Women’s squash coach Mark Talbott hopes that this will be a breakthrough year for the Bulldogs. And with seven talented freshmen — six of whom have already cracked the team’s top 10 — the Elis will look to improve an already formidable program.

Yale ended last season ranked seventh nationally, with Harvard, Trinity College, and Princeton finishing in the top three spots.

Despite their preseason No. 5 ranking, the Bulldogs have already surprised a few top teams this season. Yale finished third at an inter-Ivy League scrimmage and then defeated the University of Pennsylvania handily last weekend, leaving Talbott and his players optimistic about their chances this coming this season.

Team captain Miriam Fishman ’02, whose leadership and athleticism Talbott praised, said that the Bulldogs have come to enjoy surprising their opponents.

“We are the team that other teams are afraid of losing to,” she said.

But Yale will hardly be an underdog this season. Talbott said that his goal will be to finish second in the Ivy League and third nationally, just behind perennial favorites Harvard and Trinity.

If the Bulldogs, after losing seven players to graduation last year, are to achieve this goal, they will likely owe it to the freshmen. Frances Ho ’05, who will be the No. 1 player for Yale this season, represented Hong Kong at the junior girls’ world championship in Malaysia this summer.

Ho will be joined by a host of other freshmen who were nationally ranked junior players last year. The newcomers include Sarah Coleman, who was ranked in the top 10 in the country, as well as Abby Epstein, Lindsay Schroll, Lauren Doline and Ruth Kelley — all of whom were in the top 20.

“All of these freshmen are strong tournament players,” Talbott said, adding that the freshmen are more talented than last year’s seniors whom they replaced.

Talbott added that the team is physically stronger this year than it was last year.

“I am definitely pushing this group a little harder [than last year’s team],” he said.

Besides the increase in talent and intensity, Talbott pointed to a marked change in team chemistry and dedication from last year’s squad.

“I have never had this dedicated a team,” he said. “This group is a breath of fresh air.”

The team’s 8-1 win over the Quakers last Saturday is early proof of the team’s improvement.

“Our match against Penn was extremely good for the team’s morale and was a great opening to the season. They were national champions two years ago, and it felt amazing to have such a decisive win over them,” Abbie McDonough ’04 said. “We expect to have a great season this year because of the strong freshmen and an experienced group of upperclassmen. It makes for a balance that has definitely benefited the team.”

McDonough is part of a core of returning veterans that also includes Kate Sands ’02, Gina Wilkinson ’03 and Devon Dalzell ’04 — the team’s No. 2 player. The experienced upperclassmen realize the importance of setting an example for the rookies.

“I think that Miriam and Kate have been doing a great job as seniors to set the tone for the rest of the team, they both work to make sure that everyone is working as hard as they can and keep everyone motivated,” Dalzell said. “Gina’s showed a lot of heart in her match [against Penn]. Coming back to win when you are down two [games] is tough — she is a great competitor.”

Yale has not finished a season ranked No. 1 since 1986 and has not won the national tournament — the Howe Cup — since 1992. For the year, the team’s national aspirations are lofty, but Yale is now focusing on Ancient Eight competition.

“Cornell and Princeton are going to be key matches for us; they were both narrow loses for us last year. This year we really have a strong shot at beating them,” Dalzell said. “We have the talent and depth to upset some of the top teams.”

Talbott said that his Elis can be competitive with Harvard and Trinity but acknowledged that those squads are still a notch above other teams.

Yale’s program appears to be moving up. The Elis have recruited two of the top high school players in the nation, who are currently awaiting a decision on their early applications. And with a strong freshman class, the Bulldogs will look to set the tone this season for what may very well be several excellent years of Yale squash.