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After spending an hour with Peri Wallace, co-captain of the Harvard women's volleyball team, you get a feeling of warmth and acceptance, a feeling that you are sitting with your best friend. She is so cheerful that it is easy to accept the tremendous praise she receives from her coach, teammates, and friends.
"I don't think anyone could find anything bad to say about her," teammate Wanita Lopeter says. "She's such a fun person to be with all of the time."
You might almost get the impression that Peri is irreverent and unconcerned. It doesn't take much investigation to discover that behind her exuberant exterior is a very solid work ethic.
"She's the perfect example of what can be accomplished through hard work," explains volleyball Coach Wayne Lem. "When she came to the team as a freshman, she lacked almost all of the skills basic to volleyball."
Peri remembers this experience well.
"They would set me the ball in a hitting line, and I would jump up, miss the ball completely, and have it drop on my head," she says.
To say that she has improved her hitting would be an understatement. Through last Saturday's game against Columbia, Peri has accounted for nearly 30 percent of the team's 700 kills this year. She has an attack percentage--equivalent in difficulty to a batting average in baseball--of 334.
Her hitting, combined with her 138 blocks, almost 50 percent of the team's total, has made her a strong contender for All-Ivy honors. Last year, she was an Honorable Mention.
"She is very close to being the complete player," Lem says. "She only needs some work on the finer, mental points of the game which come with time and experience."
Peri's only prior volleyball experience came in her New York high school.
"Every once in a while," she explains, "someone would actually try to spike the ball over the net."
On the court, Peri chooses to lead by example.
"When Peri gets on a streak, everyone can't help but get excited and play better," Co-Captain Carolyn Burger says. "When you do something good, she'll give a high five and a big smile. When you do something wrong, she'll give you a look that makes you want to try harder."
"She really cares about the game," Burger says. "She thinks problems through and is genuinely concerned about how others are taking things."
But Peri seems to distinguish herself when things are not going as well.
"We might be down 14-7 in a game and players begin to give up," Lem says. "But not Peri. She'll still be diving and hustling all over the court. It just shows the amount of work and dedication she has put into the game."
She has improved each year through this kind of effort. After sitting on the bench most of her freshman year, she began to see more playing time during her sophomore season and became a full-time player in the front row as a junior.
While many might have been happy with the kind of play that made Peri a dominant force at the net and an All-Ivy Honorable Mention, she chose instead to work even harder. This year, she has improved her passing to the point where she now plays through the full rotation.
Peri always tries to make a contribution to the team. During her sophomore year, she began feeling sick as the Ivy League Tournament at Princeton drew near. She was determined to attend the tournament, but when she showed up at the van to leave, her teammates noticed that she had come down with the chicken pox.
This forced a sidetrip to Peri's home in New York on the way to the tournament. Coach Lem, not known for his navigational prowess, promptly got lost, treating his team to a sightseeing trip through the less-frequented areas of the Big Apple.
One day after a match, the Harvard track coach approached Peri to recruit her for the triple jump. When the volleyball season ended, she began to train with the track team but was slowed by nagging shin splints.
"I don't really like to go into anything half-hearted," she says. "I figured that I had to do what was right for me, so I quit the [track] team."
"I've always liked team sports better than something like track," she explains. "In track, you go out there alone and do your thing. In a sport like volleyball, there is more interaction between players. It's better to go through pain with someone else because you can identify with them."
Peri's ease with people seems to be the result of a strong relationship with her family.
"I used to pal around with my dad," she remembers. "We would try to fix up old cars together, and I would run errands with him all the time. If I had problems, I could always talk them over with my mother."
This past summer, her father's doctor told him that he would have to refrain from having wine or beer with his meals because of his heart condition. Peri, who was used to her father buying her a beer at dinner, quit drinking in order to support his efforts.
The incident may not seem extraordinary, but when taken as an ordinary extension of her personality, it paints the picture of a truly considerate and caring person.
Peri will graduate this spring with a degree in psychology. She plans to attend business school after a year or two of work in the corporate world.
To gain some experience, she spent last summer working as a junior financial analyst for an information service in New York.
"It was fun," she recalls. "I would find out about all the news in the world before it reached all of the papers."
Pretty soon, she'll be making the news herself.
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