For five years, the Yale volleyball team was invincible. From 2010 to 2014, the Bulldogs won five consecutive Ivy League championships, establishing the program as the class of the conference.

But after two straight seasons without a title, the Elis head into the 2017 campaign in a different role than usual. Though unquestionably talented, Yale is no longer the favorite, but instead a hungry team eager to prove itself — and with nearly all starters returning, plus a nationally-recognized first-year class, it seems primed to regain its supremacy.

“I look at it as a brand new season,” head coach Erin Appleman said. “Obviously we have to fill the gaps of what the four [graduating] seniors gave us, but … I don’t just look back and say ‘What could we do better this year from last year?’ … It’s a totally different team. The biggest thing is that we have to be able to be prepared early, be ready to go, I think that’s one of the things that we’re focusing on this year.”

The Bulldogs entered the last weekend of the 2016 season with a chance of earning a share of first place, but a devastating loss at Harvard — three unforced errors in the tie-breaking fifth set proved costly — and a spotty showing in a season-ending win over Dartmouth concluded the season with a lingering sense of disappointment.

Now, the team forges ahead without the help of outside hitter Brittani Steinberg ’17, a unanimous first-team All-Ivy selection who graduated in May. Not only was Steinberg the Eli’s most productive hitter, but she was also one of the league’s best servers and a tenacious defender.

Yet the rest of Yale’s 2016 core remains intact. While former captain and libero Tori Shepherd ’17 also departed, Kate Swanson ’19 had already taken over the starting libero spot. Swanson grew into a leadership position after Shepherd missed time due to injury over the past two seasons, and she notched the fourth most digs per set in the Ivy League en route to a nod on the 2016 All-Ivy Second Team.

Meanwhile, captain Kelsey Crawford ’18 and Franny Arnautou ’20 — the sole Ivy Leaguer to be named to the U.S. Women’s Junior National Training Team — will once again feed a deep lineup of hitters. All-Ivy Second Teamer Tristin Kott ’20 and All-Ivy Honorable Mention Kelley Wirth ’19 will return to the court in 2017 alongside other veterans such as outside hitter Gray Malias ’19 and explosive first year middle blockers in Destiny Daniel ’21 and Chiara Spain ’21.

According to Crawford, the rapport between the returning players has established strong team chemistry.

“We love hanging out with each other off the court and love playing with each other on the court,” she said.

Arnautou and Kott took little time asserting themselves as crucial contributors during their rookie seasons, and Appleman’s class of 2021 recruiting class purports to be similarly impressive. The website PrepVolleyball designated the crop of six first years as Highest Honorable Mention, putting the youngsters among the top 50 classes in the nation along with the incoming freshmen class at Stanford, which won the national championship last year. Yale’s recruits were the only unit in the Ancient Eight to receive the honor.

Appleman said the first years are “competing for starting spots,” and she plans on trying out different lineup combinations over the course of this weekend’s three matches at the Yale Invitational. On Friday night, the Blue will host Delaware before a doubleheader on Saturday against Rhode Island and Clemson.

After that, Appleman will take her team on the road the next two weekends for a challenging slate of nonconference games, including a cross-country trip to the Santa Barbara Tournament, where the Bulldogs will face No. 18 Southern California. Yale will travel to No. 5 Penn State the following weekend as part of the Penn State Classic. Both teams are currently undefeated.

“We have a tough preseason schedule ahead of us, which is very exciting,” Swanson said. “The opportunity to play teams outside of our conference pushes us to grow more. I can’t wait.”

After navigating that grueling part of the season, the Elis will begin the double round-robin league schedule on Sept. 22. Princeton will look to defend its championship after posting a 13–1 record — the Bulldogs were the only team to best the Tigers — but will do so without the back-to-back Ivy League Offensive Player of the Year Cara Mattaliano. Harvard is also gunning for a title after finishing its 2016 season on a hot streak, which included the five-set victory that punctured Yale’s playoff hopes, behind the lethal sophomore tandem of Grace Roberts Burbank and Maclaine Fields.

Yale will open its season on Friday against Delaware at 7 p.m. at the John J. Lee Amphitheater.

Steven Rome | steven.rome@yale.edu | @srome97