The Ivy League dynasty that is the Penn volleyball team is currently preparing for its fourth year at the top of the Ancient Eight in 2004. During the past three seasons, the Red and Blue have won three-straight Ivy League Championships, made three consecutive NCAA Championship appearances, amassed a 60-19 (.759) overall record and have gone 37-5 (.881) in conference play. Penn had yet another stellar season at The Palestra in 2003 as the Quakers surrendered just one match at home, finishing with an 11-1 record.
Three starters are gone, but three more plus the Libero return for Head Coach Kerry Carr, who is entering her seventh season at the helm of the Quakers in 2004. This will be a team in search of its fourth-straight Ivy title. If Penn succeeds, it would become only the second Ancient Eight team to do so. The true question beckons, 'where does one go from here?'
Despite the possible history to be made, Carr felt more pressure was on the 2003 squad to come through with a championship rather than this year's group to add to the legacy.
"The most pressure we felt was last season because everyone returned and people felt pressure to do it again," Carr commented. "This year's team does not have the feeling that they have won three (Ivy titles) and now they must win four. It is more like they have won three and now they can win four.
"I don't feel any kind of pressure coming from them. I see more pride from them, wanting to win because they are good student-athletes and they have worked hard for it, but not because it is a milestone."
No matter what the 2004 Penn volleyball team feels prior to the season, there is no doubt that the fact they can improve upon the Ivy League volleyball dynasty they have begun will be in the back of their minds once conference play begins. Being the hunted for so long can be a tedious task, but it is not one that this program will give up lightly.
"Our seniors (Lynzy Caton and Natalie Francis) are very relaxed and don't really play into the fact they have the opportunity to become the first Penn volleyball class to graduate with four Ivy titles. They know they still have to work for it and it is not going to just come to them," Carr added.
The Quakers finished 2003 in the top-three in every statistical category in the Ivy League, including finishing atop the Ancient Eight in kills (15.86 kpg), assists (13.93 apg) and service aces (1.68 sapg). The Red and Blue will look to continue its strong play on the outside, attacking with a corps of five returnees and three newcomers vying for the No. 1 role as kills leader.
A large reason for Penn's recent success graduated this past June, as four Quakers departed from the squad, including Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan, the team's all-time career leader in kills. Even though the most recent graduating class was very special, Carr sees many advantages to having a solid group of seniors this season to guide their younger teammates. A good plan of action is what will herald a strong team outcome later in the year, but everyone knows that a strong recruiting class will always be the best sign of what the future holds.
"We prepare for each senior class to leave with the people that are already on the team. We try to bring them in and train alongside those they will be replacing so they know what level they have to aspire to," Carr commented. "We have also tried to improve on each recruiting class from the year before so that each year, we feel it is the best ever. These recruits will come in and compete right away for a starting position or push the people that are ahead of them to another athletic level."
The Quakers return a host of attackers that will look to replace Kwak-Hefferan's 3.68 kills per game. Cara Thomason, a junior out of Los Angeles, Calif., is Penn's only returning All-Ivy League honoree from 2003, and was fourth on the team last season with 253 kills (2.58 kpg). Thomason recorded 14 double-digit kills matches, including throwing down a career-high 22 at Cornell on Nov. 7. Thomason added strength defensively as well, recording a team-high 377 digs.
There are many teammates competing for the other outside hitting slot alongside Thomason. Carr feels this position will remain consistent to performances of the past because of that competition in practice.
"The outside position is one where we will remain very consistent," Carr said. "The secondary hitting position in our offense is up for grabs due to the fact that we have some returning sophomores and juniors that stepped up last spring and showed me something. Along with a talented group of newcomers, any of them could really step into the No. 2 hitting position and provide some solid offense for us."
Michelle Kauffman, a 6'2 middle and outside hitter from San Diego, Calif. could also provide some extra pop to the inside attack. Kauffman finished last season with a .205 hitting percentage and registered eight matches with double-digit kills. She matched a career-high with 19 kills at Dartmouth on Oct. 18. After splitting time with two-time All-Ivy honoree Heather Janssen, Kauffman is ready to break out of the shadows and prove herself as a major part of the Penn attack.
“Michelle’s quickness, athleticism and powerful swing will allow her to become one of the best middles in the League. We see her as one of our go-to hitters in tight game situations,” praised Carr.
Also seeing time on the corners newcomers Frannie Felder, Anna Shlimak and UMBC transfer, Amy Starosta.
"Amy is our big X-factor. When we played against her at UMBC, we could not stop her. I think Amy will find a good fit on this team. Her work ethic is great, she is training hard. She has a winning attitude that I hope to see come out early seeing as she is a newcomer to us but has strong collegiate experience," Carr praised.
A strength that remains for the Penn volleyball program is the middle of its offense. Last season, the Quakers ran a three-middle offense because of the strong play of its triumvirate, Janssen, Kauffman and Lynzy Caton. Caton and Kauffman return as the force in the middle in 2004. Caton finished her junior season with 170 kills and a .250 hitting percentage. She compiled 44 total blocks, third on the team and just behind Kauffman who swatted 67 kill attempts during her sophomore campaign.
“Unlike the vocal Kauffman, Caton’s strengths lies more in her actions with her ability to record a kill from anywhere along the net,” commented Carr.
Another variation Carr could work with is having a hitter primarily used on the right side of the offense to provide an additional point of attack on the weak side. Francis, Ashley Smith and possibly newcomer Laura Black, could see time on the court in this position.
The setter, which has been the "brain" of the team on the court during Carr's tenure at Penn, is one of the biggest holes to fill in 2004. After the graduation of two-year starter Meghan Schloat, the Quakers will have to essentially start over as none of the returners have varsity experience.
There are a few possibilities for the Quakers to handle Schloat's departure without a readied apprentice to take her place.
Carr has a pair of Quakers that she feels could step into the role of assists leader for the Red and Blue in 2004. Ashley Ludwig, a 5'11 sophomore out of Lake Oswego, Ore. has shown improvement over the spring and may be ready to step up in the fall.
Freshman recruit, Linda Zhang out of Portage, Mich. is also a viable option for the Penn coaching staff.
"Both are very capable of running the one or two-setter offense if needed. We usually would want to have a setter waiting in the wings to replace someone like Meghan, someone who has had a year to work with her, learning the offense," Carr commented. "If I have to, I will start out with two setters and switch each from side to side to see what works out best."
One strategic option lying in front of the Quakers is a 5-1 offense where there is one lone setting option on the floor at all times.
This offense may become more of an option as the season moves on. Carr not only has Ludwig and Zhang as possibilities, but also newcomer Meredith Laning who has the ability to push the offense.
"The setter position will be the hardest for us to fill simply due to the lack of experience. It all depends on how hard these three work and how quickly they adapt to our system," Carr added.
Filling the role of Libero for the Quakers will fall on Damore and Elizabeth Hurst. Damore can serve as an attacking option for the Red and Blue as well as the team's Libero, as she finished third in digs with 340 a year ago. Hurst was fourth for the Quakers with 159 digs.
“The Libero position will be extremely important this coming season because it will give support to our service reception. Having seasoned veterans in the position is a key part of our offense. The fact that these two (Damore and Hurst) were able to do that as freshmen is huge,” Carr said.
Rebecca Chang, who has shown tremendous improvement over the spring could also vie for time on the court in the Libero position.
The season is broken into three parts for the Penn volleyball team. It begins with a tournament schedule that rivals some of the early NCAA first round match-ups, continues into a grueling Ivy League campaign and concludes, if things go positively, with a postseason berth. The Red and Blue have used this formula over the past three seasons in order to acquire that invitation to the most selective of dances and achieving a milestone during their last trip, winning their first game ever at the NCAA Tournament.
"There are three parts to our season and I feel it is very important to have those milestones instead of just having the number one goal of the season is to win of the League. If you do that, you lose focus during the other parts of the season," Carr said. "The goals are addressed at the beginning of every season. They always begin small and grow from the start of tournament play through to postseason play."
This year, Penn travels to the University of Virginia (Sept. 10-11) to take on the host Lady Cavaliers as well as Radford and Duquesne. The Quakers head westward for a tournament at the University of San Diego (Sept. 17-18). It will be a homecoming for nearly half of the Penn team as nine of its 17 members hail from the Golden State. The Red and Blue closes out the tournament season at The Palestra for the Sixth Annual Penn/Sheraton Invitational (Sept. 25-26).
The Penn volleyball team recognizes that it will not be awarded a fourth-straight Ivy League title at the beginning of the season.
There will be many pursuers in 2004 as the bulls eye on the Quakers' back grows larger and larger. Harvard brings in a heavily touted recruiting class, Cornell returns nearly its entire roster from a year ago and Princeton remains mentally strong year in and year out. These institutions make up the upper echelon of the Ivy League with regards to volleyball but Penn remains the star that shines brightest in this constellation of competitors.
It has been nearly four years since Penn has not hoisted the Ivy League trophy at the end of a volleyball season. Two thousand four will not be defined by a fourth-consecutive coronation though. Striving to improve on every game, match and season is still at the core of this program and that is the textbook definition for success.
Written by Mat Kanan, associate director of athletic communications