With all the talk around campus of the Penn football team going for its third straight Ivy League championship, the Quakers’ volleyball team seems to be mostly flying under the radar. But they, too, are coming off two straight Ivy titles and going for their second “threepeat” in head coach Kerry Carr’s tenure. Carr, who begins her 14th season at the helm, has won five Ivy League championships at Penn – including three straight from 2001-03 – and is the longest tenured and winningest coach in program history. Here, the Gazette talks to the head volleyball coach about “threepeats,” her toughest coaching challenge, what motivates her more than anything, what volleyball is like in Alaska and Hawaii, and the growth of her sport. Take a look:
PENNSYLVANNIA GAZETTE: What’s the mentality going into this season having won two straight Ivy League championships? You had won three in a row earlier in your tenure, so what have you told the team about the challenges now trying to go for a third straight again?
KERRY CARR: I think it’s different because in those three years, we had the same people returning. It’s a little bit different this year because we did graduate six seniors, three of whom were all-Ivy starters. We’re kind of in a rebuilding phase. We just need to be focused on getting better and integrating the new people into our team quickly and finding out what our new strengths are because we’re nothing like last year’s team.
You just have one senior in Logan Johnson – are you looking to her for leadership?
Yes, definitely. And there are also a lot of juniors on the team, with a couple of starters in that group. I think they’re all working together to lead the team from different areas on the court and off the court. They’ve divided up the tasks, which creates kind of a neat leadership model for the young kids coming on.
You’ve had a lot of success at Penn but was the one-game playoff win over Yale to make the NCAA tournament last year one of the most exciting things to happen in your tenure?
I think that was the biggest coaching challenge for me because we had just lost to Yale recently and they had seen our film from our Wednesday night match against Princeton. And then to turn around two days later and face them on their home court, we decided to go ahead and go for everything and change our defense around. It was one of the hardest matches we’ve ever coached, and as a team it took a lot of trust from the players in us to just throw everything away that had worked the match before and to try something new that we weren’t very good at, knowing that would be the secret to success. It took a little bit of time during the match for them to get going and use it, but once they did it was one of the best feelings I’ve ever had coaching.
Do you ever talk to Al Bagnoli about the challenges of repeating and going for three in a row because you guys are in the same boat now, just as you were in the early part of the 2000s?
Yeah, and I also talked to [ex-Penn basketball coach Fran] Dunphy back in the day because he was the master at repeating. With Coach Bagnoli, we more joke about it because it’s funny that people think that because you won last year, this year you will win too. Both of us are faced with a very young team this year with some key starters gone. We just know how much work is ahead of us to do the same thing. The Ivy League championship is always the goal but we have so many little things to accomplish first.
So do you ever look back at all of your success through your 13 seasons or is more just focusing on the season in front of you?
It’s funny because none of that matters every season. It’s not like because I’ve won several championships, that that makes me a stronger candidate to win this one. It’s a brand new season every year. I think the most dangerous thing a coach or a player can do is rest on their laurels. And I never want to do that.
Carr was reminded how much she loved coaching when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008 and forced to take a leave of absence. She is now fully recovered.
Is this recent string of championships even more meaningful though because of what you had to go through in 2008?
You know, I think about that every once in a while when we get ready for our Think Pink match in October. And I have my yearly doctor visit around this time, and I think, Here we go again, is everything OK? I think I definitely have a new appreciation for being in the gym this time of year after being removed for it. Coaching 20 years, you sometimes think that maybe I’m getting too old for this or maybe I’ll try something else. But when you have a chance to be reflective in 2008 and take time off from the season and really, really miss it, I think you never forget that feeling. This is what I really, really want to do with my life. This is an important part of who I am and what I do. When the tough parts come – when you’re there until 11 p.m. on a Saturday night or when you haven’t seen your family in a couple of days – I think having that motivation of having a season taken away from you keeps you going. I have the opportunity to coach, which is a wonderful opportunity.
Is starting the season with the Big 5 tournament special for you guys?
It’s awesome. I don’t know how many years we’ll be able to continue it because every coach has their own agenda about wanting to play a tournament that weekend. But I’ve convinced four of the Big 5 schools to come back this year for at least one more run. I enjoy it because it’s something comfortable and familiar. I know who the strong teams are going to be. I know who the teams are that we’re going to play different lineups against. I know all the coaches. And when everyone gets back into the Palestra, you get the feeling that the season has started. I really hope it continues. I fought so hard for it to become a tradition but if we have to step away from it, I will press to bring it back because I think it is something really special we were able to create.
You’ve coached at all parts of the country, from Alaska to Hawaii. How does the Big 5 compare to that?
I have been everywhere! The main difference is those places didn’t have a lot of other sports, so volleyball was very well known there. Philadelphia is such a great sports city with so many other sports, so you have to actually educate people about our sport. I think that was a lot easier to do in a place like Hawaii that didn’t have pro sports to contend with. Volleyball was huge in Hawaii and was pretty big in Alaska. I have to bring people into the Palestra to see what this sport is. But, on the flip side, they’re such sports enthusiasts here that once they see our sport they say, ‘Oh my Gosh this is an amazing sport.’ And they’ll come back again and again and again. It’s such a big reward when you do educate someone on the sport and they come see a game and they’re like, ‘Wow I never knew.’
Have you seen the sport grow over the years?
It’s growing. It’s definitely growing. When we succeed on doing things like a repeat championship and possibly a threepeat, you definitely get more seats in the gym because they want to be like, ‘What is this team and how come they’re better than other people?’ I think it’s something that starts with the Penn students and then filters out to the community. The more we do with community service and get people involved with the university, the more fans we get. It’s growing but it’s hard to measure that every year.