Albany State volleyball coach Robert Skinner talks to his team during a timeout in the second set of Wednesday’s conference tournament opener against Clark Atlanta, which the Lady Rams lost, 3-0.

Albany State volleyball coach Robert Skinner talks to his team during a timeout in the second set of Wednesday’s conference tournament opener against Clark Atlanta, which the Lady Rams lost, 3-0.

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Albany State’s Jennifer Evans, left, and Jillian Anderson reach up for a block against a Clark Atlanta hitter.

ALBANY — Robert Skinner saw it in his players’ eyes before a single point was played.

It’s why the Albany State volleyball coach walked into his team’s locker room before Wednesday’s opener of the conference tournament and made a bold statement.

“I told them that (unless their attitude changes) we were going to go out there and lose to Clark,” Skinner said.

And that’s exactly what happened in HPER Gym, where the Lady Rams entered the opening day of the tournament with a No. 1 seed and a 16-0 conference record and left with a stunning 3-0 (25-20, 25-13, 25-21) loss to Clark Atlanta.

Skinner saw it all coming as the Lady Rams were warming up for the contest.

“We traditionally warm up and continue to warm up until the game. They warmed up (Wednesday) and sat back down, which was very strange,” Skinner said. “I really think they expected to play four games and be playing in the championship game on Friday. They didn’t realize that everybody is talented and everybody wants to win.”

The Lady Rams never led in any of the three sets and fall to the loser’s bracket in the double elimination tournament, leaving them with a rough road to reach their 12th consecutive championship match.

They will need to win three matches today — starting with a 10 a.m. matchup against Fort Valley — and then another three on Friday just to make it to the championship at 5 p.m.

“It’s definitely not easy now,” Skinner said. “You have to fight and have a lot of heart, and I hope we have that type of heart and that type of fight. We do have that type of ability and type of skills, but I just don’t know if they are willing to sacrifice what needs to be sacrificed.”

Lady Rams senior setter Jennifer Johnson believes her team has what it takes to fight back.

“This team isn’t going to give up,” said Johnson, who finished with 26 assists. “We are going to win a championship, but it’s just going to be a long journey. We made it harder on ourselves than we had to, but we are going to get there.”

The Lady Rams (19-12) fell behind early in the opening set and fought off five set points for Clark Atlanta before losing, 25-20.

Clark (20-17) came out just as strong in the second set, jumping out to a 4-1 lead and pulling away after winning 10 of 11 points during a streak late in the set.

The third set was the closest, and ASU came within one point (12-11) midway though and within three points (24-21) at the end.

“There was something off,” junior Jillian Anderson said. “I could feel it throughout the team. It translated to our play. We got down in the first game and weren’t passing good. In the second game we got down even more, and the third game we just didn’t fight enough.”

The Lady Rams just didn’t have any answers for Clark Atlanta’s net play. The Lady Panthers combined for 41 kills and were led by Chanel Trice (11), Ashley Brooks (9) and Cori Smith (9).

Sharme Ridley led ASU with 11 kills, while Ashley Johnson added eight and Anderson had six.

Adrienne Morris had a team-high 15 digs, and Ashley Johnson recorded the Lady Rams’ only ace.

It wasn’t enough, however, to cool the hard-hitting Lady Panthers, who entered Wednesday with four wins in their last six games.

“Clark came to play, and we didn’t. And they beat us,” Anderson said. “I feel like we got a little too cocky because we came in undefeated. I feel like the loss humbled us. Now that everyone’s eyes are open to the fact that we could lose this tournament, everybody is going to have to come to play.”

Skinner has seen his Lady Rams dig themselves out of similar holes. Two years ago, ASU fought back from an early-round loss before losing the championship to Kentucky State. Nearly a decade ago, the Lady Rams lost in the opening round but ran the table to win the title.

The Lady Rams, who won nine straight championships from 2001-09, have been runners-up the previous two seasons.

“I’m hoping and praying that their passion continues and that they feel like there is a reason to play (today),” Skinner said.