PHILADELPHIA - Looking to make a return trip to the Atlantic 10 Championship for the second straight year, a youthful and talented Saint Joseph's softball team opens its 2017 schedule this Friday at the Michele Smith Pediatric Cancer Invitational in Clearwater, Florida.

Backed by one of the most youthful lineups in the nation, composed of a combined 14 sophomores and freshmen, the Hawks enter the season as one of the favorites in the A-10 as they were selected to finish third in the conference preseason poll.

Led by a deep and talented pitching staff, SJU returns starters Ashley Ventura and Madison Clarke, along with welcoming the return of senior Niki Carillo and addition of freshman Ashley Stokes.

An A-10 All-Rookie selection last season, Ventura led the Hawks in wins, strike outs (121) and innings pitched (154.1) as a freshman. Saint Joseph's returning leader in ERA (2.26), Clarke went 8-8 a season ago and spent the past summer competing with Team Canada National Team at the World Cup of Softball.

Carillo returns to the mound for SJU this season after missing 2016 due to injury. Fully healthy, the 2014 A-10 All-Rookie Team honoree enters her final season with a 6-4 record. A standout at Clay High School, Stokes earned Class 5A First Team All-Florida accolades as a junior after boasting a 0.738 earned run average and 219 strike outs.

Also adding to the Hawks' depth in the bullpen is sophomore Abigail Stroud who will look to make her collegiate debut after missing 2016 due to injury.

Behind the plate, Saint Joseph's returns the top back stop in the conference in senior Kaylyn Zierke. An A-10 All-Conference First Team honoree as a junior, Zierke impressed in her first season with the Hawks as she ranked second in RBIs (34) and hits (49) and third in batting average (.295), runs (26) and home runs (seven).

Rookie Sarah Ostaszewski will compete for playing time at catcher.

The battle for starting spots in the infield is a close competition as the Hawks near the season opener. Starting 49 games between third base and shortstop, sophomore Taryn Grober ranked second among SJU newcomers in hits RBIs (nine) and third in (24), while classmate Stacey Mayer started a team-high 21 games at second and was second among newcomers in batting average (.242). 

At first base, Isabel Hansbury comes to Hawk Hill after a solid freshman campaign at Hofstra where she hit .667 over eight contests. Pursuing the starting role at first along with Hansbury is freshman Caela Abadie. A four-year All-State honoree at West Chester Bayard Rustin, Abadie capped her high school career as Pennsylvania's all-time leader in home runs and RBIs. 

Fighting for the fourth infield starting spot come Friday are Stroud and freshmen Ashley Hession, Molly Kapala.

Anchored in the outfield by All-Conference honoree center fielder Amanda Kulp and three-year starter senior Madeline Brunck, Saint Joseph's brings back one of the best defensive groups in the conference.

Named to the All-Region honoree in 2016, Kulp put up an outstanding campaign as a freshman as she led SJU in batting average (.364) and tied for second in program history for stolen bases with 20. Ranking second in runs (29) and third in hits (47), she enters her sophomore season looking to build upon those numbers.

Starting 35 games in right field as a junior, Brunck is coming off a career season in which she posted new highs in hits (44) and runs (22), while batting .268. She enters Friday just one hit shy of 100 for her career.

Sophomore Raelynn Genovese enters the season having ranked second among rookies in hits (31) in 2016 and started a team-high 29 games in left field a season ago. Junior Erica Nugent earned 12 starts in left and posted a career-high and will join classmate Lauren Reilly and freshmen Jancarla Herrera and Madison Scuderi in pushing for the final starting spot.

Poised for another memorable season, the Hawks begin their quest for an A-10 title this Friday versus Binghamton at 1:30 p.m.