Time is now for Bulldogs to go big-time

Editor's note: This is the second installment in Graham Hays' series detailing the 2006 Yale women's soccer team. Check back each Wednesday for updates. For the first story, click here.

Consider this an invitation to see what really happens happily ever after.

Across the country, college students are arriving back on campus. They unload bags, secure window fans, hang posters and make beds for the first, and in many cases final, time of the semester. But on a handful of campuses, some of those students showing off their new Crocs while standing in line to buy books have their sights set on a single destination that has nothing to do with spring break or studying abroad: Cary, N.C., site of this year's Women's College Cup.

For the first time, Yale's historic campus in New Haven, Conn., is home to one of those groups for whom postseason aspirations are more a goal than a dream. Hidden amidst the literal and figurative ivy of one of America's most famous schools is a soccer team ready to try to prove that last year's breakthrough season was anything but a Cinderella story. And for the next three months, however close the Bulldogs get to Cary, ESPN.com will offer an inside look at one team's journey.

Unranked to begin last season, the Bulldogs opened the campaign with an eye-opening trip to North Carolina for games against national powers North Carolina and Duke. Although they dropped both games by identical 1-0 scores, the Bulldogs showed the potential that would guide them through the remainder of their regular season with a 13-1-1 record and earn the program's first outright Ivy League championship and a firm hold on a spot in the national rankings.

After beating in-state rival Central Connecticut in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, Yale stunned the soccer community by dispatching Duke 2-1 on a last-second goal to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time ever. Even an eventual season-ending loss at Notre Dame in a regional semifinal did little to erase the season's good vibes.

But after a decade spent building the program from Ivy League afterthought to national contender, coach Rudy Meredith knows that last year's good story is most valuable if it turns out to be only the first chapter in a longer work.

"If we want to maintain being a Top 25 team, we definitely have to step it up a notch, and this season's going to be the most important in the program's history if we want to maintain a Top 25 type of team," Meredith said recently. "Of course, it's going to be very difficult to do what we did last year, but what I'm saying is that being close to the same level ... you don't want to go from the Sweet 16 to not even making the tournament. To me, that's a big change and a big drop, and people notice that."

It has been a long climb for a coach who once thought it improbable, if not impossible, that a team like Yale could reach the Sweet 16, in large part because his program operates under different rules than most of Division I.

Yale made its splash on the national scene without the benefit of a single scholarship player, a fact of life in Ivy League athletics. Each player on the roster is on the hook, whether assisted by financial aid or not, for finding a way to foot the annual tuition of more than $43,000, which (as the Yale Daily News has reported) is a figure higher than the median annual American income.

You go to Yale to get a degree, but that no longer means you don't also go to Yale to play soccer. And Meredith and longtime assistant Fritz Rodriguez deserve much of the credit for the evolution of marrying the opportunity to play big-time soccer with getting a world-class education.

Led by senior captain Christina Huang, named to the preseason watch list for the Hermann Trophy (soccer's version of the Heisman), and sophomore striker Crysti Howser, the Bulldogs are not a collection of spare parts or recruiting leftovers.

All-Ivy as a freshman, Huang has anchored the defense for four years. This year, she'll be asked to anchor the locker room as well after being elected captain by her teammates.

"I think it's definitely easier in most cases if your captain is one of your better players, because it's very easy for her to lead by example on the field," Meredith said. "And I think that when they respect you, when your teammates respect you on the field, it's easy to respect you off the field."

If history is any indication, Meredith may be saying the same thing about Howser in a couple years. For now, the Illinois native who led the team in goals (tied with classmate Emma Whitfield) and assists last season will have to settle for leading the offensive attack.

Perhaps no player was as critical to Yale's success last season as Howser; as a freshman starter, she provided the best-case scenario for an unsettled position by producing like a veteran. In fact, it was Howser who had the wherewithal to settle a loose ball as the final seconds ticked off the clock in the second-round game against Duke and pass it across the face of the goal to an unmarked teammate for the winning goal.

"She doesn't stop working," Meredith said. "It's almost like she has the mentality as a forward that if she doesn't do anything to help her team score then she had a bad day. ... You want your strikers to be pissed when they don't help the team score goals. That's the mentality that I think all strikers should have."

As one of four freshmen who started at least 19 games, Howser wasn't alone in stepping up as a freshman. Whitfield, Natasha Mann and Hayley Zevenbergen all logged heavy minutes and will be counted on to do the same this season. A fifth, Maggie Westfal, started 10 games and was tied for fourth on the team with three goals.

With so much experience in this year's sophomore class and with 12 upperclassmen on the roster, Meredith won't be starting from scratch, as so many teams coming off magical seasons are forced to do. But from coach on down, there is a certain unfamiliarity with being expected at the ball rather than waiting for a last-minute pumpkin ride.

"I think that we have a mature group, because we have a lot of experience returning," Meredith said. "I think I've just got to be able to sell that to the younger players ... but it is a concern, just because we've never been in this situation before. I can't tell you what our team has done coming off winning an Ivy League championship, the following season.

"I'm really curious how we're going to handle that as a team."

It's a sentiment that seems to be shared by many around the nation, with Yale bouncing all over the place in various national polls. The Bulldogs checked in at No. 13 in the Soccer Buzz preseason Top 25, but the National Soccer Coaches Association of America has Yale at No. 23.

All of which has Yale's coach feeling more amused than slighted.

"I'm one of these people, I truly don't believe in preseason rankings," Meredith said good-naturedly. "Because how can someone rank my team before I've even seen them play? I haven't even seen them play, you know what I'm saying? The rankings should come out after the first two weeks of the season."

Prohibited by Ivy League rules from practicing before Aug. 25, leaving scant time before Yale opens the season at home against Duke and North Carolina, Meredith isn't sure exactly how his team will look when it takes the field for the first time.

"My philosophy is always having the best 11 players on the field," Meredith said. "And if that means you need to play a 4-4-2 or a 3-4-3 or 4-3-3 -- whatever that formation is that allows your best players on the field, that's the formation you do and everyone else has got to go around that."

In addition to seeing how all his returning players handled themselves in offseason training, Meredith will spend a hectic first week looking at eight incoming freshman who will be adjusting to college soccer at the same time they're searching out the dining halls for the first time.

And while the coach isn't counting on a repeat of last year's infusion of instant productivity, he wasn't bashful about how many freshmen he hopes will make some kind of impact: "At least three or four, because we need three to step up to replace the players we lost to graduation, as far as starters. ... What I think is going to happen, what I hope will happen is that we can be stronger as a team, so that practice can be a little more intense."

The spirit of summer usually lingers for the first few weeks of school, the days still long enough and the air still thick enough to inspire the kind of mellow moods that manifest themselves in the stereotypical guitar-strumming and Frisbee-throwing that later vanish beneath the weight of midterms and majors.

But as practice begins, summer has already given way to fall for the Yale women's soccer team. After all, what's the point of looking back if you think what's ahead might be even better?

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.