After graduating twins Kate and Laura O’Neill ’03, arguably the best women ever to run in the Ivy League, the women’s cross country team faces an uphill battle to unseat defending champion Columbia and claim the top spot at the Heptagonal Championship in late October.

The O’Neills’ absence may still resonate with the Bulldogs, but the goals for the team remain the same: win the Heptagonal Championship, win the Harvard-Yale-Princeton tri-meet, and qualify for nationals. Last fall, Kate O’Neill finished first at Heptagonals and second at Nationals. Laura O’Neill finished second at Heptagonals and 13th at Nationals.

This fall, the Elis will have to look elsewhere for leadership.

“You don’t give up [the O’Neills] without creating a void,” cross country head coach Mark Young said.

But freshman Cara Kiernan ’07, who placed 14th at the national finals of the Footlocker cross country championships, is part of a recruiting class that should add depth to the Bulldogs’ roster.

If they can narrow the gap between their first and fifth runners, the Bulldogs, who were runners-up at last year’s Heptagonals, can “absolutely” challenge last year’s winner Columbia, captain Rebecca Hunter ’04 said.

“We certainly need to be trying to win Heps,” Young said.

Young added that the Bulldogs have a chance of making nationals for the third time in four years after narrowly missing a chance to go last year.

Melissa Donais ’06 who placed 19th at Heps is the top returning runner. Hunter, who placed 2nd in the 1500 at Heps last spring in track, will not be far behind Donais. Alexandra Sawicki ’04, Julia Pudlin ’06 and Emily Vince ’06 rounded out Yale’s top seven at last fall’s Heptagonals.

Stress fractures last season hampered Pudlin’s efforts to regain the form that took her to an 8th place finish in the 2000 Footlocker national championships. Along with Donais, winner of the legendary Millrose Mile her senior year in high school, and Kiernan, the Bulldogs have three Footlocker national finalists, a first for Young.

Donais has also struggled with injuries, but Young believes that if the top runners can stay healthy, the Bulldogs’ depth will be an asset in its quest to return to the NCAA nationals.

“I think if we have the front end, the rest of the team is very, very good,” Young said. “If we don’t, we’re still a good team.”

Yale’s biggest league challenge comes from Columbia, which won last year’s Heps and placed 11th in the national meet. Columbia returns its top five runners and has added a number of recruits along with transfer Caroline Bierbaum, who was an All-American at Duke last fall. The Lions start the season ranked 9th nationally in the FinishLynx women’s cross country rankings. Cornell and Dartmouth, who both received votes in the national poll, will also challenge for the top spot in the Ivy League.

“[Columbia] will be the team to beat,” Young said. “It remains to be seen whether we do so.”

Donais has high hopes for the Elis this season.

“We have to make it to nationals,” she said. “We have proved that we can do it.”

The Bulldogs open their season tomorrow alongside the men’s team at the Georgetown Invitational, but will be without Pudlin and Donais, who are nursing minor injuries.