For last season’s Yale volleyball team, the valuable experience gained from a daunting non-conference schedule led to a smooth successful run through the Ivy League slate.

This year, however, the Bulldogs look to better last year’s 5–6 out-of-league mark, and that task begins with the Yale Invitational this weekend. Yale hosts Rhode Island (2–1, 0–0 Atlantic 10) on Friday night and both UC Santa Barbara (2–1, 0–0 Big West) and Rice (3–1, 0–0 Conference USA) on Saturday, making for an exhausting and challenging two days of tournament play.

“Playing non-conference teams in preseason is a great way to try out the strategies and techniques we’ve been preparing all summer,” captain and outside hitter Karlee Fuller ’16 said. “Of course every game matters and we are doing all that we can to win, but these games also provide an opportunity for us to figure out our best system before we enter the conference matches.”

The Elis have failed to win their home tournament in the past four years, but they went undefeated on the opening weekend in the four years before that, winning the invitational every year from 2007 to 2010. Just as Yale aims to extend its Ivy League championship streak, it hopes to start a new run of non-conference domination.

Defeating these three teams will be no easy task, however. All three opponents have been back on campus and practicing for longer than the Bulldogs, and while this weekend’s tournament marks Yale’s first competitive games, its foes have all competed in other neutral-site games over the past weeks.

“It’s great to play against teams that are nationally ranked higher than us and have practiced more because it challenges us right off the bat,” three-time All-Ivy setter Kelly Johnson ’16 said. “It forces us not only to play our best physically but also to play smart against teams that may be bigger or faster than us.”

For the team’s five freshmen, the Yale Invitational marks their first chance to don the Bulldog uniform. The Eli recruiting class, which includes five promising players, was rated as a “High Honorable Mention” by PrepVolleyball.com.

Perhaps the most impressive of the new players is libero Kate Swanson ’19. The freshman from Rancho Santa Fe, California, was named to the 2014 First-Team Under Armour All-American Team and was also named the Libero of the Year by Daily Prep Talk, a high school volleyball website.

“We have five freshmen who are all very talented,” middle blocker Jesse Ebner ’16 said. “Our lineup is still up in the air, but I have no doubt that their class will have a big impact on this team.”

Beyond those fresh faces, several Yale players may find special significance in this weekend’s games. For outside hitter Megan Rasmussen ’18, a Houston native, playing Rice provides a rare chance to face a team from close to home.

Additionally, 11 of Yale’s 18 players hail from California. Not only do the Bulldogs host UC Santa Barbara this weekend, but they head to San Francisco to face two more California schools — San Francisco and Cal State Fullerton — in two weeks.

Most importantly, though, this weekend marks the beginning of the end for the Elis’ senior class. After three consecutive Ivy championships and NCAA berths, the team’s five seniors face their final chance to take a step further in the national picture and to boost the program’s long-term reputation.

Despite those lofty goals, the seniors’ veteran presence ensures that the team’s younger talent does not get caught looking too far ahead.

“I am so proud and honored to be a part of a program that has won six consecutive Ivy titles, and this history certainly adds confidence to our team’s mission,” Fuller said. “However, we pride ourselves on being able to wipe the slate clean at the beginning of each season and start fresh with new determination to win a title.”

Yale faces Rhode Island on Friday night at 7 p.m. and hosts UC Santa Barbara and Rice at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Saturday, respectively.