After weeks of two-a-day and even sometimes three-a-day practices, the women’s volleyball team has packed up its gear and headed to California to open up its 2004 season.

The Bulldogs will take on the University of California-Irvine (5-0) today and the No. 23 Long Beach State (3-0) tomorrow.

Yale head coach Erin Appleman said she was pleased with the level of preparation of her team as it heads into its first games.

“The work ethic on the team this year is paying off immensely,” Appleman said. ” We had a tough preseason, both physically and mentally. But I am seeing major improvements in the girls because of it. It has me really excited for the season.”

Last fall, the Bulldogs finished with a 16-9 record and a fourth place spot in the Ancient Eight. This year, Yale hopes to make a run at the Ivy League title, something that has eluded the Elis since 1978.

“We are fortunate to have a group of talented girls who want to fight for an Ivy championship,” captain Jana Freeman ’05 said. “If we continue to focus and push each other every day at practice, I see great things happening in our upcoming season.”

Yale makes its run behind veteran middle-blockers Lauren Burke ’05, Renee Lopes ’06 and Freeman. All three are major forces at the net and the trio combined for 827 kills and 160 blocks last season. Freeman led the Ivy League in kills with 393 and earned a spot on the All-Ivy second team.

Another returning force for the Bulldogs is setter Jacqueline Becker ’06, the team’s 2003 Most Valuable Player. She finished last season with 1024 assists and moved up to sixth on Yale’s all-time list for most assists in a single season.

“On the offensive end, [Becker] is a really great setter, and it’s been fun to be able to do so many things with her sets,” outside hitter Shannon Farrell ’07 said.

Joining the upperclassmen is a contingent of seven freshmen who, according to Appleman and Freeman, have the ability to make an impact immediately for the Bulldogs.

“All of the freshmen are on the bubble of making a significant impact,” Appleman said. “They all need to play with more consistency and be more verbal, but they are all right there talent-wise.”

In this weekend’s games, the Bulldogs pit themselves against some of the best talent in the game — the West Coast is a widely-recognized hotbed for the sport’s superstars. Yale even claims seven Californians in its own roster, and Appleman has encountered both UC-Irvine and Long Beach State in the past during her tenure as a player and a coach.

“[UC-Irvine] has an excellent coach at the helm in Charlie [Brande],” Appleman said. “He has been around the game forever, and his team is very disciplined. Charlie and Irvine both have a very strong tradition of success.”

Long Beach State has produced five national titles since the inception of its program, and it, too, will prove a challenge to the Elis.

“Long Beach State is traditionally very athletic and very physical,” Appleman said. “They beat me twice for a national title when I was at Penn State, and they will give us an extremely high level of competition this weekend.”

Despite the reputations of these highly-touted teams, Freeman said the Bulldogs were looking forward to playing against tougher competition.

“The California trip is an opportunity for us to compete against top teams, play hard, and prepare for the Ivy league,” Freeman said. “We have worked very hard during preseason, and I am confident that it will be evident on the California courts. Our team moral is high, and the team chemistry is the best I’ve felt since I’ve been here at Yale.”

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