First-year head coach Kat Mertz knows it will not be easy to steer the Saint Louis women's soccer program back on to a positive course. However, Mertz and her players and staff are embracing the challenge of returning SLU to the top of the Atlantic 10 Conference and, eventually, propelling the Billikens into the national spotlight.

"We have a lot of work to do and we're ready to do it," Mertz said. "We have a good core of returning athletes who have a sound understanding of the game, a desire to play and a willingness to commit to turning this program around. The players and coaching staff are looking forward to the season."

Senior leadership is important for any team, especially one that is embracing a new coaching staff and a new system. Mertz is pleased with the Billikens' senior quintet in that regard and wants the group to taste success in its final collegiate campaign.

"We have a really good group of seniors," Mertz said. "Katie Walsh in goal and Maggie Baumann and Emily Viviano on the back line are solid leaders. Kaitlyn Doescher is a strong, positive teammate who unfortunately has been hampered by an injury, and Alli Reimer has the ability to shut down the midfield for us. Hopefully, we can end on a high note in their last year."

Mertz expects to draw the Billikens' starting lineup primarily from a group of 17 veterans that includes 10 returning starters. In addition to the five seniors, Saint Louis features five juniors and seven sophomores.

"We have some attack-minded players in a strong junior class," Mertz said. "Jenny Hummert, Maddie Gebauer and Jessie Jarrett all have that mindset. Tori Belgeri is coming back from an injury, and we should see her on the field again this fall. Kailey Pretzlaff is a really fit player who pushes the edge well and is a good, positive teammate."

Six of the Bills' seven sophomores combined for 65 starting nods as freshmen a year ago. Two of those players, Mary Wright and Mallorie Owens, finished in the top four in minutes among SLU's field players.

"The experience gained by this group last season will help our team a great deal," Mertz said. "The sophomore class has a lot of ability."

Eleven freshmen dot the Saint Louis roster. While Mertz doesn't foresee as much of a reliance on first-year players as the Billikens experienced in 2011, she is leaving the door open for contributions from the rookies.

"We'll see a lot of our returning players in the starting lineup this year," Mertz said. "We'll try to mix in some of the freshmen to get some experience under their belts and get them up to speed on what the team worked on last spring."

Walsh, a two-year starter, anchors the defense from between the posts. On the Billikens' career charts she ranks fourth in goals against average, saves, shutouts and minutes.

"It's exciting to have Katie in goal," Mertz said. "She is a very good goalkeeper with solid hands, she's hard to beat, and she brings a lot of leadership to the team.

"Our two freshman keepers, Hanna Benben and Emma Romberg, are doing very well. Goalkeeping is a strong point of our team and will become even better if we continue to improve in certain situations and certain areas."

Walsh and the Billiken defenders are charged with the task of significantly reducing last year's total of 30 goals allowed. Teamwork will be crucial if SLU is to realize Mertz's goal of cutting that number in half.

"We're putting in a defensive system that's different from the one this team has played before," Mertz said. "We have a good, solid, fit group of players on the back line who are working together to make things tighter, play more as a unit and understand zonal principles. We also would like to see our backs get involved in the attack a little more."

A starter in 37 consecutive contests, Baumann has garnered the Billikens' Most Valuable Defensive Player award the past two seasons. Jarrett is emerging as a key outside back, and Viviano has 37 career starts. Wright and fellow sophomores Maddy Bush and Andrea Strebler are ready to contribute after seeing plenty of game action during their freshman campaign.

Sophomore Julia Merlo appeared in every game last season and has the flexibility to play in the middle or wide. Freshmen Colleen Cole and Michelle Schwarz came to camp as midfielders but have been moved to outside-back positions, where Mertz expects them to earn minutes coming off the bench.

Reimer, Hummert and Owens, who have combined for 78 career starts, headline the midfield ensemble. Mertz likes Reimer's ability to change a point, while Hummert - who will float between the midfield and the forward line - is a strong offensive threat who led the Bills in shots her first two seasons. Owens is decribed by Mertz as a "crafty" midfielder.

"The midfield is something we need to continue to work on, but we have capable players in that area who can do the job," Mertz said. "In addition to our returning players, we have a couple of freshmen in Katelyn Hammarlund and Jamei Borges who have done well in camp. It's nice to see young players come in and show they're ready to make an impact."

Saint Louis found the back of the net only 16 times in 2011 while allowing almost twice that many goals. Turning those figures around will require not only better execution in the defensive third but also a more effective and efficient offense. Mertz is confident the Billikens have what it takes to score more goals.

"I'm excited about our forwards," Mertz said. "Whether we play a two-front or a three-front, our forwards have good ability in front of the goal and make hard, penetrating runs. We just have to make those scoring chances cleaner, with good services to the right spots. We'll continue to work hard on breaking down the opponent's back line to create scoring opportunities."

Sophomore Abbey Stock led the 2011 Billikens in goals (five) and points (13) en route to earning a place on the A-10 All-Rookie team. Hummert has shown flashes of goal-scoring prowess, and Mertz will count on Gebauer and sophomore Lindsay Elking to develop into offensive threats. The head coach considers Livi Logan-Wood, a strong, powerful freshman, to be a potential target player for Saint Louis up top.

The Saint Louis schedule is a 19-game slate that features three 2011 NCAA Championship qualifiers and seven home games.

The Billikens will face two of the three NCAA participants at home on the Robert R. Hermann Stadium pitch. Marquette, which advanced to the second round of the tournament and earned a top-five national ranking, is the opponent for SLU's Aug. 26 home opener. A-10 rival Dayton, which reached the national tournament after capturing a third consecutive A-10 Championship crown, comes to St. Louis Oct. 7.

Also on the home schedule are non-conference opponents Denver (Aug. 31) and Iowa (Sept. 12) as well as league foes Xavier (Oct. 5), Saint Joseph's (Oct. 19) and Temple (Oct. 21).

"This season is going to be a good one, it will be fun," Mertz said. "The biggest thing for us is increasing the standards for our program and setting forth the goal of winning the A-10 championship. I believe we have the players to do that."