Courtesy of Yale Athletics

After completing a grueling spring break stretch, the Yale softball team begins its Ivy League season this weekend against conference foes Princeton and Cornell.

While most students used their time off for much-needed relaxation, the Bulldogs (5–17, 0–0 Ivy) endured an 18-game onslaught against tough competition, during which they earned their first five wins of the season but dropped 13 games to the likes of Indiana State, Rutgers and Colgate. This weekend, the Elis will come home to New Haven to take on defending Ancient Eight champion Princeton (7–11, 0–0) and last year’s cellar-dweller, Cornell (5–6, 0–0).

“We absolutely view [Ivy League play] as a new season,” Sydney Glover ’17 said. “[Spring break] was tough to get through, and we had a great reset as a group once we got back on campus. It really helped us refocus and get ready for Ivies.”

The first month of Yale’s season represented an enormous challenge, and the results proved it. Between March 10 and 19, the Bulldogs played 14 games in Clearwater, Florida, only earning two victories against Western Michigan and Florida A&M. During that period, Yale constantly found itself in close contests with mixed results. Eight of those 14 games were decided by one run, but the Elis dropped six of them. In the four games played since the Clearwater tournament, Yale has shown improvement, felling Central Connecticut State at home twice by two and three runs, respectively, and Rider once in a 1–0 pitching duel that went into extra innings. The Elis will need to continue to improve in close games if they hope to better their current 0.227 winning percentage.

To do so, Yale will likely rely on its pitching. Francesca Casalino ’18 is third in the Ivy League with 43 strikeouts, and Terra Jerpbak ’19 is right behind her in fourth with 41. However, there remains room for growth on the mound, as the team ranks fifth in the conference with a 4.93 earned run average and has given up 14 home runs.

More concerning is the quietness of Yale’s bats, which have struggled to put runs on the board this season. Extra-base hits have eluded the team, as it ranks last in the Ancient Eight with a 0.285 slugging percentage. In only seven of 22 games have the Bulldogs notched more than three runs, which will need to change soon if the Bulldogs hope to be competitive in the conference race.

“I know we had a big issue with [low offensive production] last year,” Casalino said. “We’d score early and then just sit there on those runs. We have this great energy, but we need to keep it up throughout the whole game. Our motto this season is ‘good isn’t good enough.’ We need to puts the nails in the coffin on our opponents.”

First on the docket are two Saturday games against Cornell. The Big Red was abysmal in 2016, going 3–17 against conference opponents and 10–33 overall. However, Cornell’s performance in the early stages of this season’s campaign would have it seem a greater threat. The Big Red has won four of its past six games, with all of its victories coming in close, one-run contests; if Yale gets into a tight game against the Big Red, the Bulldogs’ opponent’s displayed ability to fight close games will prove a significant advantage. Moreover, Cornell leads the league in slugging and ranks third in on-base percentage, so an offensive explosion is possible.

The weekend slate concludes with two games against Princeton on Sunday, which will also be a test for the Elis. Last season, Princeton won its first conference title since 2008 by defeating Harvard in a three-game series. Although the Tigers might appear weaker on the surface with their current 7–11 mark, their 2016 non-conference schedule proved equally challenging, as the team went 9–22 then and still took the Ivy crown. Princeton returns sophomore standout Kaylee Grant, who led the team with 44 home runs and a 0.326 batting average last season. Statistically, the Tigers remain strong, ranking third in slugging and third in strikeouts per seven innings. In short, nothing will be easy for the Bulldogs during their first weekend of league play.

Yale plays at 12:30 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. on both Saturday and Sunday at the DeWitt Family Field.