Red and blue jersey, knee pads, and court sneakers are the usual attire for a Penn volleyball player.
Yet, standing before me is outside hitter Raven Sulaimon, clad in a chicken suit.
To preface, it is Halloween, and the rest of her teammates have gone all-out at practice as well, donning costumes on top of of their standard volleyball ensemble. Despite the festive regalia, Sulaimon is a natural with the other players on court, almost as if she were a veteran teammate.
Sulaimon, however, is a freshman, enthusiastic and eager for many more years to come as a Quaker. Down to earth and wholly optimistic, the freshman bounds through the gymnasium doors and grins widely.
“I wore this costume all day today,” she concedes, admiring the full bodysuit complete with a lifelike chicken gizzard.
While her costume appears out of the ordinary, Sulaimon’s skills have been critical for the Red and Blue this season.
Hailing from Houston, Texas, Sulaimon is the youngest of six siblings. She credits her introduction to the sport to her older sister, whom she witnessed playing volleyball when she was little. Sulaimon, always following the lead of her older role models, decided that she too wanted to try her hand at the sport.
“I started at the age of nine at a small club in Houston. And, I was actually left-handed but my coach ended up making me play right-handed.”
Angles are crucial in volleyball. Sulaimon’s coach recognized that a lefty would square up perpendicular to the net, while a righty would be situated parallel to the net, a minor readjustment that has ultimately benefited Sulaimon’s domination on court.
An ever-improving outside hitter, Sulaimon earned her first career start against Princeton two weeks ago, where she had her season-best attack percentage of 0.444. For Sulaimon, however, the most defining moment of her career thus far came in her first game against Yale, her second overall game as a Quaker.
“I was basically put in the middle of the third set, and we were down 0-2,” Sulaimon admits. “I was super nervous and super cold on top of that… the point after [coach Katie Schumacher-Cawley] put me in the game I got a block and it raised my confidence up and reminded me that I could play at the collegiate level.”
Playing at the collegiate level is not a new phenomenon for the Sulaimon family. Sulaimon’s older brother Rasheed played Division I basketball for Duke and Maryland and now plays professionally for the French club JDA Basket in Dijon, France.
Sulaimon recognized how Rasheed’s influence has been pivotal for development in the NCAA.
“He’s definitely been a big influence on my life, being my youngest, oldest brother. Even besides him, I always had someone to look up to, in terms of sports, and just life in general. Especially in sports, my family definitely had a big influence on my life,” Sulaimon recounts.
Even with such prominent role models visible in her own family, Sulaimon has credited her smooth transition into a highly competitive Division I volleyball program to her teammates.
And, as a result, Penn volleyball has become a tight-knit family for the freshman.
“Being a freshman, sometimes I am a little bit hard on myself. It’s just how I am as a player,” Sulaimon notes. “I definitely am a more aggressive player, and I sometimes forget the more finesse areas of the sport. Just being able to have older people look over me and make sure that I am being my best self consistently, especially Sydney [Morton], K-Cov [Kendall Covington] and Hayley [Molnar], has been a big help to me.”
The season has not always been easy for the freshman, especially when faced with players nearly four years her senior. But, Sulaimon recognizes how her close relationship with the other Quaker freshmen have allowed her to gain confidence on court.
Fellow freshman and outside hitter, Parker Jones has been a close confidant for Sulaimon, who has helped her maintain consistency during tough matches.
“Being the other outside [hitter] with Parker, we definitely talk to each other a lot on the court. There's been times when she’s had to talk to me, so I can refocus and not be discouraged and I talk to her so she’s not discouraged,” Sulaimon said. “It’s really nice having another freshman on the court with me… At the end of the day, I am playing with 22 year olds, so having another person my age is really helpful.”
So, even while Sulaimon takes a break from wearing her normal practice gear, the Red and Blue will certainly get used to witnessing her dominance on court over the course of her collegiate career.