For most teams, finishing third in the country would be an accomplishment. For the men’s squash team, it is a stepping stone.

After finishing third at the College Squash Association’s team championships behind Ivy League champion Princeton and 10-time defending national champion Trinity, the Bulldogs spent their offseason making sure no team would be working harder than them. The emphasis on cardiovascular fitness was on full display over the weekend as the Bulldogs took second place in the season-opener Ivy League Scrimmage.

“This team is the most focused, hardest-working, fittest team we have had,” captain Ethan Oetter ’09 said. “This weekend, I was just proud of everybody. We’re setting up this season looking like we’re going to outperform a little bit.”

The Elis took care of business over the weekend as they trounced Brown 9-0 before edging out Cornell 5-4. The Bulldogs lost in the finals to Princeton, 7-2, relegating them to runners-up in the season’s first organized scrimmage. The big surprise of the weekend was the “All-Star” team, a motley crew of non-starting players composed of seven Bulldogs and two other players. The All-Stars defeated Dartmouth’s varsity team, then took down Brown, 6-1, displaying the notable depth of the Yale roster.

“We trained really hard in the preseason,” All-Star Rusty Feldman ’10 said. “And I think we showed the league is a little closer than it looks.”

Although the Bulldogs graduated three of their top nine players, including No. 1 player Max Samuel ’08, the Elis will be buoyed by a strong freshman class headlined by rookie Ryan Dowd ’12. After finishing his senior year as the second-best player in the country in his age group, Dowd took a year off to work on his squash game before matriculating. He will enter the season playing one of the top four spots on the ladder. Joining Dowd in the freshman class are Samuel Clayman ’12, Robert Berner ’12 and John Roberts ’12. The new recruits got their first taste of Ivy League squash over the weekend.

“It felt great,” Clayman said. “It really made me proud to play for Yale. The first couple of points, I was a little nervous, but it was a lot of fun.”

Although no one doubts the Bulldogs’ work ethic, the Elis will have a steep hill to climb if they want to win their first outright Ivy League title in 18 years. Princeton, the defending champions, return six players who finished last season in the top 18 of the CSA’s individual rankings. In comparison, Yale’s top returning player, sophomore John Fulham ’11, was ranked No. 23.

Despite the apparent talent discrepancy, the Elis are confident that their work ethic will keep them competitive.

“You’re not going to improve your racket skills out there in two months, but what we can do is control how fit we are and how focused we are,” Oetter said. “That way, when we take the court, we make winning points as hard as humanely possible. If we lose, we know that’s as good as we can be. We’re just trying to max out the talent we have.”

The Bulldogs will officially begin their season on Dec. 6 against Penn.