ASU softball team turns over new leaf before conference tourney

ASU softball coach Robert Skinner had doubts about his team early in the season when it lost 10 in a row, but then the Lady Rams caught fire.

ASU softball coach Robert Skinner had doubts about his team early in the season when it lost 10 in a row, but then the Lady Rams caught fire.

ALBANY — Robert Skinner was ready to wipe the slate clean.

His Albany State softball team had lost 10 games in a row and had gotten outscored, 103-3, during a two-week span at the beginning of the season.

“It dawned on me that we may not be as good as I thought we were,” Skinner said. “We started thinking that we had more holes than we thought we had, and we were looking to let some kids go and bring some other kids in.”

But then the Lady Rams turned it all around.

The same team that started off so poorly at the beginning of the season is now surging at just the right time. ASU (25-24 overall, 23-3 in conference) has won six games in a row — and 18 of its last 26 — and will be the East Division’s No. 1 seed in this week’s conference tournament, which begins Thursday in Columbus against either Fort Valley State or Lane.

The Lady Rams, who have expectations to win their fifth conference title in the last eight years, have come a long way since that losing streak in the opening weeks of the season. Their mindset these days is all about playing with team unity.

“What I figured out (during that 10-game losing streak) is that we weren’t comfortable around each other like we should have been,” said freshman Chelsea Hicks, who is the team’s No. 1 pitcher. “Those were the games where we had to come together, and we did.”

All of those losses — which came during the midst of a brutal non-conference schedule — started reminding junior Shaywona Marks of last year’s team that finished 17-36 and was eliminated in the opening day of the conference tournament.

“I know how it feels to lose, and I don’t like that feeling,” Marks said Tuesday. “When we lost those 10 games at the beginning, we had to start winning. I couldn’t handle going through that again.”

The Lady Rams snapped that losing streak Feb. 25 with a two-game sweep of Clark Atlanta. Two weeks later, ASU swept Fort Valley State in a home doubleheader.

And then the wins just started pouring in.

ASU won 12 of 16 games to end March before an April 3 series against Valdosta State, the No. 1-ranked team in Division II. The Lady Blazers swept ASU (8-0, 7-0), but that was the moment Skinner realized how special this group could be.

“I saw competitiveness in my team and a desire to win,” he said. “They knew how good Valdosta State was, and they knew they were the No. 1 team in the country. But not once did they let that dampen their spirits or allow that to stop the way they were playing. I didn’t see them back off.”

They’re now bringing that same attitude into the conference tournament, where they know they are one of the favorites to win.

The Marks sisters — Shaywona and Chaconna — are two reasons ASU has dominated conference opponents this season. Shaywona is the No. 2 pitcher and is leading the team with a .359 batting average and 10 stolen bases, while Chaconna has a .333 batting average, a .493 slugging percentage and 25 RBI.

Seven Lady Rams are batting aboce .300 and nine have more than 10 RBI — including sluggers Ke’cia Griffin and Kandis Banks, who have combined for 49 RBI and eight home runs.

Hicks has been the ace all season and has a team-low ERA of 5.18, 71 strikeouts and a 13-12 record.

ASU will open tournament play Thursday against either Fort Valley State or Lane — two teams the Lady Rams are a combined 5-0 against this season. However, sitting on the other side of the bracket is Stillman, which is the West Division’s No. 1 seed and is 23-3 in conference. ASU and Stillman played just once this season in the conference cross-over tournament in mid-March, and Stillman won, 5-2.

“It would be a good championship,” Skinner said. “I really couldn’t care less who we play. My whole vision is to play one game Thursday, two games Friday, one game Saturday, and then come home.”

The Lady Rams will need to win four games in three days, but they think last weekend’s road trip when they played six games in three days — and won them all — prepared them for the conference tournament.

“It was a big test for our bodies, playing those games every day like that,” Hicks said. “But I feel like we did good and came out on top.”

And on top is exactly where they want to end up after this weekend.