PREVIEW: ASU baseball opens conference tourney today as No. 1 seed

Albany State starting pitcher Ryan Latner and the Rams open the conference tournament today in Ozark, Ala., against Tuskegee. Latner has the team’s lowest ERA at 4.13 as the Rams enter this year’s conference tournament as the overall No. 1 seed.

Albany State starting pitcher Ryan Latner and the Rams open the conference tournament today in Ozark, Ala., against Tuskegee. Latner has the team’s lowest ERA at 4.13 as the Rams enter this year’s conference tournament as the overall No. 1 seed.

OZARK, Ala. — Somewhere in the middle of the pile was Kenyan Conner, celebrating a conference championship with his Albany State baseball players at Paul Eames Stadium in the spring of 2010.

It’s been three years since Conner, who was an assistant in 2010 but is now the head coach of the Rams, has gotten to leap into a pile full of smiles and celebration — but he thinks the 2013 Rams could be the team to change that.

And if they do, Conner might just be the one starting the celebration after this week’s conference tournament.

“I’m a celebratory guy,” Conner said. “Of course I’ll be in the pile this year. If not, my guys will probably put me in it. I like having fun, too.”

The Rams (17-26) have had plenty of fun during the regular season, earning the conference’s top seed for the first time since 2010 and taking a 15-5 conference record into today’s opener against No. 4 Tuskegee.

They hit a slump at the end of the regular season, losing their final two conference series to Paine and Benedict, but Conner is confident his team will return to their midseason dominance today in Ozark, Ala.

“I’m not worried,” he said. “As long as the guys play with confidence we will be fine. And they are pretty confident.”

Nothing gave the Rams more confidence this season than when they fought back from two nine-run deficits for a stunning 24-17 victory on March 30 against the same Golden Tigers team they face today.

ASU also didn’t get rattled that game when the benches cleared after a nasty play at the plate that left Rams catcher Robert Latner with a broken hand.

“It showed how we can have each other’s back in important situations, but it also showed that we can keep our composure and not let other team’s get in our heads,” said ASU pitcher Ryan Latner, Robert’s younger brother who leads the Rams with a 4.13 ERA. “They want to beat us as bad as we want to beat them. (Today) is gonna be a fight.”

It’s a fight that Conner thinks he can win with his pitching staff, which is anchored by starters Latner, Clifford Peterson, Donte Williams and Jared Arrington.

And when Conner thinks about that pile at the end of the 2010 conference tournament, he thinks about what got him there: pitching.

“When you have dogs like that who will go on the mound and compete, you will always have a chance to win,” Conner said. “That’s the thing I am trying to get across to my team right now. We need bulldogs on the mound.”

The Rams’ pitching staff carried ASU to eight conference wins in nine games midway through the season, virtually locking up the No. 1 seed before the final two weeks of the regular season. But during the past two weeks, ASU has lost four of six and has given up an average of 8.7 runs per game.

“We have been going through some struggles with our pitchers and some errors in the field, and (today’s game) could be a rough one because they are going to hit the ball,” Ryan Latner. “We don’t have a pitcher who can strike you out. We have to make plays in the field.”

Fortunately for the Rams, they have a lineup full of hitters who can match anybody in the conference swing for swing.

Center fielder Dexter Moody is third in the conference with a .466 batting average and is the team leader in RBI and home runs, while Allen Hardy and former Westover stars Jacob Campbell and Kerry Hall have also provided some pop at the plate and carried the Rams to a 13-1 conference record heading into the April 13-14 series against Benedict.

But that’s when it started to unravel for a team that looked unbeatable in the conference for most of the season.

“We were looking ahead too much and were lucky we played good enough early to get the No. 1 seed, but we were definitely looking ahead too much,” Campbell said. “If we play like we have the last two weekends, then we will go in there and get beat.”

Moody said there was something a little more sinister about the late-season slump.

“We got a little selfish,” said Moody, who is also a star on the Rams’ football team. “We started playing for the name on the back of our jersey instead of the name on the front. As a team, we sat down and talked about playing as a team and not criticizing each other as much.”

Campbell believes the Rams have survived the slump and are poised to make some noise this week in Ozark.

“The last two weekends we forgot what we were playing for,” Campbell said. “In the middle of the season we knew what we were playing for, and if we get that intensity back then we have nothing to worry about. We know we can play with anybody.”

Campbell, a junior, can’t wait to taste a championship for the first time in his college career.

“I want that (conference championship) ring so bad,” Campbell said. “I’ve never been a part of a team that has won a championship. Some of the guys here have won it, and I want to know what it feels like to win one.”

Conner knows.

“You feel like a champion and you accomplished your short-term goal,” said Conner, who took himself back to that celebratory pile in 2010 again. “When you are able to be crowned a champion it’s always a situation where you pile on a little bit.”