Newark, Del. - There's no question that in the grand scheme of things, Saturday's Ivy League season opener against Princeton means much more than a mid-week non-conference game away from home. But for the Penn volleyball team, its 3-2, come-from-behind win over the Delaware Blue Hens on Wednesday night might be looked back on as one of the early signs of something big.
The Quakers (5-5) took it on the chin in the first two sets, playing to a draw much of the way with the host Blue Hens, but coming up short at the ends of each. Rather than be discouraged, the Red and Blue went to work, coming up with clutch points when it mattered most in a 22-25, 23-25, 25-21, 26-24, 15-13 win that was just as close as the scores would indicate.
With 141 digs in the match, Penn racked up the second-most in a single match in program history, falling just short of the school record 144 from November 15, 1987 against Princeton. Dani Shepherd was responsible for 46 of those on her own, breaking the school record 45 she had in a five-set match with Harvard last year on Oct. 1, 2011. Tonight also marked the first time since Nov. 7, 2009 at Cornell that the Quakers rallied out of a 0-2 deficit.
The first set was a microcosm for the match as a whole. The Quakers and Blue Hens played to 11 ties and five lead changes with a four-point lead for Delaware midway through the set being the rare time that one team looked to be in control. Just as quickly as the lead arrived, Penn erased it by scoring six out of the next eight points, tying the set for the final time at 21-21. From there, UD regrouped and finished the set on a 4-1 run to take the 1-0 lead.
Despite five blocks in the second set for the Red and Blue, the Blue Hens again found a way to sneak past Penn for the 2-0 lead. This time around, the set featured 10 ties but a mere two lead changes. The first occurred when Delaware went on a stretch of four consecutive attack errors - two being blocks from Susan Stuecheli and Lauren Martin, the other two of the unforced variety - to stake Penn to a 19-16 lead. Following a timeout from the Blue Hens, they quickly tied it at 19-19, only to see two more attack errors and a Martin kill put the Quakers back out in front, 22-19. Following their second and final timeout, Delaware stormed back with four straight to take the lead, then after a Stuecheli kill tied it once more at 23-23, won the final two points on consecutive kills from Katie Hillman to claim a 25-23 victory.
With the third set following much of the same script that the first two did, it would have been easy for Penn to fall victim to the same mistakes that put it in the 0-2 hole to begin with. Instead, with the pressure amped up, the Quakers thrived. With the set knotted up at 16-16, two Amanda Pacheco kills sandwiched one from Martin to give Penn a 19-16 lead. Delaware would never get closer than two points from then on as the Quakers cruised to the finish in a 25-21 win that kept them alive. Alex Caldwell came up with five of her 15 kills in the third set.
Penn continued to show its mettle in the latter stages of the fourth set. Leading 21-17, the Quakers allowed Delaware to score four straight to tie it up at 21-21. The teams swapped side-outs on the next four points to keep things square at 23-23. Knowing any little error could potentially give the Blue Hens a match point, Penn used its first timeout of the set. After the teams once again traded side-outs, the Red and Blue scored the back-to-back points they needed with Ronnie Bither smartly finding the soft middle of a spread-out Delaware defense, followed by Pacheco and Emma White combining to block the Blue Hens' Alissa Alker for the set-winning point.
After a gritty comeback to force the fifth set, a letdown late in the match would have made for a long bus ride home. Fortunately, the Quakers once again found a way. Not that it was easy. Trailing 12-9 and only three points away from a painful loss, Penn was given a lifeline in the form of consecutive Delaware attack errors. Coming out of a timeout, Caldwell tied the set at 12-12 with an attack from the middle of the court. Though the Blue Hens would snap the mini-run with a kill to make it 13-12, Penn responded by scoring the final three points for the victory. White started it with back-to-back kills to land the match point, and Pacheco finished it off with a kill to spark a jubilant celebration from the Quaker bench.
Caldwell supplied her second triple-double in three matches with 25 assists and 16 digs in addition to her 15 kills. White (14 kills and 28 digs) and Kristen Etterbeek (14 kills and 18 digs) each had double-doubles while Pacheco matched Caldwell with a team-high 15 kills. Bither was rock-solid handling most of the setter duties, handing out 41 assists.
The season really hits high gear for Penn beginning on Saturday when they host the Princeton Tigers at 5 p.m. from The Palestra. Saturday is Penn's Dig Pink match for 2012 so all fans are encouraged to show up in pink to support the Quakers as well as the Side-Out Foundation.