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PREVIEW: Red-hot Lady Rams softball enters conference tourney as team to beat

Sierra Gaines and the Lady Rams softball team enters today’s conference tournament as the No. 1 seed and looking for redemption after last year’s title eluded them following a first-round upset loss. Albany State enters the tourney 22-2 this season against its conference opponents. (Reginald Christian/Albany State University)

Sierra Gaines and the Lady Rams softball team enters today’s conference tournament as the No. 1 seed and looking for redemption after last year’s title eluded them following a first-round upset loss. Albany State enters the tourney 22-2 this season against its conference opponents. (Reginald Christian/Albany State University)

HAMPTON — The memory of last season still stings for Chelsea Hicks and her Albany State teammates.

Standing to the side of the ASU softball field Tuesday after her team’s final practice before today’s conference tournament opener, Hicks took herself back to the quiet, solemn bus ride that nobody has forgotten.

“I don’t want to feel that again,” Hicks said. “It’s still tough to think about.”

It was a three-hour ride back to Albany after the No. 1 seed Lady Rams were upset in the second round of last year’s conference tournament, and not a word was said as second-guessing and regret filled the bus.

The Lady Rams made that same ride to Hampton on Wednesday for this year’s tournament, where they are the No. 1 seed in the East Division again and open up play today against either Fort Valley State or LeMoyne-Owen after receiving a first-round bye.

ASU coach Robert Skinner isn’t even thinking about another ride back to Albany without a title.

“You aren’t always given another chance to do what you could have done last year,” Skinner said. “But we have been given another opportunity. We are right back with the same kids doing the same thing.”

And just like last year, the Lady Rams dominated conference opponents in the regular season. ASU enters the tournament 29-23 overall, 22-2 in the conference and is ranked first among conference teams in every major statistical category.

“You ask yourself, ‘How can you lose if your team has played this well through the season?’ ” Skinner said. “How do you lose?”

Of course, Skinner was asking himself those same questions last year after the Lady Rams finished the regular season 23-3 in conference play.

“The difference this year is that this team is a lot more focused,” Skinner said. “This team is a lot more determined because of what happened last year. They don’t want it to happen again. We are blessed to have good pitching this year, but we have good offense, too. I think the combination of the two will help us survive.”

ASU lost four straight last week to Georgia Southwestern and No. 24 Columbus State, but the Lady Rams have won 18 conference games in a row and have outscored opponents, 172-20, during that stretch.

Kandis Banks is second in the conference with a 1.035 slugging percentage, fourth with a .491 batting average and second in homers with nine.

Hicks (.441 batting average), Chaconna Marks (.429), Shelby Gale (.397) and Albany native Domonique Bryant (.368) lead the team in hitting, while Hicks leads the conference in pitching with a 1.43 ERA and an 8-0 record.

ASU sophomore Alexa Lopez (9-2, 3.70 ERA) has also been dominant on the mound this year and will be today’s starter.

“(Lopez) is going to throw every game that she can throw,” Skinner said. “Even though Chelsea hasn’t lost a game this year, Lopez is going to throw the conference tournament. Lopez is throwing the first and second game for sure, and Chelsea might throw the third game. But Lopez will throw the championship game. I’ve already mapped it out in my mind if we get that far.”

So has Banks, who said that bus ride home last year was one of the toughest things she’s had to endure.

“We have come a long way from that,” Banks said. “We are going to be ready and have our heads in the game. We have to be focused.”

The Lady Rams swept Fort Valley State last week to wrap up the regular season and were a perfect 4-0 against their rivals this year. But the Lady Wildcats, who are likely to advance to the second round to face the Lady Rams, were the team that knocked ASU into the losers’ bracket last season, so Skinner isn’t taking anything for granted this year.

“You have to play well this week and this weekend. As much as I would like to say that it is guaranteed, it’s not,” Skinner said. “You can’t afford to get into the losers’ bracket. I know we have the ability to battle back, but we don’t have the depth. I have 13 girls, and we just don’t have the depth.”

If ASU win’s its opener, it will advance to the semifinals of the winner’s bracket for a Friday afternoon game, while the winner’s bracket title game will be played Friday evening. The championship series will be played Saturday, and, if necessary, Sunday.