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Feb. 16, 2012

PITTSBURGH-Looking to continue its recent success, the University of Pittsburgh softball team prepares for a promising 2012 season. The Panthers return six starters and welcome eight newcomers to a squad that finished 34-17 a year ago.

In 2011, Pitt recorded its third consecutive winning season under head coach Holly Aprile. Entering her fourth season at the helm of the program, Aprile and her staff have led the Panthers to 86 wins and two Big East Championship berths. This past season marked only the third time in program history that Pitt captured 30-plus wins, including 10-plus wins in its conference.

The Class of 2012 is 32 victories away from surpassing last season’s senior group who left their mark as the winningest class in Pitt softball history. Last year’s seniors recorded 117 victories during their four years of play, including 44 in Big East play.

Aprile returns her entire infield from last season, including All-Big East selections Kelly Hmiel and Holly Stevens.

The top position returner, Hmiel will enter her senior season as the starter at third base. Last year, she ranked among the NCAA leaders in slugging percentage, home runs and runs batted in per game. Hmiel is the current school record holder for batting average in a single season (.393).

“Kelly had a terrific junior season and a productive fall,” Aprile said. “She worked very hard though the winter and I expect her to have an outstanding senior year.”

Last season, senior Kristen Cheesebrew started every game at second base and compiled career highs in batting average (.280) and hits (37). The co-captain will be handling a variety of duties this year, including seeing some time at first base in addition to second.

Senior Niki Cognigni is coming off a standout 2011 season. She started all 51 games at shortstop and topped her previous career highs in batting average (.265), hits (39), home runs (3) and stolen bases (8). This will be Cognigni’s fourth year as the starting shortstop.

“Niki brings a strong presence and continuity to the infield,” Aprile noted. “Her experience and leadership will be counted on this year.”

Senior Ciera Damon appeared in 47 games for the Panthers last year, starting 43 at first base. She totaled a team-high 288 putouts along with a stellar .990 fielding percentage. Damon will continue to see time at first base this season.

As a freshman last year, Courtney Derus saw action in nine games and made her first-career appearance as a pinch hitter against Florida Atlantic. Derus will provide depth at both shortstop and second base.

Senior Jessica Rhodunda returns to action after a successful 2011 season. Last year, she appeared in 35 games and scored 14 runs as a pinch runner, recording a perfect 6-for-6 in stolen bases. She will serve as the primary pinch runner for the Panthers as well as backing up several infield and outfield positions.

Freshman Maggie Sevilla will get the start at second base this season. She was named the San Diego Union Tribune Athlete of the Year as a senior at Scripps Ranch High School, and Aprile expects her to make an impact this season.

“Maggie is an all-around athlete,” Aprile said. “She’s very smooth at second base, has great hands and good presence.”

Pitt returns junior All-Big East honoree Stevens and seniors Keli Gaynor and Amanda Heitmeier.

Stevens put on a spectacular performance both at bat and behind the plate last season. She boasted a .327 batting average, adding eight home runs and 42 RBI, which ranked second on the team. Stevens caught all 51 games and committed only four errors on the season.

“Holly is our field general. She sees the game very well from behind the plate,” Aprile stated, “She is also one of our most prolific players statistically and I expect that to continue this season.”

Last year, Gaynor appeared in 45 games, starting in 32 of the contests. She saw action both behind the plate and as the designated hitter, recording five homers on the year.

“Keli has put in a lot of work and it shows,” Aprile noted. “She is aggressive at the plate and is ready to step up in big situations.”

Heitmeier started nine games and made 20 total appearances in 2011. She smacked her first career grand slam during the first game of a doubleheader against Seton Hall. Heitmeier will primarily be a designated player but may be used a utility infielder as well.

Newcomer Alicia Keough will add depth at the catching position for Pitt. A three-time all-conference first team honoree at Nazareth Academy, she racked up a .464 career batting average and 67 RBI.

Returning right fielder Yvette Bravo is coming off a successful junior year. Bravo started in 49 games and tied a career-high with a .288 batting average.

“Yvette is going to have a breakout season,” Aprile predicted. “She is a power hitter who has shown great progress in the fall and throughout our winter practices.”

Freshman Carissa Throckmorton will add depth to the outfield in addition to seeing time on the mound.

“Carissa is a great athlete,” Aprile said. “She’s versatile, fast and packs a lot of punch at the plate in a small frame. She’s being asked to do a lot of things and she’s handling it well.”

Freshman Carly Thea is expected to earn the start in centerfield, while fellow classmates Nikki Caruso and Jordan Fannin will also provide depth in the outfield.

Pitt enters the spring season with a new pitching staff. Freshman hurlers Savannah King and Alexa Larkin will lead the team in the circle. Throckmorton will also contribute to the pitching rotation.

“Our pitchers have a lot of responsibility and they know that,” Aprile stated. “So much of the game flows from the mound and I expect them to set a great tone out there. We’ve had strong pitching in the past and I suspect it will be as good, if not better this year.”

A four-year varsity starter for the Orange Lutheran Lancers, King led her high school team to its first undefeated season and a Division I League Title. She was named League Pitcher of the Year as a senior, recording a 1.24 ERA and 14 wins on the mound. In Pitt’s fall season victory over Cleveland State, King recorded six strikeouts and finished 2-for-3 at the plate. She also earned a 2-1 win over Eastern Kentucky, fanning eight batters and allowing just three hits.

Larkin, a four-year varsity letterwinner for the Latrobe Wildcats, led her squad with a .061 ERA and was voted team MVP in 2010 and 2011. In her debut performance as a Pitt Panther this fall, she struck out nine batters and collected a 3-1 win over IUP.

The Panthers open their 2012 season at the Texas Invitational (Austin, Texas) where they will face Illinois, #18 Texas and #14 Tennessee, followed by a series of tournaments including the ESPN Citrus Classic Tournament, the Long Beach State Tournament and the James Madison Invitational.

“This year’s schedule is considerably more challenging than last year’s,” Aprile admitted, “but I think we have the personnel in place to tackle it. If you want to be the best, you have to play the best.”

Pitt’s home opener at the Petersen Sports Complex is set for Wednesday, March 21 at 3 p.m. against St. Francis (Pa.).

Soon thereafter, the Panthers begin Big East action on Saturday, March 24 and Sunday, March 25 when they travel to Louisville for a three-game set.

2012 Softball Season Preview

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