After being stunned in last season’s conference tournament, the ASU softball team is ready to bounce back in its season opener today against Thomas University.
ALBANY — Kandis Banks had never been on a bus ride that was so quiet.
But an Albany State Lady Rams softball team that had made so much noise in the regular season wasn’t saying a word as they rode back from last spring’s conference tournament.
“No one talked the whole three hours back,” said Banks, who is a senior leader on this year’s ASU team but was a key part of last season’s squad that went into the conference tournament as the No. 1 seed but didn’t even make it past the second round.
“It’s never been quite like that,” Banks continued. “The whole ride it was complete silence. Coach (Robert Skinner) didn’t talk. We didn’t talk. We didn’t even watch a movie. We just sat in complete silence.”
It was just the fourth time in the last decade that Skinner didn’t ride back to Albany with a conference crown.
“Nobody said a word,” Skinner said. “It was like they were stunned.”
It’s not silent any more around the ASU softball field, where the Lady Rams open the 2013 season today with a doubleheader against Thomas University.
Banks is one of five senior leaders on an ASU team that returns the majority of its starters from last year, and she said on Monday that she and her teammates have been working on communication since that silent ride back from Columbus.
“We are the main ones doing the talking now,” Banks said. “We just tell (our teammates) to make sure we are communicating and hustling. We tell them to be confident, and that we have each other’s backs. That’s our motto as a team. We have each other’s backs.”
Banks led ASU at the plate last season with a .319 batting average, five home runs and 27 RBI, and while she will be an offensive leader again this year, she also is one of four pitchers fighting for a starting job.
Last year’s ace, Chelsea Hicks, is also in the mix and is joined by Alexa Lopez and Ambrionna Atkism — a group of pitchers that will all see action during a busy first week of action, which includes doubleheaders against Georgia Southwestern and Rollins College.
“If all of them perform up to expectations, it’s going to be great to have that depth,” Skinner said. “We hope to have it narrowed down to our top two by the time conference rolls around.”
Hicks, a sophomore from Marietta, finished last season with a 4.08 ERA, 77 strikeouts and a 14-13 record, but she lost her starting job in the fall and is working to regain the title as the staff’s ace.
“I need to have a demanding presence on the mound and think about each pitch before it happens,” said Hicks, who was named second-team All Conference last season. “I just have to stay mentally focused. Those are my three goals to maintain this season.”
Banks, Hicks, former Westover star Domonique Bryant, former Bainbridge star Vanessa Jones and Chaconna Marks are all key hitters back from a team that hit .282 last season and combined for 24 homers and 218 RBI.
Skinner said the bats can easily turn out to be the strength of this year’s team.
“Especially in our conference,” Skinner said. “We really don’t know how effective we are going to be at the plate until we see some good pitchers, and we are going to see a lot of good pitchers in the next two weeks. If you hit well against good pitchers, then you know what you can do against pitchers not as strong (from ASU’s conference).”
Before the Lady Rams open conference play Feb. 22 against Clark Atlanta, they begin the regular season with 18 straight games at home. Several of those matchups are against some of the best squads in the nation, including reigning national champion and No. 1 Valdosta State (Feb. 11), No. 10 Columbus State (Feb. 20) and No. 13 Rollins College (Friday). ASU will also host regional powerhouses GSW (Wednesday) and Alabama A&M (Feb. 16).
“We have an early-season schedule that is probably as tough as anybody’s in the country,” Skinner said. “I don’t even know when we play Valdosta. I don’t even want to look at the schedule. Somebody told me to take them off (our schedule) because they are national champions, but that’s even more of a reason to leave them on.”