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2012 SEASON PREVIEW: Loaded Rams ready for another run

Albany State baseball coach Kenyan Conner led his team on a march through the conference tournament that ended one win short of the title. But with a host of returning players — including reigning conference Player of the Year William Smalls — the Rams enter 2012 as one of the favorites. (joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com)

Albany State baseball coach Kenyan Conner led his team on a march through the conference tournament that ended one win short of the title. But with a host of returning players — including reigning conference Player of the Year William Smalls — the Rams enter 2012 as one of the favorites. (joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com)

ALBANY — Nine months ago, Albany State baseball coach Kenyan Conner stood in right field at Paul Eames Park with his players circled around him and spoke from his heart, letting his team know how proud he was of them despite a heartbreaking loss to Stillman in the conference championship game.

Conner still remembers that talk, and he knows his players haven’t forgotten that sickening feeling of seeing Stillman celebrate in the background after its 3-2 victory.

“We talked about the taste in your mouth that second place leaves,” Conner said this week at practice as the Rams prepared for their 2012 campaign, which begins today. “It made them want to work that much harder, and those kids have been working hard to come back and try to get it done. The only place to go from second is first.”

That’s the mentality here at Albany State this season as the Rams open the season this afternoon in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., against Nova Southeastern University.

“It’s championship or bust,” said Westover grad and first baseman Jacob Campbell, who is one of several starters returning for the Rams.

The Rams didn’t have a senior on last year’s team and are returning each starter except Greg Johnson, who is academically ineligible. Those returners include reigning conference Player of the Year William Smalls and starting pitcher Ken Nesbitt, who was the ace of last year’s staff and will lead a deeper group of pitchers this season.

“We knew we should have won that championship game and gone further than we did,” Nesbitt said. “We also knew that everybody will be coming back (this year), and we knew all the trials and tribulations we went through with such a young team would leave us a lot better off this year.”

The Rams won 11 of their final 18 regular-season games and nearly cruised to their second straight conference title before Stillman clipped them in the final. The loss made Nesbitt even hungrier.

“We really just need to pick up where we left off,” Nesbitt said. “Everybody has playoff experience now and knows what to expect. Honestly, I think we have a lot better chance because our team chemistry is better than it was last year.”

ASU’s leadership starts with Smalls, a senior from Decatur. Smalls wasn’t available for comment during Tuesday’s practice, but his 2011 statistics speak for themselves.

He led the conference with nine home runs and 56 RBI and ranked second with a .718 slugging percentage. He also led the conference with 69 hits and tied for the league lead with 17 doubles while holding down a .406 batting average and a .500 on-base percentage.

“Of course the expectations are big for him,” Conner said about Smalls, who will start at shortstop. “There are expectations from his teammates and from himself.”

Other key returning position players are catcher Rickey Harris, outfielder Eddie Mathis and second baseman Corbin Williams, while Darton transfer Joshua Heinrich will start at third base. There’s plenty of experience around the diamond, which brings plenty of expectations.

“We are hearing it from everybody,” Campbell said. “They are saying, ‘Oh, you all got second place last year, so you know what that means this year.’ ”

Nesbitt knows there is pressure on him, too. No. 2 pitcher Clifford Peterson is also returning and underclassmen Jared Arrington, Ryan Latner, Justin Nichols, Allen Hardy, Hector Carrasquillo and Darius Small will see some time on the mound, but it all starts with ASU’s ace.

“Ken did well for us last year,” Conner said. “He has a little more velocity on his fastball this year and has been working hard. He was just a fastball, curveball guy, but he has added a slider and a change up. He has added a pitch every year he has been here. I expect big things out of him. He knows how to situational pitch.”

ASU is on the road for its first seven games before hosting Selma University on Feb. 17 in a doubleheader starting at 1 p.m. The Rams open conference play on the road March 10 at Clark Atlanta and have their first home conference game April 14 against Benedict. Their first 15 conference games are on the road before they finish up the regular season with six home conference contests.