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Lady Rams ready to climb back to top of conference

Albany State shortstop and former Bainbridge star Vanessa Jones is expecting the Lady Rams to be better than last season, when they finished 18-37.

Albany State shortstop and former Bainbridge star Vanessa Jones is expecting the Lady Rams to be better than last season, when they finished 18-37.

ALBANY — Robert Skinner doesn’t like to be reminded about last season when the Albany State softball team came up short in the conference tournament.

“We are supposed to win,” said Skinner, ASU’s coach who directed the Lady Rams to conference championships in 2010 and 2009.

Skinner may not like to recall last year’s disappointing finish, but he hasn’t forgotten about it.

It pushed him and his team over the offseason as they prepared for the 2012 season, which begins today at home against the University of West Georgia.

The Lady Rams return most of their key position players from last season, but pitching will be a huge question mark for a team that is looking to get back on top in the conference.

Skinner said regaining that conference title starts with believing.

“We are always supposed to win, and I think that’s what bothers me so much about not winning,” said Skinner, who also coaches women’s basketball and volleyball at ASU but didn’t win a 2011 conference championship in any of his sports for the first time in 10 years. “Softball, volleyball, basketball. We are always supposed to win at Albany State. Nobody else believes that anymore, but we believe it here. It gets harder when we don’t win, but we know at Albany State we are supposed to win.”

The Lady Rams have bought into their coach’s confidence.

“We have to expect to win, because we have to make it to the next level and get to regionals,” junior shortstop and former Bainbridge star Vanessa Jones said. “We have to start small and win little by little, so we have to expect to win.”

Just like her coach, Jones is using last year’s quarterfinal exit from the conference tournament as motivation.

“It hurt to get that close and not get it, knowing we worked that hard,” Jones said. “This year we know we have to work even harder than we did last year.”

The Lady Rams will be counting on hard work and hitting to carry them one season after finishing just 18-37 overall.

Along with Jones, returning starters include catcher and preseason all-conference selection Chaconna Marks, her sister outfielder Shaywona Marks, third baseman Shandria Usher, outfielder Ashley Pugh and second baseman Adrienne Morris.

Chaconna Marks, who led the Lady Rams with 11 home runs, 60 RBI, 70 hits, 44 runs and a .422 batting average last season, will be the anchor in the middle of ASU’s lineup this season

“We have a lot of very strong hitters,” Marks said. “There isn’t a girl who can’t hit.”

If hitting is a strength, then pitching is a whole different story.

One projected starter was ruled academically ineligible and another didn’t have the grades to transfer in from a junior college. Those losses have left the Lady Rams shorthanded on the mound, a challenge that Skinner said his team will learn to handle better as the year goes on.

Freshman Chelsea Hicks from Marietta will be the team’s ace, while Shaywona Marks will be the Lady Rams’ No. 2 hurler. And that’s about as deep as the pitching staff goes.

“We have two other girls who we just found out could pitch, so we may have them later on,” Chaconna Marks said. “But for Chelsea and Shaywona, they are strong pitchers.”

Usher is the only senior on the 17-person roster, which is made up of five freshmen, two sophomores and nine juniors.

One of those juniors on the roster is former Westover star Domonique Bryant, who started in center field last season but won’t play this year with a torn ACL.

“This team has a lot of potential,” Skinner said. “We have all of these freshmen, and they have a lot of potential.”

Even though her team is so young and without experienced pitchers, Chaconna Marks has just as much confidence as Skinner and Jones.

“Deep down, everybody knows we can win,” she said. “And I like the fact that coach Skinner is expecting more out of us.”

And it doesn’t hurt that 14 of the team’s 16 games this month will be played at home.

“Having our first month at home is a confidence booster,” Jones said. “At home, we have a feel for it and we aren’t nervous going out to different schools. We’re ready to get started. I’m expecting big things from us this year.”