The champs are back, better than ever and ready to defend their title.

After winning its first outright Ivy League title since 1979 last year, the women’s volleyball team is set to defend its conference championship this fall, and it looks as though the same theme that defined last year’s team has returned: consistent improvement every day.

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“We’re not concerned with repeating,” outside hitter Alexis Crusey ’10 said. “We’re more focused on continuing to improve from last year. There are still things that we can fix to be an even stronger team.”

Last year, the Bulldogs (21-6, 13-1 Ivy) only lost one Ivy match en route to winning their first conference title in nearly 30 years. The Elis’ Ivy League season ended with a thrilling straight-set victory over rival Princeton on Nov. 15.

Although standing at the top of the mountain and fending off challengers is always the most difficult task for a defending champion, the Elis have the talent to do it.

The Bulldogs return the unanimous Ivy League player of the year, Cat Dailey ’10. Dailey, the powerful outside hitter who joined the team last year, is just half of the dynamic duo that crushed conference opponents last season. The other twin tower is Alexis Crusey ’10, who earned her third consecutive All-Ivy First Team selection last season. The Elis are lead by captain and outside hitter Julia Mailander ’10.

But the Elis are not just top-heavy with only seniors leading the way. Last year, Taylor Cramm ’12, Bridget Hearst ’12 and Katie Cordell ’12 had breakout seasons in their first year at Yale. Moreover, the Elis’ incoming freshman class earned a high honorable mention from in the Web site’s rankings of college recruiting classes.

“The freshmen have melded perfectly with the rest of the team,” Mailander said. “Our team was close and we relied heavily on each other last year, and I think that we’ll continue to do that this season as well.”

With their league title, the Bulldogs earned a bid to the NCAA Tournament. Heading into the tournament, Yale was the only Ivy League program to have won a tournament match when the Elis won their first-round game in 2004 over Albany. This time around, the Bulldogs doubled the school’s success by defeating Ohio in the opening match. In the second round, the Elis fell to eventual champion Penn State.

“Our success last year doesn’t change how we’ll approach this season,” Daily said. “We’ll still go one game at a time.”

The Bulldogs open their season with non-Ivy League play this weekend, when they host their annual Yale Invitational on Friday and Saturday. In the two-day span, the Elis will face Georgetown, Fairfield and Colorado.

Although the Elis will be on the road for the majority of September, they will return to the John J. Lee Amphitheater when they host the Yale Classic on Sept. 25 and 26. Central Connecticut State, Quinnipiac and Binghamton are on the slate for the Bulldogs that weekend.

The Bulldogs open conference play the following weekend when they host the Brown Bears on Oct. 2, followed by a doubleheader at home against powerhouses Penn and Princeton. In Ivy League play, the teams play in two round robins in which each team both hosts and visits the other teams in the Ancient Eight.

Yale finishes its Ivy League season when the team travels to Providence on Nov. 18 for the second match against Brown.

Top to bottom, the Ivy League will be much closer this year compared to last. Penn and Princeton remain the Elis’ closest competition, but Columbia, one of the weaker teams for the past few seasons, had a strong recruiting class that received an honorable mention from The Lions could be the earthquake that changes the topography of the volleyball world.