When the women’s soccer team opens its season against the University of Hartford tonight, the Bulldogs are hoping that last year’s strong season can be replicated.

When the Elis take on the Hawks (0-1) at 7 p.m. in the Connecticut Cup at Central Connecticut State University, they will be without the services of six starters who graduated last year, including three first team All-Ivy selections. The Bulldogs face No. 9 Connecticut (1-0-1) Sunday.

“These games might be the two hardest games of our season, not counting the postseason,” forward Laurel Karnes ’06 said.

With eight freshmen on the roster and several starting positions still undecided, this weekend’s games will be a test for the team’s younger players, head coach Rudy Meredith said.

“You have a mixture of experienced and inexperienced players, so we have to try to put that all together,” Meredith said.

Yale’s roster boasts only one senior, team captain Lee Ann Jasper ’04.

“It’s been challenging to put it all together in just two weeks,” starting goalkeeper Sarah Walker ’05 said.

The Bulldogs do return some firepower up front, with three of last season’s four leading scorers returning.

Karnes, the team’s second leading scorer in 2002, leads the charge, coming off of a stellar freshman campaign.

“Karnes did very well as a freshman last year, but I think she has the ability to be a top-notch player in the league,” said Meredith, who was the National Soccer Coaches Association of America Coach of the Year for the Northeast region in 2002.

Along with Karnes, midfielder Eleni Benson ’05 and forward Jamie Ortega ’06 bring more scoring punch to the lineup.

“We have the same talent as last year and have different people stepping up in different positions,” Karnes said.

There is not as much continuity in the middle of the field, where midfielder Ali Cobbett ’03 dominated last year.

“Right now we’re trying to figure out how to fill the hole that Cobbett has left in center midfield,” Meredith said. “We [have] got to figure out how to solve that problem in the middle.”

On defense, Jasper and Walker are impact players.

Walker steps into the starting role after two years of backing up Lindsay Sabel ’03.

“[Walker] has been the backup for two years and now has a chance to be the starting keeper,” Meredith said. “It’s her job to lose.”

Walker appeared in five games last season, but has been pleased with her performance in preseason and is ready to play, she said.

With only one scrimmage under Yale’s belt, a 6-1 victory against Williams College on Aug. 31, the games against the Hawks and Huskies will provide a much needed test for the team.

“It’ll definitely be a good test of where we stand right now,” Walker said.

Last year’s success showed returning players their ability to compete with the top teams in the country, but returning to the NCAA tournament will be more difficult this year.

“It’s going to be much harder to do because of the fact that teams are going to come after [us] harder,” Meredith said.

Hartford will try to rebound from a 9-1 drubbing by No. 5 Notre Dame (2-0) in its season opener on Aug. 29, while the Huskies notched their first win of the season Aug. 31 with a 6-1 victory over Central Connecticut (1-1).

“If we can compete with those two teams I know we’re going to be okay,” Meredith said.