ON THE PLAQUE: The 2003 Ivy League Player of the Year, she was the third player in program history to earn first-team All-Ivy three times. She also was the first Penn player to earn AVCA All-America, gaining honorable mention as a senior while also earning All-Region accolades twice. Penn won Ivy titles each of her last three years, going a combined 37-5 against Ancient Eight competition. Graduated as the program’s all-time leader in kills (1,298). In the classroom, she was a two-time CoSIDA Academic All-America.
Written by Dave Zeitlin C'03, this feature originally appeared on PennAthletics.com on May 1, 2017
Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan C’04 didn’t begin playing volleyball until the seventh grade, and she never expected it would lead anywhere. Growing up, she didn’t play many sports and only decided to give volleyball a shot because someone she looked up to—her cousin’s girlfriend at the time—played.
But soon after first stepping on the court, Kwak-Hefferan made an interesting discovery: she was good at it. Really good.
“It was kind of a surprise to everyone,” Kwak-Hefferan said. “I had not really been all that athletic as a kid. I was much more into reading and art. And to kind of everyone’s great surprise, all of a sudden it turned out I had a talent for volleyball.”
That talent manifested itself in ways she never could have imagined, either, as Kwak-Hefferan took her skills to the Ivy League, won three conference championships, and left Penn as the program’s all-time record holder in kills—a mark she still proudly holds. Now, she’s set to enter the Penn Athletics Hall of Fame as one of its youngest members, only a little more than a decade removed from graduating.
“I had the opportunity to coach so many great players that won championships,” said Kerry Carr, Penn’s head volleyball coach from 1998 through 2016. “But to me, she was the first rock star.”
Carr recruited Kwak-Hefferan early in her tenure and distinctly remembers watching her play at a camp at the University of Virginia. And she watched closely—which was a good thing as Carr became captivated by the high schooler from outside Chicago.
Feeling good about meeting with Carr and intrigued by the University’s combination of athletics and academics, Kwak-Hefferan ended up picking Penn over Dartmouth and some bigger Division I programs,
“You had to sit and watch her brilliance, her genius of the game,” Carr said. “She’s not making kills that turn people’s heads. But she was consistently the go-to player every game.”
That quiet dominance, along with a personality the Penn volleyball coach immediately fell in love with, became a hallmark of her tenure at Penn.
Standing at 5-foot-10—not particularly tall for an outside hitter—Kwak-Hefferan used her intelligence and instincts to become the force that she was, finishing with a record 1,298 career kills and 1,306 digs (fifth all-time) while being named first-team All-Ivy from 2001-03 and winning Ivy League Player of the Year as a senior in ’03. She also received Honorable Mention All-America recognition from the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) that year, the only Penn player to date to earn All-American status.
“For me, it couldn’t just be about brute strength or jumping over everyone,” she said. “That’s not what I could do. It was more strategy. I learned how to find holes in the block. I learned how to work with my teammates to know which way to hit the ball. I learned how to use the block. I had to be a lot more strategic.”
A cerebral athlete with endless determination, Kwak-Hefferan would often go over matches in her head after they ended. This included the very first match of her freshman year when, after being named a starter much to her surprise, she battled through some ups and downs in a 3-0 loss at William & Mary.
Back in the hotel room after the match, teammate Stephanie Horan C’02 asked her how she thought she did, to which the freshman responded by reciting all the errors she made.
“And she just laughed,” Kwak-Hefferan recalled, “and said, ‘This is the first game of your college career. Relax.’”
Kwak-Hefferan certainly had plenty of time to figure it all out as she ended up holding on to her starting spot throughout her four years at Penn. And although she didn’t always get the same kind of respect from opponents as she did from teammates—“she basically went under the radar for two years,” Carr said—she quickly became the rock of the Quakers.
“You always knew what you were getting from Kwak,” said setter Meg Schloat C’04, her teammate for all four years. “For me, there was always this peace of mind knowing I can give her the ball whenever and she’d make a play out of it. That made my job easier.”
It also translated to a whole lot of team success. After the Quakers finished in second place in the Ivy League during Kwak-Hefferan’s freshman year in 2000, they reeled off three straight Ivy titles from 2001 to 2003, going 13-1 in the conference in each of her final two seasons.
Expectations within the program changed, too. Whereas after the 2001 championship, Kwak-Hefferan remembers thinking, ‘wow, this is so great to be here,’” the Quakers shifted their focus to trying to win an NCAA Tournament match the following two years. While that didn’t happen, they were happy to take a game off Pittsburgh in the first round of the 2003 NCAA tourney—a good achievement for the Ivy underdogs, made even better by the fact that Kwak-Hefferan overcame a sprained knee to be on the court for her final match.
“Even though she wasn’t able to put up the same numbers of kills she had all season long, she led by example,” Carr said. “She said, ‘I’m gonna do this. Follow me.’”
Kwak-Hefferan remembers sitting in the stands following the loss to Pitt as a wave of emotion hit her. But beyond the tears, she felt a sense of satisfaction at how she helped grow the program.
These days, she remains close to Penn’s volleyball program, keeping in touch with many of her old coaches and teammates while serving as an alumni mentor to current athletes. But she doesn’t return to campus as much as she would like due to the fact that she lives in rural Montana, where she works as a freelance journalist writing about the outdoors.
“I think I was looking for something to replace volleyball,” she said. “That had been such a dominant force in my life for 10 years. It was really strange to be like, ‘OK, that’s done now. You don’t have volleyball anymore.’ So I kind of replaced it with hiking and backpacking and climbing mountains. I got really into that and I remain really into that.”
Living on the other side of the country, of course, has done little to lessen her impact on a program that Carr said wouldn’t be the same without her contributions. And through 18 years at the Quakers’ helm, the former head coach insisted that she never coached anyone with the same combination of skill, smarts and humility.
“The thing that was so special about Kwak was she took the model of a student-athlete more serious than anyone ever,” Carr said. “She was a straight-A student at Penn, which is quite hard to do. And she was the most unassuming, humble player that never stood out. She was like this deadly, silent killer.
“People didn’t always see her as a threat. But she was the keystone of every win we had back then.”