PHILADELPHIA Seniors Stephanie Gwin and Kathryn Turner are staring down a moment this weekend that all student-athletes face their last home contest. For the pair of California women who have been a part of the Penn volleyball program for the past four years, this Senior Day and final home weekend of the season takes on added meaning as the Quakers are fighting to keep their Ivy League title hopes alive.
The duo took time to sit down and reflect on their Penn careers and look ahead to this emotional weekend.
“This weekend will be both exciting and sad,” Turner said. “My whole family will be here. In fact, this will be the first time that my brother has seen me play volleyball at Penn. Not to mention the fact that we have two very important matches to play.”
Turner’s fellow co-captain Gwin was able to look past the familial aspect of the weekend for a moment and focus on the court.
“Winning an Ivy title has been a dream of mine since I arrived at Penn,” the middle blocker/right side hitter said. “It is difficult because it is out of our control somewhat. We have to focus on each match and do our best to win. If we do that, we have a shot.”
Still, the closure that Senior Night brings to a career is not lost on Gwin.
“I am going to miss this team and the players, coaches, trainers and staff who make it up,” she said. “We really are a family and care so much about each other.”
If there is a lasting memory of this season on the court for the two, it is the amazing run that the team has put together over the last seven matches. For the second time in as many years, Penn has won seven matches in a row to catapult them from a 1-3 Ivy record to 8-3 with an outside chance at a championship.
“All the work we have put in as a group has started to pay off,” Gwin said. “Everything really has come together over the past month.”
Turner was quick to agree.
“I am so proud of this team and how we are peaking at the end of the season,” she said. ”A team’s goal each season is to play its best volleyball when it matters most. It has been great to see the younger players step up and to see the team as a whole respond.”
Acting head coach Ryan Goodwin feels that the inspired play of the team starts with the seniors.
“Kat and Steph typify great leadership,” he said. “I am so impressed with the way they have matured since I met them in January. They are great examples for the younger players on the team as to what being a leader is all about at Penn.”
Turner has been a leader not only in the Penn locker room, but in the Ivy League as well. She has twice been named All-Ivy. In 2006 she was received honorable mention honors and last season she was a unanimous selection to the first team. Turner has 867 kills for her career. Just as impressive as her offense has been her defense. 269 times Turner has assisted on a block, tying her for third all-time by a Quaker. Twice she has recorded 10 block assists in a match which ties her for fourth-most in a single match by a Penn player. Most recently, she accomplished the feat against Harvard on Nov. 7.
“I thought the Harvard match was some of her best volleyball,” Goodwin said. “She was a vital part of that victory. She really came though in a big way when faced with quality opponents in the middle. She shined in that match.”
While Gwin’s role on the court is different than Turner’s, she continues to be a factor for the Red and Blue. She has seen action in 102 sets over her career and has made the most of her playing time, averaging just over one kill per set with 110 over her four years. She also played her best match of her career against the Crimson, recording seven kills on 14 errorless attempts and adding six block assists in a 3-2 win in Cambridge.
“The great thing about Steph is that she is ready at all times,” said Goodwin. “She can come into a match in the fifth set and contribute right away. In a situation where she could be cold and not ready to play, she brings her best effort. That shows her professionalism and dedication to doing whatever she can to help the team be successful.”
Not lost on the coach is what his captains bring to the team off the court.
“They do their best work behind the scenes,” he said. “They do so much that the public doesn’t see. Kat and Steph are always there to take care of the details and help out the younger players on the team. They really help make a coach’s job easier.”
One thing that makes a coach’s job easier is winning and that is what the Red and Blue have been doing since the middle of October. Penn has won seven matches in a row and has done so in what feels like seven different ways. The streak started with a 3-2 win over Yale, the only blemish on the Bulldogs’ Ivy-best 11-1 record. The Quakers followed that up with a pair of matching 3-0 sweeps over Dartmouth and Harvard at home. Penn continued its winning ways at The Palestra with wins over Columbia (3-1) and Cornell (3-2). Last weekend, the Red and Blue travelled north to New England and came back with two thrilling five-set wins over Harvard and Dartmouth.
The seven victories have propelled the Quakers back into the Ivy title race. Penn sits in third place entering the last three matches of the season, and Penn’s championship dreams require the seven-match win streak to turn into a ten-match one.
The Quakers need to win out and hope for the following to earn a tie for the Ancient Eight crown:Brown to defeat Princeton on Friday night. Princeton to defeat Yale on Saturday night.
If that happens and Penn holds up its part of the deal with a trio of wins, all three teams will have 11-3 records and a share of the Ivy title. The way the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament is then decided is a three-team playoff at a neutral site to be determined.
Last time out against Friday’s opponent, Yale, Penn took a 3-2 victory from the Bulldogs. The Quakers came out of the gates strong in the first set, establishing a 1-0 lead thanks to a 25-20 win. The second set was all Yale, as the Bulldogs blew by the Red and Blue, 25-10. Penn took a 2-1 advantage with a 25-23 win in the third set before Yale forced a fifth set with a 25-22 win in the fourth frame. In the deciding set, Penn clinched the match with a 16-14 win.
Yale’s Alexis Crusey is second in the Ivies with 3.84 kills per set and Ally Mendenhall is averaging 10.54 assists per set third in the league. In the last meeting between the two teams, Cat Dailey had 25 kills for Yale.
On Saturday, Penn hosts Brown the last team to defeat the Red and Blue. In Providence on Oct. 17, Brown defeated the Quakers, 3-2. Each team alternated set wins, with Brown taking the first, third and fifth for the victory. Penn’s Julia Swanson led all players with 23 kills. Brown’s Megan Toman led the Bears with 19.
Turner was able to put the whole thing in perspective.
“Of course, our goal is to win an Ivy championship and we still have a shot at that,” she said. “It adds extra meaning to what has been an emotional year and will be an emotional weekend.”