The Saint Louis University softball team opens the 2013 season this weekend in Hammond, La., at Southeastern Louisiana's Jimmy John's Lion Classic 1. The Billikens take on Jacksonville State and Nicholls State Friday, Feb. 8; UT Martin and Southeastern Louisiana Saturday, Feb. 9; and Louisiana Tech Sunday, Feb. 10.

Third-year head coach Christy Connoyer's squad is intent on returning to the Atlantic 10 Conference Championship after narrowly failing to qualify the past two seasons. Seven starters and two additional returning players will be joined by six newcomers in the Billikens' quest for postseason play.

"We're excited about the start of the 2013 season," Connoyer said. "We have an athletic squad in all three facets of the game - offense, defense, and pitching.   

"We hit the ball well during the fall, and I look for continued offensive production this spring. Defensively, we have a good combination of youth and veterans in the lineup. It's been encouraging to watch the balance of leadership and young talent develop. Juniors and seniors up the middle will provide a strong supporting cast for our pitchers."

A four-player senior class leads the way for Saint Louis.

The starting center fielder in all 56 games a year ago, Jessica Buschjost led the 2012 Billikens in batting average (.328), hits (60), runs (27) and stolen bases (34 in 37 attempts). Buschjost, who batted in the leadoff spot in all but two games, was second in the A-10 in hits and stolen bases and ranked 14th nationally in steals per game. She begins the season ranked among SLU's career top 10 in batting average (third, .310), stolen bases (fourth, 68), on-base percentage (eighth, .363) and runs (tie-10th, 69).

Catcher Alyson Brand led the team in doubles (eight), slugging percentage (.443) and sacrifice flies (three) last year while finishing second in batting average (.270), home runs (four-tied), RBIs (25) and walks (16-tied). Brand committed just one error, threw out 43 percent of potential base-stealers and tied for first in the A-10 with 17 runners caught stealing. On the Bills' career charts, she is fourth in walks (53), tied for fourth in home runs (11), tied for sixth in RBIs (68), ninth in slugging percentage (.398) and 10th in on-base percentage (.360).

Laura Bohning will continue to see time at first base. Bohning produced team highs of five home runs and 28 RBIs and was second with 33 hits and seven doubles last season. She is tied for fourth in home runs (11) and eighth in slugging percentage (.400) on the Billiken career lists.

Outfielder Erin Harcar, who started all but five games in 2012, was fifth in the A-10 with 22 steals (25 attempts). Harcar also produced four homers, three doubles, two triples, 17 RBIs and eight sacrifice bunts.

In the junior class, shortstop Jessica Van Nostrand returns after starting all 109 games during her first two seasons. Van Nostrand led the team with 119 assists and was second with 10 sacrifice bunts a year ago. Third baseman Kelsey Biggs smacked four home runs and tallied 11 RBIs in her sophomore campaign, while outfielder Katie Kroeger contributed 18 hits and 10 runs in spot-starting and reserve roles.

Sophomore outfielder Lindsay Friedman drew 46 starting assignments as a freshman and led SLU with a .372 on-base percentage. Friedman homered twice and drove in 13 runs. Sophomore first baseman/designated player Breanna Lockette looks to crack the starting lineup after filling a pinch-hitting role last year.

Junior Olivia Roback has drawn the starting nod at second base after transferring from Kankakee Community College. Connoyer also has added five freshmen to the roster.

Right-hander Laney Kneib and left-hander Brianna Lore will log most of the pitching assignments as SLU looks to replace the trio of Kelcie Matesa, Hannah Huebbe and Julian Austin. Right-hander Elizabeth Everingham will see some time in the circle and at third base.

Madeline Brungardt will compete for playing time in the outfield, while Ellie Huffman will complement Brand behind the plate.

SLU's challenging 56-game schedule features five 2012 NCAA Tournament qualifiers, three conference champions and seven teams ranked among the top 100 in the final NCAA Division I Ratings Percentage Index (RPI). The Billikens play 17 games, including 12 A-10 contests, at the Billiken Sports Center. The home opener is Wednesday, March 13, against Bradley (doubleheader).

"We have a competitive schedule ahead of us, traveling all across the Midwest and South early in the year," Connoyer said. "We face SEC and Big Ten opponents, as well as other conference leaders who will prepare us well for the A-10 season."