Albany State’s Precious Peak, left, works against teammate Kedeeyma Cooper during practice last week in preparation for tonight’s season opener on the road at Valdosta State. Peak, a former Randolph-Clay star, and Cooper, a former Mitchell County star, hope to lead the Lady Rams back to the top of the conference. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
ALBANY -- April Thomas' introduction to college basketball is one she may want to forget.
The freshman from Bainbridge, who will be in Albany State's starting lineup this season, had trouble finding the words to explain how she felt after the Lady Rams lost two preseason games to local junior college teams.
"We are supposed to be stomping them and putting them into the ground," Thomas said about ASU's surprising losses to Darton College and Andrew College. "It didn't happen like that. I think those two losses were a wake-up call."
The two JUCOs opened the eyes of Thomas and the other nine freshmen on the ASU roster, but Lady Rams coach Robert Skinner said those losses may actually have been a positive.
The Lady Rams could have looked at those failures as an ominous sign of things to come in the regular season, but Thomas said they used them as motivation.
And with the season opener looming tonight on the road vs. a formidable Valdosta State, the youthful Lady Rams could need every bit of that motivation.
"It showed us how much we really need to work," said Thomas, who was a four-year starter at Bainbridge.
Thomas then added: "Play less, work more. Go out there ready to work hard and leave everything on the court."
ASU has come a long way since those preseason losses last month, but Skinner, who is in his 22nd year as ASU's head coach, said the Lady Rams still have an uphill battle this season with all of the youth and inexperience.
Senior Symone Wilkerson and sophomore Kourtney Alexander are the only returning starters from last year's team that finished 17-12.
Two other would-be returning starters -- 6-foot-1 seniors Jennifer Harper and Quinette Johnson -- won't be with the team because they are academically ineligible, and those who graduated from last season include Callie Hamilton, Taronya Wildgoose, Rosetta Daniels and Deanna Birdsong.
Skinner reluctantly called this season a rebuilding year, but he also said he believes they have what it takes to be successful when they get some games under their belt.
And so does Wilkerson, who averaged 12.7 points and 4.2 assists per game last season.
"Now, compared to two weeks ago, we have chemistry," Wilkerson said. "And we all realize we are going after one goal. We know that we aren't the tallest or biggest team this year, but we have realized we will be a running and fast team."
Speed will be the strength for the Lady Rams, who don't have a player taller than 5-11.
"We are going to be quick, but we aren't going to be as physical as I would like us to be or as disciplined as I would like us to be. Discipline pretty much goes out the door with (10) freshmen," Skinner said.
Seven of ASU's first eight games are on the road, and the Lady Rams' only home game before Christmas will be a Dec. 12 matchup against Valdosta State.
"On paper it doesn't look good, but I am optimistic," Skinner said. "We have a good team and a good group, and they are out there working hard. We are going to make the best out of it."
The tentative starting five for tonight's game will be Wilkerson, Alexander, Thomas, freshman Arneshia Williams and senior Breanna Fields. The only other seniors on the roster are Randolph-Clay graduate Precious Peak and Danielle Colson, who will miss the first few weeks of the season with an injury, and the only junior is Latronda Yancey.
The rest of the Lady Rams are underclassmen, including Mitchell County grad Kedeemya Cooper.
"We have a long way to go, because most of our team is made up of freshmen," said Thomas, who led all scorers in the scrimmage against Darton with 23 points. "We have actually gotten a lot better as far as playing as a team offensively and defensively.
"It's just the beginning of the year, so we have a long year ahead of us. We are going to be OK."