Weekend split emblematic of Yale's rocky season

The first step on the journey of 1,000 miles gets way too much publicity; it's the rest of the trek that provides all the scenery.

And unless you're talking about the mostly level path from Oklahoma City to Fargo, N.D., any such journey is guaranteed to have its ups and downs. Take the stretch of 590 miles between New Haven, Conn., and Cary, N.C., the latter home to this year's NCAA Women's College Cup on the first weekend in December.

Last season, the Yale Bulldogs chewed up vast tracts of real estate on the road to national prominence, reaching the Sweet 16 and finishing the season ranked among the nation's elite. But in a 48-hour stretch this week that included games against Ivy nemesis Princeton and No. 12 Boston University, they were reminded of both how tantalizingly far they've come and how unforgiving the final ascent can be.

Yale coach Rudy Meredith knows more than most about maintaining forward momentum. He won a national championship as a player at Division II Southern Connecticut State, but only after overcoming a learning disability that threatened to derail his college career before it began. And he transformed Yale into an Ivy League contender and a national factor, but only after taking over a moribund program as one of the youngest coaches in school history.

So perhaps it's no surprise that Meredith, knowing exactly how much small moments like these contribute to the big picture, ran the gamut of emotions after a gratifying win and a frustrating loss, even if they came in late September instead of November.

"I just … I can't believe this team," a visibly moved Meredith said after a 2-1 win against Princeton on Saturday night in New Haven. "This team has been through so much adversity this fall, with injuries and stuff like that. And I'm just proud of them right now. To be able to get through that and beat Princeton, that's a huge, huge win for us. … It just shows you the makeup of this team. This team's got a lot of character. I'm just so proud of them right now."

The Tigers, who reached the College Cup in 2003, are the standard against which Ivy programs measure themselves. Before Yale unseated them last year, the Tigers under coach Julie Shackford had won at least a share of four out of five league titles. Whether battling for NCAA Tournament berths or top prospects willing to pay their own way to an Ivy school, Princeton has long been any Ivy challenger's biggest obstacle.

Harvard may be the game that matters most in any sport (or anything else) to fans and alumni, but as Crysti Howser said a week before Saturday's game, Princeton is the most heated rivalry on the field for Yale's players.

"If there is a game I get pumped up for, it's playing Princeton," Mimi Macauley said after scoring twice against the Tigers, the second year in a row she's scored against them. "I tried to drink water every two hours for the past two days preparing."

Of course, as Meredith suggested, the win against Princeton was important not only for what it meant in the Ivy League standings but also for what it meant to a team struggling to overcome an opening month loaded with adversity.

And not just the kind of adversity associated with opening the season against Duke and North Carolina.

Freshman Leslie Perez, who impressed many with her speed and composure, suffered a torn hamstring that slowed her season to a halt. Perez will miss at least six weeks with the injury, likely ending her campaign (having played in six games, she's ineligible for a redshirt season). Off crutches for the road trip to Boston, Perez still sounded like she was in good spirits, despite the injury and the vagaries of a campus bus system that left her stranded on several occasions while trying to get to class.

Less than a week into preseason practice, senior goalkeeper Chloe Beizer, the team's most vocal leader, suffered a season-ending ankle injury. Senior captain Christina Huang and Howser, last season's leading scorer, were also slowed by injuries and illness in preseason. Although she played in Yale's first three games, Howser's muscle pull eventually cost her four games in September, while Huang missed two games with her own muscle woes and was slowed in several others.

"We've had basically our top three players ... hurt at some time during the season, with Crysti, Christina and Chloe," Macauley said. "And they're three players that on the field, they're the ones that a lot of times are speaking up, are getting us pumped to play, are, you know, if we're having a bad half, they're the ones lifting [us] up. They're leaders on the field, all three of them. And I think without them at the beginning of the season, there was a void."

Beizer, still a vocal presence on crutches on the sideline, won't be back on the field this season, but Howser and Huang were both back in the lineup for the Princeton game. Their return offered teammates a chance to catch their breath after scrambling to carry the load.

"Tonight we were talking about how we lined up when we were coming out for [the national anthem]," sophomore Emma Whitfield said. "Standing out there felt so different tonight. I don't know, just having everybody back, it was a great feeling. I don't know, just playing without them, the whole team has done a great job of stepping up. It's hard, you just have to support everybody else. You're there to help everyone. I guess it's a little pressure, but it's doable."

Indeed, after inconsistent performances against Delaware, Montana and Massachusetts, the Bulldogs put together two of their best offensive performances without Huang and Howser in the lineup, beating Hartford 2-0 and Central Connecticut State 3-0. Forced to fill gaps, Meredith has found answers that practice might not have provided. Whether it's freshman defender Sophie Merrifield playing solid minutes in midfield or consistent minutes from freshmen Hannah Smith, Eliza Walper and Caitlin Collins, opportunity's knock has often been answered.

"I think it's been for the better now, because we've had a lot of players that had to step on the field that maybe wouldn't have," Macauley said. "And they've really proven themselves. I think that's great, to have more players that are really confident about their skill level and know that they can step into a game and play really well."

Added Howser, "Just watching everyone play when I was out, it was just amazing to see how far our team has come in such a short time. Even though we weren't really playing well, everyone was stepping up, and this is the result now -- we're able to come together and put it together in, like, the biggest game of the year, basically."

Unfortunately, the schedule offered little time for celebration following Saturday night's win. On Monday, after waiting until the last minute for the final player to finish classes for the day, the Bulldogs filed onto the bus and headed to Nickerson Field in Boston for a date with Boston University.

Ranked No. 12 in the coach's poll at the time of the game, Boston University garnered national attention when the Terriers beat Santa Clara 1-0 in California on Sept. 15. Having also upset Connecticut in the first round of last year's NCAA Tournament, the Terriers represented Yale's toughest nonconference opponent since the opening set against Duke and North Carolina.

With Meredith and assistant Fritz Rodriguez even more vocal than usual in shouting encouragement and instructions during the game's opening minutes, the prospect of an emotional letdown seemed to hang over the bench in the chilly night air. And when the Terriers opened the scoring less than 15 minutes into the game, the outlook appeared bleak.

But Yale quickly rallied, began to control play in the midfield and completed the momentum swing when Maggie Westfal's long sprint down the right side produced a picture-perfect cross to Emma Whitfield that a BU defender deflected into an own goal to tie the score in the 30th minute.

The second half produced a series of strong possessions for the Bulldogs that were interrupted by dangerous counters from the Terriers, but the game headed to overtime after Howser pulled a shot wide to the left after sneaking in behind the defense for a clear run at the goal in the closing minutes of regulation. Boston University quickly seized control in the first overtime, earning two of the three corner kicks it had in the game, and was rewarded for the energy with a game-winning goal when freshman Farrell McClernon took a pass from Lauren Erwin during a scramble in front of Yale's net and finished with precision.

Howser's breakaway was far from Yale's only quality chance to put the game away in regulation, but as her visible frustration suggested minutes later as she came off the field before overtime, the team's best finisher finding herself a half-beat off summed up a night with plenty of effort but not enough execution.

"I know we're just as good as they are," Meredith said. "Maybe we're no better, but we're just as good. We're just as good as the 12th-ranked team in the country. The difference is that, why they're 12th in the country, when they've had their chances, they've put teams away. That's what we did last year."

From jubilation on a muggy night in New Haven to frustration on a cold night in Boston, all in the span of 48 hours, it was a snapshot of a team surprised to find itself stuck at 4-4-1 after nine games.

But even the darkness of the MassPike on a Monday night couldn't completely dim the glow of Saturday's victory. After all, the Bulldogs are 1-0-0 in the only standings that matter now.

"We had a rough start of the season," Whitfield said. "Last year, we did a little better against Duke and UNC, and against UMass this year we had a hard time. But after those games were done, we were like, OK, this is the beginning of Ivys. Nothing else matters, nothing else before it mattered. We have to win this to get into the NCAA Tournament, you know?"

It would be easy to suggest Yale's season is at a crossroads as the Ivy League season begins, but in reality, the only options are to keep moving forward or to take a step back. And if the Bulldogs think back to what they've already been through, that really should be no choice at all.

"This team can be very special," Meredith said after the Princeton game. "This team can be very special."

Six more conference games will determine whether they are.

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