“This is a whole new team,” women’s soccer midfielder Mary Kuder ’08 said. “We have eight new players and we have to start all over again. This weekend has nothing to do with the past.”

For a team that went 15-4-1 in 2005, captured the coveted Ivy League crown and advanced to the third round of the NCAA College Cup tournament for the first time in program history, starting over may not seem like a very attractive option. Add to this the fact that this weekend’s Yale Classic will bring perennial powerhouses No. 11 Duke and No. 8 University of North Carolina to New Haven for No. 13 Yale’s first games of the season. But the team that smashed a slew of program records last season and boasts several of the top Ivy League players is not one that shies away from a challenge.

“The team is by far the strongest one since I have been here,” midfielder Mimi Macauley ’07 said. “Preseason has gone really well, everyone is in excellent shape, everyone passed our fitness test. It is the first year where we are going to be able to have two [full] strong teams. Fighting for starting positions is as fierce as ever, which has created an atmosphere where everyone is going 100 percent all the time.”

The Bulldogs will need to tap into that sense of competitiveness as they meet the Blue Devils in today’s opener of an elite tournament which also features the No. 15 University of Connecticut. Though Yale’s rivalry with Duke is less storied than the traditional Yale-Harvard and Duke-UNC matchups ­- the teams met for the first time in North Carolina last September ­- today’s game promises to be a fierce battle. At last year’s tournament, the Elis fell to the Blue Devils, 1-0, to open their season. The Bulldogs exacted their revenge when they upset Duke, 2-1, in the second round of the NCAA College Cup to advance to the Sweet Sixteen.

“We have high expectations,” captain and defender Christina Huang ’07 said. “We are anxious to see how Duke will come out, clearly they are pretty angry that we ended their season [last year]. Everyone has gotten the message that everyone needs to step up; we know it’s a huge game.”

Yale’s offense, powered by Huang and Macauley, returns six of last year’s top seven scorers, including forwards Crysti Howser ’09 and Emma Whitfield ’09, who both finished the season with a team-high eight goals. Howser, the 2005 Ivy League Rookie of the Year, assisted midfielder Laurel Karnes ’06 on the goal that ended Duke’s dream season last year. With Duke coping with the losses of ACC Defensive Player of the Year Carolyn Ford and three-year starter Heidi Hollenbeck, the Bulldogs offense can anticipate a weakened Blue Devil backfield.

Although Duke’s defense might be struggling, the Blue Devils’ offensive lineup is as strong as it has ever been. Duke returns five out of six top scorers from 2005, including two All-ACC midfielders in Rebecca Moros and Darby Kroyer. Duke also boasts the third-best recruiting class in the nation, according to the online magazine SoccerBuzz, and should expect strong contributions from its freshmen at the forward and midfield positions.

“We haven’t talked that much about what they will bring at us,” Huang said. “So we are making sure we are sound and determining what our lineup will be. Looking at the players they got and the players they lost, Duke has gained some strong freshmen forwards. They will be a little stronger up front and a little weaker in back.”

If Yale has a weak point this season, it may be its defense. The Bulldogs will struggle to fill the cleats of former captain and defender Eleni Benson ’06, who guided the team through its Cinderella season and anchored a defense that allowed just 17 goals all season long. The Elis will look to defender Hayley Zevenbergen ’09, an All-Ivy honorable mention recipient last season, and a group of relatively inexperienced defenders to quell Duke’s offensive storm.

“We’ve been working a lot on defense,” Macauley said. “We’re pretty young back there, and there’s the loss of Eleni. The coaches brought in a new coach to help us with defense. He’s a defensive specialist; he’s helping us with keeping our form and making key decisions. Last season we lost to ND, not because we couldn’t score — but because they scored five goals against us. That is the weakness of the team.”

Additionally, the Bulldogs’ starting goaltender, Chloe Beizer ’07, was taken out of the lineup after breaking her ankle during practice earlier this week. Goalkeeper Susan Starr ’08, who split the netminding duties with Beizer last season, will step into the starting role. Starr, who played the second half of each game, earned a .806 save percentage in 2005, good for third in the Ivy League. The Bulldogs are down to their last goalie and are intent on keeping Starr healthy for the remainder of the season.

“It’s tough to lose [Beizer’s] enthusiasm and her talent and it’s tough to have just one keeper,” Kuder said. “Our defense will be working even harder to not let Susan even touch the ball and to protect her a bit. We know that the only thing that could disappoint Chloe more is if we don’t perform.”

Once the Bulldogs make it past the Blue Devils, they will have to prepare for UNC. The Tar Heels enter the tournament 2-1, with its only loss coming at the hands of No. 9 Texas A&M in UNC’s season opener. The Bulldogs’ young defense will have to concentrate on containing UNC?s senior forward Heather O’Reilly, who, along with Huang and UConn?s Niki Cross, was named to the watch list for the Hermann Trophy, the soccer equivalent of college football’s Heisman. O’Reilly plays for the U.S. National Team and is a two-time All-American. Last season, the Elis lost, 1-0, to UNC in Durham, NC.

Overall, the Elis are excited to finally take the field against high-caliber opponents and test their mettle. Though playing two of the nation’s top teams is a nerve-racking way to open their season, the Bulldogs are prepared to set the bar high for the 2006 season.

“Being ranked, we have a lot more pressure on us than we did before,” Whitfield said. “We can no longer be the Cinderella story. I wouldn’t say we’re necessarily nervous, it’s just anticipation of the game. We’re not intimidated, but the next three games are going to be the biggest games of our season.”