LEWISBURG, Pa. -- The 2014 NCAA women's soccer calendar begins this weekend, and Bucknell begins its campaign on Sunday with a tough road test at Colonial Athletic Association preseason favorite Hofstra. The match is slated to start at noon at Hofstra Soccer Stadium, and a live radio call will be available on WRHU 88.7 FM

This will be the very first meeting between Bucknell and Hofstra in women's soccer. The Bison just played an exhibition game last weekend against another top CAA contender in James Madison. The Dukes won that scrimmage 4-1, with freshman Maddie Mulford accounting for the Bucknell goal. 

Hofstra scored 42 goals in 19 matches in a 10-6-3 season a year ago, and the Pride return two prolific scorers in Sam Scolarici and Leah Galton. Galton recorded eight goals and 11 assists en route to CAA Player of the Year honors last season. She was recently named to the MAC Hermann Trophy watch list for 2014. Scolarici led the CAA with 18 goals last season, and her 33 career tallies are six shy of Hofstra's program record. All told, the Pride return seven starters and six of their top 10 scorers from a year ago.

For the Bison, Sunday's game marks the start of a three-game road trip to start the 2014 campaign. Next week they will play a Friday/Sunday set in New Jersey at Monmouth and Rider. The home opener is set for Tuesday, Sept. 2 against UMBC at 7 p.m. at Emmitt Field.

Last season the Bison finished tied for fifth with American in the Patriot League standings with 13 points (4-4-1 records). Bucknell was the No. 6 seed in the Patriot League Tournament and played 110 scoreless minutes at No. 3 Colgate before falling 5-4 in penalty kicks. The Bison were picked sixth in the preseason coaches’ poll, behind Boston University, Navy, Colgate, Army and American, and senior midfielder Evelyn Nicinski earned Preseason All-Patriot League honors. 

Below is a more in-depth season preview.

As head coach Ben Landis prepares for his 10th season on the Bucknell sideline, he has plenty of foundation on which to build entering the 2014 campaign. After a rare two-year postseason hiatus, the Bison returned to the Patriot League Tournament last season, only to drop an agonizing quarterfinal game in penalty kicks at Colgate. Now nine starters and 18 letterman are back in camp this fall, fueled by that near-miss in Hamilton, and Landis believes his side has what it takes to make that next step forward and play for a championship trophy.

“We recognize what we did well and what we did not so well last year,” said Landis, who is the winningest coach in program history. “The upperclassmen have all come back hungry for more, and our freshman class has come in and raised the bar. We have as much depth and talent in the program as we have had several years, and we believe we can be three or more wins better than last year and compete for a bye or a first-round home game in the Patriot League Tournament. At the end of the day, it is all about qualifying for the tournament, playing your way to Sunday and then battling to lift the hardware.”

The Bison finished 7-9-2 overall and 4-4-1 in the Patriot League last season, and the only starters lost to graduation were midfielder Liz Dwornik (1 goal, 4 assists) and Third Team All-Patriot League forward Chelsey Garkowski (4 goals, 2 assists). Bucknell returns two other 2013 all-conference honorees in Second Team All-Patriot League center midfielder Evelyn Nicinski and Third Team defender Courtney Nelson.

Nelson will return to her right back position this season and will be in her second year as captain, joining senior goalkeeper Dana Calderone, junior back Lauren Dandie and junior midfielder Devan Schulte in that role. For the third straight year, Nicinski will spend some time away from the team while playing for Poland’s national team. She will miss the team’s exhibition game at James Madison but is expected to be back in time for the Aug. 24 season-opener at Hofstra. Nicinski could be away for another match later in the season, but she is not expeted to be absent for any Patriot League games, unlike last season when she was overseas during Bucknell’s double-overtime loss to Army.

Fortunately, Landis feels he has plenty of depth to overcome the brief loss of his all-star center mid, and he is especially pleased to have a fortified back line after that position was devastated by injuries last year.

“In the back we were thin and injury-prone last year,” said Landis. “We might have overcompensated this year, but that is a good thing. We feel that Courtney is the best attacking right back in the league, and now we can surround her with all kinds of depth and talent. All four backs that were starting at the end of last year have returned, and then you bring back three more who missed all or most of the year with injuries plus a couple of really promising freshmen. Everyone is pushing each other to be better.”

The Bison finished last season with Nelson and then-freshman Montana Paley at the two outside back positions, flanking Dandie and veteran Hannah Bonotto in the center. The Nelson-Bonotto-Dandie triumvirate has combined for 122 career games and 119 starts, giving the defensive unit a veteran presence. Sophomores Cora Climo, Sam Powers and Kelsey Witt all went down with injuries early last season, and those three along with classmate Paley are all capable of playing in the back or midfield. Toss in another veteran in senior Michaela Berman and promising newcomers Karli Cirovski and Meghan Holtz, and it appears that Landis’ biggest concern this year will be fitting all the pieces together.

“Figuring out the right combinations is going to be a major task during preseason and even into the non-conference portion of the schedule,” said Landis. “We have depth, talent and a lot of different personalities, but we still need to form an identity as a unit. We like to attack out of the back, especially with Courtney. She ran a lot of miles last year, and because we were so thin depth-wise she really had to pick her opportunities. Now even if it means she only plays 70 to 75 minutes, we have capable reserves and she can go all-out.

“Hannah is our organizer on the back line. She is strong and solid and has a very strong leg when we need to get a ball cleared out. Lauren is very consistent and works well next to Hannah. She is a calming influence and is also a very technical player. Her first touch is fantastic. Kelsey might be the most improved player we have from the end of last season through the spring. She has turned into one of our best 1v1 defenders and is very vocal with great pace. Montana had a very good freshman season and played a lot of key minutes for us. She has been dealing with some back soreness, but when healthy she is a tremendous athlete who can compete at outside mid and outside back. Sam is back after having knee surgery last October. She had a great summer. She has the technical skills to play anywhere. Her first touch is so soft and she is a great passer from 10 to 40 yards. Cora is also a very good player, which is something we recognized even more after we lost her to injury early last season. She is a selfless player who can play holding center mid, center back or outside back.”

Three experienced goalkeepers are battling for playing time behind that large stable of defenders, and they will be mentored by a new goalkeeper coach in Becky Scroger. Senior Dana Calderone walked on to the team midway through her freshman season, and she is so well respected by her teammates that she was elected co-captain this year. Junior Jessie Ashworth started the first 15 games last season, posted a 1.75 goals-against average and won a Patriot League Goalkeeper of the Week award. Sophomore Jessica Ratner finished last season as the starter, making 17 saves with only two goals against for a sparkling 0.40 GAA. She had a 110-minute shutout against Colgate in the Patriot League Tournament quarterfinals and earned a PL Rookie of the Week honor late in the year.

“We feel that we have very good depth in goal, and we expect all three keepers to be better with another year’s experience,” said Landis. “We are counting on them to be not only shot-stoppers, but also our first attackers once we gain possession of the ball. We need good decision-making and vocal leadership. Jessie came back looking great. She worked extremely hard in the weight room this past spring and summer, and it shows. At the end of last season we challenged her to come back and reclaim the No. 1 spot, and she has really taken it to heart. She is quick and fast and brave, and can confidently play off her line. Jessica has good hands and distribution. She had a very good finish to last season, and she has the potential to be terrific. Dana is just a natural leader. She is a huge part of our team’s culture and is so well-respected by coaches and teammates alike.”

In the center of the field, the Bison might not have the depth to match the defensive corps, but Landis feels the talent is certainly there. Nicinski has developed into one of the best two-way players in the Patriot League. She shared the team lead with four goals and 10 points last season, even though she missed some time while playing for Poland in World Cup qualifying and spent a few games early in the season playing center back.

“Evelyn knows what to do and how to do it,” praised Landis. “She is fit, strong and confident, just a real pro.”

Juniors Madison Loos and Devan Schulte are both coming off outstanding sophomore seasons in two-way roles positioned in front of the back four. Both are strong defenders and distributors. Freshman Carolyn Casey is also battling for time at central midfield.

“Devan is a captain this year and is consistent and dependable,” said Landis. “She plays in the middle of the team and is great at connecting back to front and left to right. Maddy is just flying. She had a fantastic spring and is fit and confident. She has really developed into one of our best players and is just fun to watch. As a center mid, she is figuring out how to play off other players, when to attack and when to protect.”

Senior Cassie Denger is the most experienced outside midfielder in the program with 53 games to her credit. She is adept at sending balls in from the right side and has five goals and seven assists in her career. Sophomore Alexis Gannon showed glimpses of her tremendous potential while playing in all 18 games with nine starts last season. Newcomer Jackie Ham is also a natural outside midfielder, and Landis could also move up backs such as Witt and Paley.

“We have a number of players who can work box to box, provide us with natural width and deliver balls into the box,” said Landis. “Cassie Denger came back fit and strong. She already had great pace, and it even looks like she has picked up a half-step. She has a great understanding of what we want to do on the front line. Alexis’ place on the team is to be attack-minded. She is a physical presence with her height and strength, and she seems to be much more confident and vocal than a year ago.”

Up top the Bison will have to replace Garkowski, their primary target over the last two years. Senior Brigit Falcón, junior Danielle Piccirilli and sophomore Sarah Bresette all have considerable experience and all have scored goals. Sophomore Shannon Donlon has improved rapidly over the last year, and freshmen Kendall Ham and Maddie Mulford have plenty of promise.

“We have challenged the forwards to find an identity among themselves,” said Landis. “I don’t know that we have a 10-goal scorer in the group, but there might be 10 players capable of scoring three or four apiece. We are working on interchanging personalties and sustaining an energy that is difficult to defend.

“Brigit is healthy this year, and she strikes a heavy ball that is difficult to save and then hold on to. She can play up top or at midfield. Danielle has great feet and is very athletic. She could probably play any sport well. She can be a consistent threat up top and can integrate with any type player. Shannon is very fit and has worked hard. When she plays simply she is very good. Sarah has a great personality both on and off the field, which I love. Her first touch running at goal is probably the best on the team, and she plays low to the ground and is tough to knock off the ball.”