The women’s soccer team does not have the phrase “tune-up game” in its vocabulary this year.

Forget about slam-dunk wins or leisurely blowouts when the Elis kick off their 2005 season during these early September afternoons. Instead, the Bulldogs spent their first weekend traveling down Tobacco Road, where they squared off against Duke and North Carolina — merely two legendary ACC programs, ranked 12th and second in the nation, respectively. But anything easier would not be fitting for this burgeoning Ivy program, which in the past decade under coach Rudy Meredith has emerged as quite the contender itself.

“This is going to strengthen us up for the rest of the season,” Meredith said after the team’s 1-0 loss to the Tar Heels Sept. 4. “We should be able to compete with anyone left on our schedule.”

The 2004 season was another step towards national prominence for Yale women’s soccer. The Elis both started and ended the season by reeling off long winning streaks, which proved to be bookends to a tough-fought four-game stretch against powerhouses Santa Clara and Stanford and league rivals Princeton and Harvard.

Their 13-4 record, tied for best in team history, was more than enough to lock up an at-large invitation to the NCAA tournament. A first round exit against Villanova did not detract much from a second-place Ivy finish and an eighth winning season in nine years.

“Even from my freshman year, we weren’t nearly as good as we are now,” defenseman Christina Huang ’07 said. “It’s been awesome to see the team change.”

The squad comes into 2005 basically intact from last year’s NCAA appearance. All-Ivy forward Laurel Karnes ’06, whose 23rd career goal last October moved her into sixth all time in Yale history, leads the offensive charge for the Bulldogs. She is joined on the front line by fellow seniors Jamie Ortega ’06, whose overtime goal against Brown last year on the final day of the season all but sealed a tournament bid, and Lindsey Weening ’06, who came into her own last year with four goals in 17 starts. Mimi Macauley ’07 earned all-Ivy honorable mention last year after placing in the top ten in both goals (six) and assists (six) in the Ancient Eight.

Captain Eleni Benson ’06 and Huang pilot a defense that held opponents scoreless in half of its 18 games last year. Benson, a veteran who competed under the Greek flag in the 2004 Summer Games in Athens, started every game last year and took home all-Ivy honorable mentions. Huang, who has started in all but two games in her first two seasons in New Haven, managed eight points while earning all-Ivy and NSCAA all-region selections last year.

The only big hole to fill from last year may be the one between the goalposts after the loss of last season’s captain Sarah Walker ’05. Walker posted an 0.90 goals against average her senior year, and leaves a competition for starter between Chloe Beizer ’07 and Susan Starr ’08 in her wake. Beizer and Starr both had impressive performances splitting time in the net in North Carolina this weekend, each only allowing a single goal against the Tar Heels and Blue Devils.

Meredith said she was thrilled with both goalkeepers’ performance this weekend, acknowledging that “the competition for goalie is dead even right now.”

The team reflected on both narrow losses this weekend as intense and constructive preparation for a tough Ivy League field this year.

“I think we got rid of all the losses we want to take,” Huang said. “Hopefully, we won’t have anymore. There are no teams we’re going to play who are better than them. We’re a much more confident team after this weekend.”

Meredith agreed with his defenseman.

“This is why we have a stronger schedule,” he said. “We’re going to be prepared for the Ivy League games after games like these.”

Still, to even stay close in games like these can be exciting for a program that was long underestimated as a legitimate contender.

“We’re still the underdogs and people are still surprised at games like this,” Benson said.

The Bulldogs have three more weeks of strictly non-league play before direct competition with the Eight begins in Princeton Sept. 24. The defending league champion Tigers come into the season ranked 21st nationally and may prove to be the biggest obstacle between the Elis and an Ivy League crown. The squad gets its first crack at the Crimson the following Saturday in New Haven, a chance to avenge its only other league defeat in 2004. The rest of October is filled with league opponents as the Bulldogs head down the stretch toward November tournament competition.

Perhaps a missing piece from last year may be found in the seven newcomers joining the team this fall. Midfielders Hayley Zevenbergen ’09, Crysti Howser ’09, defenseman Natasha Mann ’09 and transfer student Mary Kuder ’08 were unshaken making their first Yale starts against Duke. After its weekend in the South, the entire team, from the seniors to the rookies, has the same goal in mind for 2005: to take down Princeton and make deep headway into the tournament.

“We’re feeling good,” Zevenbergen said. “If you’re going to try to get to the tournament, you’re going to have to play the hardest teams.”

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