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Penn women's volleyball defeated Columbia in five sets on Friday, but lost in four sets on Saturday against Cornell.

Credit: Alex Fisher

Smack-dab in the middle of its conference season, Penn volleyball can't escape the middle of its conference standings.

Taking on Columbia and Cornell in a road doubleheader with the opportunity to break a fourth-place tie with the Big Red, the Quakers found themselves with a serious case of deja vu. For the third straight weekend, the Red and Blue took one of two Ivy matches, beating the Lions in a five-set thriller on Friday before losing to Cornell the next night in four sets to fall to fifth place in the Ivy League at the end of the first half of conference play.

“I would definitely be all for the sweep, but I thought both Columbia and Cornell are playing very well right now, so I think any time you can beat someone on the road, it’s a great win,” first-year coach Katie Schumacher-Cawley said. “I thought we didn’t play well in the Cornell match. They had a great game plan and they stuck to it, but they were both great matches, and it’ll be nice to get them both at home here in the second round.”

Friday night certainly served as the highlight of the weekend for the Red and Blue (8-8, 3-4 Ivy), as the Quakers redeemed themselves after being swept by Columbia in 2016.

Though the Lions (6-10, 1-6) entered the weekend winless in Ivy play, Friday’s match proved to be anything but a pushover. After going down 15-8 in the opening set, the Red and Blue responded with a furious rally to take the first frame, 26-24, and the emotional rollercoaster would only continue from there.

Penn and Columbia alternated winning each of the first four sets, setting up the winner-take-all showdown in the fifth. And by the slimmest margin possible in volleyball’s “win-by-two” structure, the Red and Blue prevailed, with a Raven Sulaimon kill finishing off the 15-13 set to clinch what was arguably Penn’s wildest win of the year.

“I think the match itself was super high [energy] the entire time; we were playing well and you know we were going back and forth, and we served aggressively toward the end of the match,” Schumacher-Cawley said. “I thought the team competed hard the entire match, and they found a way to win, so it was fun to watch.”

As back-and-forth as the scoring went, one constant of the night was the consistent domination of senior setter Sydney Morton. Finishing with career highs of 18 digs and 55 assists — the last of which went to Sulaimon for the match-clinching kill — the captain put the team on her back to will the Red and Blue back to .500 in Ivy play.

Unfortunately for Penn, though, the emotional high wouldn’t last for the Quakers, as the team was unable to complete the road weekend sweep at Cornell (8-8, 4-3). 

Penn did hold its momentum from Friday’s instant classic well enough to take the first set by two points on Saturday, but it was all Big Red from that point on. Led by a 20-kill, 20-dig performance from sophomore outside hitter Samanta Arenas, Cornell took each of the last three sets by a combined 13 points to surge one match ahead of Penn in the Ivy standings.

Though it’d certainly be possible to feel fatigued after playing in the second night of a road back-to-back, Schumacher-Cawley felt that tiredness wasn’t a major factor, citing execution as opposed to exhaustion as her team’s fatal flaw.

“Any time you play on the road, it’s tough. You have to play your best, and I think that we came out competing and then really just made too many errors,” she said. “That’s college volleyball; you’re gonna have to compete on back-to-back days, and I think our team’s in great shape and can hold their own conditioning-wise. Skill-wise, we just made a few too many errors that put us behind in the game to start with.”

The good news for the Quakers is that the second half of Ivy play won’t present the same daunting travel challenges, as the team’s next five Ivy matches all take place in the Palestra. Boosting morale even further, both New York schools upset then-first place Princeton (12-5, 5-2) over the weekend, keeping Penn only three matches behind current leader Yale in the conference ranks. 

As recently as 2015, the Ivy League saw a pair of four-loss champions, so the Red and Blue know that anything can happen as the team enters its crucial homestand.

“I’m excited that we’re gonna be home....This conference is anyone’s to win, and I think this weekend showed that top teams are losing, maybe the middle-of-the-pack teams can move up,” Schumacher-Cawley said. “So we’re excited to get back in the gym, work hard, get better and enjoy these next few matches being in the Palestra.”