The women’s basketball team returns to the court this Friday against Holy Cross with high expectations after one of its finest campaigns in recent memory.

A second-place Ivy League finish, a first-ever trip to the Women’s National Invitation Tournament and a season sweep of Harvard set the stage for this year’s team, which returns four starters and adds a trio of freshmen to replace the two graduated seniors. To take the Ivy title this year, the team will have to get past defending champions the Tigers and six other strong teams that make up what head coach Chris Gobrecht said “is likely the to be the strongest Ivy League ever.”

“The tough thing is that everybody in the bottom half of the league improved because they didn’t lose anyone and everybody in the top half added very good new players,” Gobrecht said.

The Tigers are favored as champions this year, according to a preseason poll in which Princeton was ranked first in 14 of 17 votes by a panel of Ivy League media directors and women’s basketball sports information directors. The panel predicted Yale would finish third while Harvard came in second.

Gobrecht, who is entering her seventh season as head coach at Yale, begins the year only 13 wins shy of 500 career victories. Gobrecht said she is confident in her team’s ability to win the title.

“Our depth is much better this year.” she said. “We are faster, more aggressive and more versatile, and our guard play is stronger.”

She added that the returning players have all improved as well.

The Bulldogs offense will rely this year on guard Megan Vasquez ’13, who was named first-team All-Ivy last season after averaging 13.6 points and 3.5 rebounds a game for the year.

Other returning starters,forwards Janna Graf ’14 and Michelle Cashen ’12, the team’s captain, will help lead the team through a tough nonconference and Ivy League schedule this year, Gobrecht said.

Graf was one of three unanimous choices among the Ivy League to the 2010-’11 rookie team last year after she averaged 9.3 points per game, and Cashen was named All-Ivy Honorable Mention and led the Bulldogs in rebounding with 6.6 rebounds per game.

Last spring, the team graduated its second leading rebounder and scorer Mady Gobrecht ’11, the coach’s daughter, as well as captain Yoyo Greenfield ’11. Gobrecht said the Bulldogs will try to make up for these losses with a talented cast of freshmen who she said will all see court time at the beginning of the season.

“[The freshmen] are adapting to our style of play very well,” Cashen said. “We play a fast-paced style of basketball and the coach subs us in and out of games very quickly, so they will definitely play a big role this year.”

The nonconference schedule highlights include a rematch with No. 14 Florida State on Dec. 28. The Bulldogs defeated the Seminoles last year, the first victory over a ranked opponent in the team’s history. On Nov. 22, the team will travel to Baylor to face the No. 1 Bears.

Graf said playing difficult teams helps the players improve individually and as a team.

“These games are very important because they help us establish an identity as a team,” she said. “We’re not necessarily looking to make every shot, but to get better every game that we play.”

Gobrecht added that the game against Baylor poses a unique opportunity to test themselves against the highest level of women’s college basketball.

“We’ve never played a team at the level of Baylor, but our players choose Yale for a variety of reasons which are not always limited to basketball,” she said. “This game will give them an opportunity to see ‘What if?’ and see the level of competition they might have faced elsewhere.”

But Cashen said the team is going to approach this game as it does every other match despite the challenge.

She added that for now the Elis are thinking about Holy Cross.

“In the meantime, we’re focusing on our first game and are going to take this season one game at a time.”

Tip-off is slated for this Friday at 7 p.m.