Penn Prepares to Regain its Reign Atop the Ivy in 2005

While the Ivy League volleyball dynasty that is Penn volleyball had its throne taken to be divided amongst the four teams that shared the 2004 title, the 2005 Quakers are armed and ready to reclaim their spot at the top of the Ancient Eight. After winning three-straight Ivy League Championships and corresponding NCAA tournament bids in 2001, 2002 and 2003, 2004 was a rebuilding year. The Red and Blue suffered from the graduation of four seniors and experienced a sharp learning curve that has left them prepared and anxious for another round. They will get that in 2005.

Penn finished the season with a 14-11 overall record and went 7-7 in the Ivy League, which put them just behind the tied Harvard, Princeton, Yale and Cornell’s 10-4. “The reason why it was so close was because every team was extremely competitive with each other. We battled with those top teams, and they all beat up on each other. Everyone was right there, within a half game of each other,” said Head Coach Kerry Carr.

Not only was the competition tough in 2004, but the Penn team was a very young one. The loss of Elizabeth Kwak-Hefferan, Penn’s all-time leader in kills and hitting attempts, second leader in digs, 2003 MVP, and three-time first-team all-Ivy selection and 2003 Player of the Year was felt, but more importantly, the squad suffered from a lack of confidence. “What we learned from last season is that we can win any match, and although we didn’t do that, as we reflected back on them all, there was always a point in every match when we could have beaten our opponents. We did not get beaten by any team, we beat ourselves. We now know how much control we have of our own destiny for this upcoming season. It doesn’t matter how young or inexperienced we are, we can beat anyone. We are working on confidence for this upcoming season because I think we lost some last year. We need to work on knowing we can beat these teams,” commented Carr.

This year, the Penn ladies are without Lynzy Caton and Natalie Francis, who graduated in May. “What we lost is leadership,” said Carr. “Natalie had been a captain of her class all four years, so that was a big leadership loss, however a lot of people stepped up into leading roles this spring. With Lynzy, we lost our starting middle blocker, but with three strong middle blockers coming in vying for that position, it shouldn’t be a problem to cover that gap. It is just a matter of how well and how fast a middle can come in and learn that position and contribute. The freshmen are very talented hitters, but it is going to be a very young, inexperienced position. Fortunately though, that’s all we lost, so the upcoming season is looking good for us.”

Returning to the court for the Quakers this fall is a strong, young, motivated team, including senior All-Ivy honorees Michelle Kauffman and Cara Thomason. Thomason maintained the Penn tradition of a strong outside, leading the team in both offense and defense; at attack, Cara came up with 299 kills and in services, she dealt 45 aces, while also marking a team-best 452 digs. She also fell just behind the starting setter to place second with 41 assists. Thomason’s stats were enough to elicit honorable mention accolades for All-Ivy League for the third-consecutive year.

While Kauffman’s 2004 honors were her first, she made a strong debut earning a spot on the first-team All-Ivy League. This San Diego, Calif. native also leads the Quakers on both sides of the Penn stat book, placing first on the team in blocks with 86, while taking second behind Thomason with 292 kills on the season.

“Michelle and Cara have really been the heart and soul of this program. I’m really excited to watch their senior leadership because they have always really wanted to push us to a higher level. They are natural leaders,” said Carr.

“We’ll probably gain back Ashley Smith,” continued coach Carr. Smith, yet another Californian and in fact a teammate of Kauffman’s at Torrey Pines in San Diego, was out in 2004 with an ACL injury. “We really look forward to returning her to the court at outside/rightside, whether it be in games or in practice. We don’t yet know where her health will be, she has been out two of her three years with injury, but she continues to be a driving force. I know her leadership, combined with Cara and Michelle, will be great.”

Penn’s starting setter, sophomore Linda Zhang, will also return to the squad.“Her offensive attack is nothing short of a joy to watch. Her hitting was first in the Ivy League, even though she is a setter. She has a year of experience under her belt now, and she continues to get better and better at everything. She’ll feel comfortable in her role now and will be able to lead the team with her actions.”

While Zhang has the setting well under control, sophomore Meredith Laning saw her first collegiate playtime last season and is also prepared to contribute on the court as setter or rightside defensive specialist.

Sophomore Anna Shlimak and junior transfer Amy Starosta split time last season and this past spring at outside hitter. “I really expect them to step forward and battle for that position. It will make them both into really good players. They’ll be ones to watch. I’m looking for them to make an impact out there,” commented Carr.

Sophomore Laura Black started the 2004 season at rightside, but also played some in the outside position in the spring. “Where she’ll play will depend both on where Ashley [Smith] falls and where we’ll need her, but she’ll be out there, and it’ll be exciting to watch her come into her own.” Black took second on the team in assists and third on the team in kills and blocks.

The outside hitting on the Penn roster extends even further to include juniors Justine Davidson and Kiley Strauss. Davidson, like Smith, was out most of the year with an ACL injury, but hopes to return to the court this season. Strauss also hopes to return from an injury and could see action at the outside position.

“We are working on becoming a more defensive team. We are not going to let a ball fall on our court. We aren’t concentrating so much on offense, but on making sure every pass, every dig is going to the setter and that we can run fast plays off every ball. Our strength this season will be our defense. We have two returning liberos, juniors Liz Hurst and Meredith Damore, and an incoming libero, Amanda Renz, and I want to use all of our defensive specialists. Our liberos are all heart and will take the team to the next level with their dedication and determination. We also have really good ball control in our two setters and all our outside hitters. I think our weakness will be the inexperience of the freshmen hitters. Our offense will probably be weaker than our defense, but we’re going to run a faster offense to compensate for that,” explained Carr.

As for the freshmen class, “they bring height and strength. We’re bringing in those two qualities, which we already have some of, but we graduated two tall girls, so it is nice to bring in an even taller recruiting class,” remarked Carr. The Class of ’09 includes three middle blockers, Stephanie Gwin, Kathryn Turner, and Victoria Wilbur, all three of whom check-in at 6’3”. In addition to libero Renz, the Quakers will also add setter/rightside Kira Campbell and outside hitter Amanda Maly to their ranks.

This year’s team once again faces an impressive lineup of competitors. “We’re definitely pushing ourselves with this year’s schedule by playing Penn State and Pepperdine right at the beginning. They are definitely better than us, and they are going to push us to play at a higher level. Hopefully we will learn a lot during those matches. We’re also playing Temple and Villanova. They are both playing in great leagues and they will push us at the end of the season, as we’re approaching our peak. These four teams will really drive us beyond the Ivy League level.”

But, the League level itself is also rising. Carr continued by talking about the increased Ivy intensity the Quakers will face this season. “Everyone is tough this year. Every game will really count. They aren’t just hunting Penn anymore, they’re after all five of us. You have to play your best games to beat them all. The other seven teams have good recruits and are improving. All 14 games will be to the death. No game is a walkover. I think most games will go to the fifth match, and no matches will be easy. It is going to be an exciting season, but there will be no break for us.”

The challenge that lay ahead of the Red and Blue is not a question, nor is their ability to raise against it and come out on top, the top being the Ancient Eight throne. The Quakers of 2005 are armed and ready to reclaim their crown.

-Written by Maren McCauley, C'06