Albany State quarterback Frank Rivers, who transferred to ASU in the offseason from Grambling State and is the front runner to be the Rams’ starter this year, runs up a sand dune early Monday during the team’s annual conditioning to start the season. (John Millikan)

Albany State quarterback Frank Rivers, who transferred to ASU in the offseason from Grambling State and is the front runner to be the Rams’ starter this year, runs up a sand dune early Monday during the team’s annual conditioning to start the season. (John Millikan)

ALBANY — Sometime between Victor Moli’s first climb up the Albany State sand dunes and Monday morning, he stopped counting.

The footprints left in the dunes just east of ASU’s campus by Moli and his teammates seem endless, especially for the Rams’ captain and star offensive lineman who has forged as big a path as anybody the past three years.

“You can’t count how many times you go up those,” Moli said, glancing to the top of the dune. “Your freshman year, you used to count them, but now you know you have to run a lot. And if you count them, it makes it seem even longer.”

Moli and the Rams kicked off official practices for the 2013 season at 6 a.m., sprinting up and down the daunting dune for 30 minutes. The annual conditioning began in the dark of night with shooting stars streaking across the sky and ended as the sun rose above the horizon.

Mike White, who is entering his 14th season as head coach of the Rams, said it’s a tradition that is decades in the making.

“This (sand dune) was before me,” said White, who played at ASU from 1975-78. “It’s been around for a long time, and a lot of Albany State athletes have trained over here. Some teams would pay to have a hill like this.”

For others, like Grambling State transfer quarterback Frank Rivers, the taxing march up the hill is something new — but it’s a tradition that Rivers says makes the ASU program special.

“There is one saying I have been hearing since I got here,” said Rivers, who is the front runner for the starting quarterback position this season. “Everybody keeps saying it’s hard to be a Ram. And it’s true. It’s hard to be a Ram. You have to be a tough guy to be an Albany State Ram.”

Returning starting linebacker and Albany native Larry Whitfield grew up with the sand dunes, but said it’s a challenge each time he makes the climb.

“It’s very hard,” he said. “You have to be mentally and physically tough. You have to be ready for this. You just can’t quit.”

There’s a different feeling coming into the 2013 season than in previous years as the Rams are trying to bounce back from a 6-4 campaign. They missed the playoffs for the first time since an NCAA postseason ban was lifted in 2004 and failed to win more than six games for the first time since 2001 — White’s second year as head coach.

The road back to the postseason began Monday with the Rams ankle deep in sand, and there was nowhere else Moli could imagine it starting.

“This is something I am proud to be a part of because it is one of the hardest things you have to do as an athlete,” Moli said. “This is probably one of the most difficult things you do, but just like in life there are obstacles. This dune is the first obstacle in the way of our season.”

It’s a season with a lot at stake for a program trying to restore some of its swagger.

“I feel a lot of pressure to bounce back from a 6-4 season,” Moli said. “Everywhere I go, whether it’s Walmart or the dollar store, everybody asks what the team is going to be like. The only thing I can tell them is, ‘Championship, championship.’

“Everybody is playing with a chip on their shoulders. (A record of) 6-4 is a bad season. It’s a good season for other teams, but it’s a bad season for us.”

Rivers knows all about frustrating seasons.

“I know all of the guys are talking about last season’s 6-4 record, but I experienced a 1-10 season at Grambling,” Rivers said. “So I know what it feels like to be losing, and I plan to have a chip on my shoulder as well. I want to come in and help spark the team.”