Albany State sophomore Clifford Peterson and the rest of the Rams pitching staff are looking to lead ASU back to the conference championship game — a journey that begins at noon today when the No. 3 seed Rams open up the conference tournament against No. 2 seed Miles.
ALBANY — Albany State baseball coach Kenyan Conner doesn’t mention last year’s conference tournament very often.
He brings it up only to let his players know that anything can happen.
The Rams, who finished runner-up last year as a No. 6 seed, will be the East Division’s No. 3 seed in this year’s tournament, which kicks off today in Ozark, Ala.
And Conner thinks his Rams have just as good a shot as anybody to emerge on top.
“It’s anybody’s tournament,” said Conner, whose Rams will play West Division No. 2 seed Miles at noon. “Last year’s top seed in the East (Benedict) didn’t even last two games. Conference records go out the window. It’s about going out there and playing one game a time.”
It’s been an up-and-down year for the Rams, who finished the regular season 18-20 overall and 13-8 in the conference.
They lost six of their first seven games and then suffered through a five-game losing streak at the end of March — which included a program-worst 33-7 loss to nationally-ranked Columbus State.
They bounced back from that losing skid with a seven-game winning streak at the beginning of April — which was highlighted by a 5-4 win at Columbus.
“We were doing the small things to win games,” Conner said about the winning streak to start April when the Rams outscored their opponents, 108-39.
The Rams have lost two of their last three games, but Conner said his team has the talent to put together a strong tournament run for the second year in a row.
The run starts with ace Ken Nesbitt, who will pitch today against Miles.
Nesbitt leads ASU with a 5.18 ERA, has won a team-high eight games and has 44 strikeouts.
“We want to get off to a good start, so we are starting off with Ken,” Conner said. “He’s our captain, and we are going to ride his arm.”
Clifford Peterson is right behind Nesbitt on the pitching depth chart. The sophomore from Stone Mountain has a 6.02 ERA and has struck out 30 in a team-high 14 appearances.
Offensively, the Rams have seven starters hitting over .300, including Ryan Latner, who has a team-best .375 batting average. Other key hitters have been reigning conference Player of the Year William Smalls (.362 BA, 5 HR, 26 RBI), Patrick Smith (.349 BA, 1 HR, 14 RBI), Rickey Harris (.346 BA, 1 HR, 39 RBI), Stephen Lightfoot (.337 BA, 2 HR, 18 RBI), former Westover star Jacob Campbell (.324 BA, 4 HR, 25 RBI) and Allen Hardy (.321 BA, 5 HR, 24 RBI).
“We are going to need the top of our lineup to produce,” Conner said. “We depend on (leadoff hitter Eddie) Mathis to get on base, and he makes a lot of stuff happen. If we can get him home and have the middle of the order continue to hit, then we will be just fine.”
ASU was ousted last year in the double-elimination tournament when Stillman won the first game of the championship series, 3-2. The Rams beat Miles, 18-12, in the second day of the tournament, but ASU and Miles haven’t seen each other this season.
Conner said the Golden Bears (22-16, 15-6) are good — but beatable.
“They have a good pitching staff over there,” Conner said. “We are going to have to play our game, but they can be beat.”