Hempstead, N.Y. - Hofstra will start the new season with a matchup against No. 21 Louisville on Saturday at 9 a.m. in the first of five games in the Pirate Clash in Greenville, N.C.

Finding a mixture of talent and experience to navigate through a long season can help determine how far a team can go. With seven returning starters and 11 juniors and seniors on the roster, the 2012 Hofstra softball team will be looking to build off an impressive year as it seeks the program's 13th tournament title in the last 15 years.

The Pride returns most of their key players from a team that went 40-13, including 19-1 against the Colonial Athletic Association.  Though the lineup retains many of its potent threats, Hofstra will still need to replace top power hitter Sara Michalowski (team-leading 12 home runs and 46 RBIs), catcher Laura Valentino (51 starts) and sure-handed shortstop Trisha Dreslinski, who started all 53 games last season.

But the Pride brings back its top-two hurlers in CAA Pitcher of the Year Olivia Galati and senior Erin Wade. Edwards will also have the luxury of starting an upperclassman at every position. The lineup will be fortified by the return of senior infielder Jess Hirschbuhl (.311 average), junior outfielder Tessa Ziemba (.335) and junior designated player D.J. Slugh (.338), who all earned All-CAA first-team honors.

Hofstra is coming off its fifth 40-win season in the last seven years, though head coach Bill Edwards said past performance will not adumbrate future success.

"It's a new year with new challenges and last year doesn't guarantee you anything," Edwards said. "But we're all excited for the new season and it should help that we have an experienced team. You can't coach experience."

Here is a position-by-position look at the Pride heading into the 2012 season:


For the third straight year, the 1-2 combination of Galati and Wade will be expected to carry the pitching load. As a sophomore, Galati earned her second consecutive CAA Pitcher of the Year award after going 29-8 with a 1.24 ERA. After winning the league's pitcher and rookie of the year awards as a freshman, Galati boasts a career-record of 55-15 and is coming off a 2011 season in which set a team record for victories and strikeouts (348) while logging 17 shutouts. For her efforts, Galati was named to the 2012 USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year top-50 watch list

Wade alleviated the pressure on Galati with a stellar 11-5 record and a 2.33 ERA. The duo started every game for the Pride and logged more than 99 percent of the total innings. Wade showed good control, striking out 109 batters against just 32 walks in 104 innings pitched.

"Olivia is the type of pitcher who makes it a little easier on the coaching staff when she's on her game," Edwards said. "Erin is always throwing the ball really well right now. When you have two quality pitchers, we just have to keep them healthy and they'll give us a chance to win."

To bolster the pitching staff, Edwards could also turn to 5-10 freshman Dominique Ficara and junior Nicole Osovski. Edwards said Ficara has worked hard to improve from the time she arrived on campus to now and could pick up innings.

Hofstra lost Valentino to graduation but still has a veteran to key the backstop position. Courtney Crews, who did not accrue a single error in 33 total chances last year, has developed a rapport with the pitching staff and could be primed for a big season after battling through an injury in 2011. The senior will be expected to shoulder much of the responsibility behind the plate early on but could be spelled by freshman Erin Trippi. The Lyndhurst, N.J. native is getting acclimated to the Division I level and could receive key game experience with Hofstra slated to play 15 games in a 17-day stretch to start the campaign.

First Base
Senior Jess Hirschbuhl is coming off a standout season as the team's second baseman, where she earned first-team All-CAA honors in starting all 53 games. Hirschbuhl batted .311 and posted a .451 on-base percentage. The Pride hopes her offensive production will translate to a new position as Hirschbuhl will move to the right of the infield and take over the first base spot from Michalowski. As a senior, Michalowski provided the bulk of the Pride's power as the only Hofstra player with double-digit home runs. Hirschbuhl still accumulated 49 total bases and scored 31 runs while helping to turn four double plays. Osovski has all been practicing at first and could provide depth as a position player in addition to her talents as a pitcher. Freshman walk-on Danielle Bitts could also compete for time at first.

Second Base
With Hirschbuhl moving over, sophomore Tori Rocha will look to establish herself at second base. As a freshman, Rocha appeared in 13 games, including seven off the bench. Edwards said the left-handed hitting Rocha has been working hard and could provide the Pride with a strong arm and good range defensively. At the plate, Rocha will look to use her quickness to generate runs and contribute to a Hofstra offense that out-scored opponents, 272-90, last season.

Hofstra lost one of its most aggressive athletes when Dreslinski graduated last year. To replace the shortstop who started all 53 games, the Pride will move senior Krista Thorn from third base to short. Thorn also started every game last season, batting .273 with 19 RBIs.

Third Base
Junior Becca Bigler batted .293 with four RBIs last year before a medical red-shirt cut short her season. But in her limited playing time, Bigler showed her prowess at the plate, going 2-for-3 with a RBI in a win over Purdue and 1-for-3 in both games of a doubleheader against Florida State and All-America pitcher Sara Hamilton. Bigler will now be entrusted to be the everyday third baseman.

On a team where the infield defensive alignment has fluctuated, the outfield should provide the Pride with continuity. Hofstra returns all three of its starters in senior Michelle Lavagnino and juniors Tessa Ziemba and Rachael Senatore. Ziemba, another All-CAA first-team pick, became the first Hofstra player to have 40 RBI in each of her first two seasons after her game-winning RBI double in the regular season finale against Georgia State (she finished with 44). Lavagnino added depth to the lineup with a .313 on-base percentage and Senatore scored 30 runs and stole six bases. Sophomore Ashley Ainbinder could also work her way into the outfield mix with continued strong efforts during practices. Designated player D. J. Slugh could also see time in the outfield.

Designated Player
Junior D.J. Slugh was an offensive catalyst last season, posting a team-leading .479 on-base percentage. In just 74 at-bats, the right-handed hitting Slugh generated 37 runs (17 runs scored and 20 RBIs). The Pride also will look to employ a slew of utility players that can either push established players in practice, fill-in as injury replacements or provide a jolt off the bench while affording the coaching staff the luxury of gaining favorable matchups. Lindsey Reid is coming off a strong fall season but has been set back with a broken hand. She could be valuable utility player who can be slotted into multiple infield positions. Sophomore Colleen Smith has also showed flashes in practice after appearing in 17 games in her first season.

In addition to a challenging CAA schedule, Hofstra has loaded the non-conference portion with a bevy of contests against well-respected power-conference schools. The Pride will play four teams that enter the season ranked in the USA Today/NFCA Division I Top 25 Preseason Poll. Hofstra will open the season against Louisville and will also play Tennessee (14), Michigan (15), UCLA (19) and will also oppose three teams receiving votes in East Carolina, DePaul and Fordham. In CAA play, Hofstra will open league play with a three-game series at defending-conference champion Georgia State. The Pride will also play James Madison, Towson and Delaware on the road and host George Mason, UNC Wilmington and Drexel.

"We're not taking the non-conference game as a preparation for conference play," Edwards said. "We're playing all these great teams early to win. We want to come out strong early and win some big games in order to put ourselves in a position to get an at-large bid to the tournament."

"Playing all these top teams early will expose what we have to work on to get better. I think the potential is there for us to be very strong defensively. That's where we start: pitching and defense."