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Hofstra baseball preview: Can Pride overcome grueling early schedule?

David Leiderman hit .271 with seven homers and

David Leiderman hit .271 with seven homers and 35 RBIs for Hofstra last season. Photo Credit: Hofstra University

Just call them The Road Warriors.

The Hofstra baseball team will be on the road during nine of the 15 weekends this season, which opens with an 11-game Cajun Country trip. It began Friday with a 5-1 loss at Murray State and includes games against top 35 teams Southeast Louisiana, LSU and Louisiana Lafayette.

“We’re really excited about it,” said redshirt senior third baseman David Leiderman, a second-team Colonial Athletic Association selection. “Our schedule is loaded with great competition and we feel really good about our team. Our pitching has improved tremendously and that will help us compete everywhere we go.”

Hofstra, which opened at UCLA and Hawaii in 2015 and at Texas A&M in 2016, is in the midst of a rebuilding phase with 17 newcomers, including eight new pitchers.

“The road trips build camaraderie,” said Leiderman, who batted .271 with 11 doubles, seven home runs and 35 RBIs last season. “I’ll do everything I can to help the team. I’m in a leadership role now and I need to be a positive role model for all the young guys.”

Leiderman, who won the 2012 Diamond Award presented to Nassau’s top high school player, is a 6-3, 215-pounder who has commanded looks for Major League Baseball’s free-agent draft in June.

“He was 165 pounds when he came in here as a freshman and he has worked his tail off to become a very strong player,” Hofstra coach John Russo said. “He’s an impact player.”

Russo said he’ll move two-year starter Steven Foster from centerfield to rightfield and hopes the junior regains the form of his freshman season, when he hit .380 and earned a spot on the rookie All-Conference team.

“Steven is a weapon on offense,” Russo said. “He batted .278 and had an on-base percentage of .407 last year, and most guys would be fine with that. But he’s got so much upside from there and he can really help this offense.”

Senior Brad Witkowski, who led the team in hitting with a .289 average and had 12 doubles and 29 RBIs, will slide from shortstop to second base. Redshirt sophomore Nick Bottari, who played most of last season while recovering from back surgery, is completely healthy and will bat cleanup. He homered Friday against Murray State.

“I’m going to enjoy a full season of watching a healthy Nick Bottari swing the bat,” Russo said. “I’ve never coached a more complete hitter.”

The Pride, which last made the conference playoffs in 2012, has struggled the past few years and looks to improve on last year’s record of 15-37, 5-18 in the CAA.

“We play a demanding non-conference schedule early in the season,” Russo said. “The philosophy is to compete and get ready for our conference schedule, which is very competitive. It’s going to be very different with most of our schedule on the road.”

The CAA is composed mostly of schools in Virginia and North Carolina. The Pride, which finished seventh in the conference a year ago, plays 36 road games and 23 at home.

“We return three of our top starters in our rotation,” Russo said. “And each of them has improved under our pitching coach, John Habyan.”

Habyan spent 11 seasons in the majors, including parts of five with the Yankees.

“We can see Habyan’s influence on the younger pitchers,” Russo said. “That will have a major impact on our success.”

Sophomore lefthander John Rooney, junior righthander Chris Weiss and redshirt junior Teddy Cillis are the projected starters. According to Russo, Cillis could be the top player in the conference.

“He throws 90, 91 with explosive stuff on the mound and he hit nine home runs last year,” Russo said. “He’s supremely talented.”

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