SEASON PREVIEW: ASU volleyball driven by tough losses, ready to rule conference once again

ASU returner Amber Gatling is ready to help lead the Lady Rams' volleyball team back to the conference title game and beyond after two straight years of falling short.

ASU returner Amber Gatling is ready to help lead the Lady Rams' volleyball team back to the conference title game and beyond after two straight years of falling short.

ALBANY — Amber Gaitling doesn’t just remember losing the conference championship the last two seasons to Kentucky State.

The Albany State junior relives the losses almost every time she steps on the volleyball court.

“Every time I hit a kill, a block or a dig, I am envisioning Kentucky State players on the other side of the net,” Gaitling said.

The Lady Rams had won nine straight conference titles before they were tripped up by Kentucky State the last two seasons — and it’s been those losses that have driven Albany State during the off season.

They motivated the Lady Rams to work, to train, to study.

And to dream big.

“We talk about it all the time,” sophomore Sharme Ridley said. “Whenever anybody asks us what our goal is, it’s to beat Kentucky State. They know we are coming for them, and I feel like we can really get them this year.”

The Lady Rams open the season today with matches against Lander and Florida Tech, but it’s a Sept. 20 conference crossover tournament — and likely a conference championship matchup against KSU in November — that is still motivating ASU.

“I have been going on the website and looking at Kentucky’s players and seeing what positions they have and the heights of their players,” Gaitling said. “We have been practicing plays. I just don’t like losing to them, and I plan on getting my ring this year.”

The Lady Rams have the talent to do it, too.

They lost setter Kenya Jolicoeur and outside hitter Sabrina Garcia, but the rest of the team is back and ready to improve on a 15-12 regular season record.

“We are smaller, quicker and better,” coach Robert Skinner said. “We are doing a much better job at handling the ball. Our big weakness last year was that we weren’t good ball handlers, but we have put in a lot of time with our ball handling. This is a different team. They worked hard all summer and trained. Most of them got their body fat down, and they are leaner, smaller and extremely quick.”

And it was all because of a summer workout regimen that pushed the team to get fit.

“Me working out this summer has made me in better shape, so if there’s a ball I need to go after or a long rally then I’m not as tired,” Ridley said. “I’ve been telling everybody that we are a lot better at this stage than we were last year, so I am really excited for our first tournament because I think we are going to actually do better.”

The Lady Rams have three seniors headlining their roster — captain and setter Jennifer Johnson, who was named setter of the tournament in last year’s conference tourney, right hitter Janeka Reid and libero Adrienne Morris.

The team’s big hitters will be Ashley Johnson, who is a transfer from Florida A&M, Jennifer Evans, who is back after missing the last part of season with an ACL injury, and Ridley.

The Lady Rams don’t have a player taller than 5-foot-11, but they can make up for it with their athleticism.

“We aren’t really tall like we normally are, but we can still play well above the net,” Skinner said. “They can jump. They can jump extremely high. We are still really athletic.”

But more than anything, the Lady Rams are motivated.

“We have (players-only meetings) in our locker room, and everybody says what their expectations and goals are for the team. Beating Kentucky State comes up a lot,” Gaitling said. “We are ready to get that ring.”