After claiming a fifth consecutive Ivy League championship last year, the Yale women’s volleyball team enters the season looking not only to return to the NCAA Tournament, but also to advance past the first round for the first time since 2008.

In order to do so, however, Yale must first continue its recent domination of the Ancient Eight. Last season, the Bulldogs were forced into a one-game playoff against Harvard for the NCAA berth after dropping both regular season matchups against the Crimson.

Outside of Harvard, however, the rest of the Ivy League was no match for the Elis last season. Yale went 12–0 against the other six Ivy schools, dropping a total of three sets in those 12 matches. And while they fell twice to the Crimson in the regular season, the Bulldogs avenged those defeats with a 3–0 road victory in last November’s one-game playoff.

“The previous championships give us a general confidence about the capability of our team and program,” middle blocker Jesse Ebner ’16 said. “But we definitely do not think about it on a daily basis. This is a whole new group, and we haven’t proven anything yet.”

In order to return to their spot atop the Ivy League, Yale will have to contend with a number of major losses from last year’s team. The Bulldogs graduated captain outside hitter Mollie Rogers ’15 and libero Maddie Rudnick ’15, both key ingredients in the recipe for the past four Ivy-winning seasons.

Rogers, a first-team All-Ivy selection in all four seasons, was awarded the 2014 Ivy League Player of the Year award for her efforts and left Yale with her name near the top of the Bulldogs’ all-time leaderboards as the sixth player in program history with at least 1,000 kills and 1,000 digs. Rudnick also made multiple All-Ivy teams, leading the Elis in digs in each of the past four years.

“Maddie and Mollie are both unbelievable players and are definitely missed,” setter Kelly Johnson ’16 said. “However, we have been working to fill their positions since the spring. Our team is very deep and there are people competing for every position.”

In order to prepare for its challenging Ivy League slate, Yale begins the season with a similarly challenging nonconference schedule. The Bulldogs welcome Rhode Island, UC Santa Barbara and Rice to New Haven for their annual invitational this weekend, after which they will travel to Colgate and San Francisco for tournaments in the next two weeks.

Following their warmup tournaments, Yale will enter the 14-game Ancient Eight schedule, hosting three consecutive games before going on the road for games at Dartmouth and Harvard. After the conclusion of the Ivy slate, the Bulldogs will travel to Hartford for one final matchup that will potentially serve as NCAA Tournament preparation.

Yale welcomes a touted recruiting class to help defend its conference title, bringing in the Ivy League’s highest-rated group of incoming players.

“The five freshmen are all extremely talented and bring a lot to the team,” libero Christine Wu ’16 said. “Practice has been really fun and competitive.”

In particular, the Bulldogs welcome libero Kate Swanson ’19, a 2014 Under Armour first-team All-American from Rancho Santa Fe, California. Swanson and four others will look to support a talented returning core of Yale veterans.

Most notably, Yale returns first-team All-Ivy setter Johnson, who finished second behind Rogers with 3.1 kills per set last season. Additionally, middle blocker Maya Midzik ’16 and setter Kelsey Crawford ’18 will look to build on their second-team All-Ivy performances from 2014.

The Bulldogs host Rhode Island on Friday night in the first game of the Yale Invitational. The game begins at 7 p.m.