Despite losing two of its strongest players to graduation, the women’s volleyball team hopes to keep up last season’s momentum with one goal in mind: the Ivy League title.

The team finished last season with an overall record of 16-7 and an Ivy League tally of 11-3, so the Bulldogs have a lot to live up to. The team boasts 14 returning letterwinners, but the loss of two key players to graduation has left some holes in the starting lineup.

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The team returns All-Ivy first team outside hitter and Ivy League Rookie of the Year Alexis Crusey ’10, second team All-Ivy setter Ally Mendenhall ’09, and 12 other players. Three-time All-Ivy first team outside hitter Shannon Farrell ’07 and Yale’s all-time digs leader, libero Anja Perlebach ’07, both graduated last year, and losing a strong offensive power as well as a consistent defensive player has changed up the team’s entire game.

In its quest to come back even stronger this season, the Elis picked up four new assets to the team in middle blocker Katie Fitzpatrick ’11, liberos and defensive specialists Taylor Morgan ’11 and Kelly Ozurovich ’11, and setter Kate Parker ’11. With big shoes to fill, the freshmen have been playing their best throughout preseason to prove themselves and make their contributions to the team, teammates said.

“The freshmen are a really good addition to the team,” outside hitter Lydia Mailander ’10 said. “They work really hard and bring a lot of depth and skill.”

All the hard work that the freshmen and the rest of the team have put in will be tested at this weekend’s Yale Invitational. The Elis will face Rhode Island in their first match of the season Friday. The Bulldogs then battle Sacred Heart and Maine on Saturday to wrap up the tournament.

“We had a tough preseason and we’re working very hard together,” head coach Erin Appleman said. “We are all excited to play.”

The first weekend is crucial in setting the tone for the rest of the season. Later in the fall, Yale is scheduled to face off against six NCAA Tournament teams from last season, including finalist Stanford and nearby rival Penn State. Florida, Long Beach State, Long Island and two-time defending Ivy League Champion Cornell will also be tough competition for the Elis.

While tournament matches bring the Bulldogs a lot of excitement and difficult competition, the team’s main goal each year is to end up on top of the Ivy League. They will face off against every school in the league twice, once at home and once away, for a total of 14 conference matches.

“This season our number one goal is to win the Ivy League,” captain Maribeth Martens ’08 said. “We definitely believe we can do it this year, and that is our main prize. To get there we definitely have to work hard and face our opponents one at a time.”

Despite their rivalries with several teams in the Northeast, Appleman prefers that the team focus upon every single match as it comes.

“I look at every match individually,” Appleman said. “The team who wins the Ivy League is the team who has the most wins, so every match has equal weight. It really doesn’t matter who you beat, it matters that you have the most wins at the end of the year.”

Yale’s matches this weekend will take place on Friday at 7 p.m. and on Saturday at 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. In order to lure fans to the tournament, the first 50 attendees on Friday will receive free T-shirts supporting the women’s volleyball team, Appleman said.

“This is going to be a really competitive and exciting season, and we need all the support and all the fans we can get,” Martens said.