At first glance, watching a Yale volleyball game can be a disheartening experience: although the Bulldogs look sharp during warmups, their clear numerical disadvantage can be discouraging.

The Elis are the smallest team in the Ivy League with 12 players on their roster, but they are regularly forced to challenge Ivy foes like Brown, which carries the largest roster in the league at 23 players. Still, the Elis have been outperforming larger teams like Brown all season. Halfway through the season with a 12–5 record, the team sits on top of the Ivy standings in a tie for first place with Princeton, which carries 16 players.

This year, the average Ivy League roster contains almost 17 players — meaning Yale is routinely at a five-player disadvantage. Head coach Erin Appleman said fewer recruiting spots creates a unique set of recruiting challenges.

“[Recruiting] is always hard, knowing everyone else in the conference gets more spots than we do,” she said. “It makes my job harder knowing that I’m going to be playing against the fifth or sixth kid on my list.”

Because of the limited numbers, each recruiting spot is more crucial to the team’s success. This puts Appleman under a lot of pressure to recruit players who are sure to add to the team’s long-term success.

“Other coaches can take a chance on a really good athlete that they can develop,” Appleman said. “It’s difficult for me to take a chance on someone like that.”

Taylor Cramm ’12, the team’s captain, added that two girls quit the team last year and one took a year off — a fact that further decreased the team’s size this year.

In spite of such challenges, the volleyball program has performed at a high level in recent years. Since the 2007 season, the volleyball team has compiled a 52–11 Ivy League record, which includes league championships in 2008 and 2010.

Making this season’s performance particularly impressive, however, are the freshmen on the squad. Appleman said the large number of Bulldogs that have come in and contributed early in their careers is due to her recruiting philosophy.

“I try to recruit players that have high volleyball IQs who have played at a competitive level year-round,” she said.

The Bulldogs’ six starters include two freshmen, three sophomores and one senior. Freshman libero Maddie Rudnick ’15 also contributes heavily, playing almost the entirety of each match. In comparison, Cornell starts three seniors, Columbia starts two seniors and two juniors, and Dartmouth starts only one freshman.

With returning All-Ivy outside hitter Bridget Hearst ’12 sidelined by an injury for much of the season, freshman starters Mollie Rogers ’15 and Allie Frappier ’15 have filled big shoes, leading the Bulldogs offensively with the top two kill totals on the team. Defensively, Rudnick has anchored the Bulldogs all season, recording a team-high 262 kills thus far in her first season as libero.

The sophomore trio of Kendall Polan ’14, Erica Reetz ’14 and McHaney Carter ’14 has been just as impressive. Polan has been one of the best all-around players in the Ivy League this season, leading all players in assists and trailing only Dartmouth’s Lucia Pohlman in service aces. Meanwhile, Carter and Reetz have been two of the team’s most consistent hitters thus far, with Carter currently sitting at seventh in the conference in hitting percentage.

Leading the pack is a trio of seniors headed by Cramm. According to Appleman, Cramm’s positive attitude sets the pace for the team and inspires the younger players to follow her.

Cramm deflected much of the praise on her teammates, however, saying the team’s success has more to do with hard work than leadership.

“I think how hard we’ve worked in practices and during preseason has really helped us a lot,” she said. “All the freshmen we have are so dedicated to doing well and contributing to the team that it’s been a smooth transition.”

Rogers said that the success of many of the Bulldogs’ younger players has her optimistic about the future of the program.

The Bulldogs will take on Brown this Saturday in Providence, R.I.