On the heels of a sixth-place finish in Ivy League in 2001, the women’s volleyball team will rely on a renewed sense of commitment — to team play and to defense — in an effort to return back to the top of the league.

As was the case with many Bulldog teams last year, the volleyball squad (10-14, 3-11 Ivy in 2001) was decimated by the injury bug and started a new lineup each weekend.

At full health to begin the season, the team entertains thoughts of a marked turnaround.

“We feel like the Ivy title is within our grasp,” said Peg Scofield, who is in her 17th year as head coach. “We have a lot of gamers this year. The kids know how to win, and they’re fighters. They don’t think about losing as an option or about choking as a possibility.”

Betty Picinic ’03, the team’s captain, said that last year’s squad lacked a clear focus and that too often the game would turn into an individual sport instead of a team effort. To prevent that from happening again, each member of the team signed a mission statement with winning the Ivy League as the ultimate goal.

“This year we all have the same mindset, and that should help us out,” Picinic said. “Each member on the team needs to play her role. We all want that ring.”

According to Alison Lungstrum ’04, team chemistry is far superior this year.

“We’re definitely more focused on the court now,” Lungstrum said. “We definitely underachieved last year with what our potential was. We want to improve on our record, and we have the talent to win the league.”

This year’s squad boasts a potent mix of returning contributors and freshmen looking to make an immediate impact. The team’s lineup is still very much up in the air, Picinic said, and there are no fewer than 12 people who could occupy the starting six slots as the season opens.

Leading the offense is Dana Loberg ’03, an outside hitter who was second on the team in kills last season with 217 and who, according to Picinic, possesses the best serve receive on the team. Jana Freeman ’05, who was fifth on the team in kills with 149 her freshman year, also returns at outside hitter. Lauren Burke ’05 could see substantial time at middle hitter coming off a freshman campaign in which she was second on the team in blocks with 98 and third in kills with 192.

Lungstrum, who was a setter last year and was seventh in school history with 934 assists, will see action this year at right-side hitter, which opens the door for Jacqueline Becker ’06 to set in some instances.

“We have a very experienced team, but, at the same time, we have some freshmen coming in and playing some key roles,” Picinic said. “With Jacqueline running the team at setter, we still will have a lot of experience on the court.”

Shoring up the defense is Joey Lee ’03, who was second on the team in digs last year with 220.

Improving the team’s defense and turning it into a weapon through a quick transition game has been the key area of focus during preseason practices, Scofield said.

“Defense is clearly what wins in volleyball in general, and especially in the Ivy League historically,” she said. “Yale traditionally has a had a strong digging crew but also a strong blocking team, and that’s what we need. We are trying to take our defense plays and turn them into points.”

Lungstrum said the team has made great strides defensively and also in turning defensive stops into quick offensive strikes.

“We’ve done a lot of transition drills, defense drills, agility work to be quick, and that has facilitated us being quicker to the ball, which is essential,” she said. “Our all-around game has improved a lot. We have a quicker offense, and we’re much more consistent.”

This weekend the Elis host their annual invitational tournament at Payne Whitney Gymnasium. Friday, Yale faces Marist and Lehigh followed by Sacred Heart and Memphis on Saturday. While some teams opened their season two weeks and as many as 27 games ago, Scofield said it is imperative that the team works on finding a cohesive lineup during the first week.

“We have a lot of catching up to do, but the first step is knowing how we perform together,” Scofield said. “Friday and Saturday will be a test of whether the lineup we have will be what leads us in the season. We have a good idea from practice who is leading statistically and emotionally, but we have to test it in a game situation.”

Despite the optimism, climbing from sixth in the league to the upper echelon will be difficult. Reigning co-champions the University of Pennsylvania and Brown should be in the title hunt again, and the talent pool isn’t getting any thinner anywhere in the league. Nonetheless, the team is focused squarely on its goal, and that can only help in its pursuit of the league title.