) on the court, and they provide a massive share of the team's overall production. With their careers winding down, those around them who are in it for the longer haul know that an era is ending.
"I think from the day I stepped on campus, the senior group has had tremendous leadership qualities," first-year coach Katie Schumacher-Cawley says. "That's a big group to lose, and I think that each of them is so different, and adds a lot of personality to the team, and it'll be interesting to see how the team meshes once they're gone."
The younger players in particular will need to adjust on and off the court in the absence of the seniors' production and presence.
"It's gonna be a big hole to fill. The seniors are the heart of our team. You look up to them," freshman Parker Jones says.
"We've grown up with them," Quinn says. They've been my best friends for three years, I can't imagine them not being here."
Even if Quinn and the younger Quakers can't imagine a Penn volleyball squad without Molnar, Covington, Pereira, Morton, Friedler and Stephenson, they won't have to for long — it will soon be a harsh reality. But until then, the seniors plan on leaving it all out on the court.
"We only have six to eight weeks left of volleyball, we're all trying to enjoy it."
But the seniors know that, even after they take off their uniforms for the final time, Penn volleyball will be a gift that continues to give.
"I learned more life skills being on the team, than I did in the classes I took at Penn," Stephenson says, to unanimous approval.