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PREVIEW: Rams’ baseball team ready for bounce-back season in 2013

Former Westover star Jacob Campbell is one of seven key returning starters for the Albany State baseball team, which opens on the road today. (john.millikan@albanyherald.com)

Former Westover star Jacob Campbell is one of seven key returning starters for the Albany State baseball team, which opens on the road today. (john.millikan@albanyherald.com)

ALBANY — Albany State junior and former Westover star Jacob Campbell sees it in his coach’s eyes every now and then.

Call it a sparkle or maybe a glimmer of hope, but Campbell catches a glimpse of it on the face of Rams coach Kenyan Conner on the rarest of occasions.

“Sometimes somebody will make a really good play, and you can see the excitement in his eyes,” Campbell said. “He rarely gets excited and just tries to keep us composed and doesn’t want us to get too high or too low after a win or loss.”

That hint of excitement was there last week as Conner, the steady-going, third-year coach, stood just outside the third-base dugout watching his team practice.

“You can’t tell the way I am talking right now, but I’m excited,” Conner deadpanned.

He has every reason to be.

After finishing below .500 last season for the first time in six years, the Rams are back with several key returners who are ready to return the conference championship to Albany following back-to-back years of being ousted in the conference tournament.

“I expect to have a ring on my finger by the end of this season,” senior leader Corbin Williams said. “Anything else would be unacceptable.”

That’s the feeling this season at ASU, where five returning starters, a deep pitching rotation and a group of talented newcomers begin the season today at No. 19 Nova Southeastern University (Fla.).

The Rams lost 2011 conference Player of the Year Williams Smalls, outfielder Eddie Mathis and ace Ken Nesbitt to graduation, and star slugger Ricky Harris is academically ineligible, but the rest of the team is back — and it’s a group that Campbell saw a lot of promise in last season.

“We beat Columbus State, Valdosta State and Georgia Southwestern in the same season for the first time,” Campbell said about the trio of Division II regional powerhouses. “For me, personally, that’s a big confidence-builder. The younger guys come in, and we can say that we beat those teams last year.”

Campbell, who is retuning to the outfield, hit .307 last year with 28 RBI, four home runs and a .449 slugging percentage. Other starters coming back are shortstop Allen Hardy (.327 BA, 30 RBI, 5 HR), outfielder and Bainbridge native Stephen Lightfoot (.336 BA, 22 RBI), third baseman Theodore Tramontana (.229 BA, 7 RBI) and Williams (.234 RBI, 21 RBI).

Junior Clifford Peterson leads a rotation that includes talented freshmen Anthony Hart and Trevor Billings and junior Jared Arrington.

One of the biggest additions to the team is Dexter Moody, a star safety and second-team All-American on the football field who transferred to ASU over the summer and became the Rams’ biggest star on the gridiron.

“Coming from football to baseball is harder for me,” said Moody, who played baseball in high school at Emanuel County Institute before accepting a scholarship to play football at the University of Georgia, which later rescinded the offer because of disciplinary reasons. “Getting into baseball shape is tough, and right now I’m just working on getting my timing back (at the plate), which has been my biggest problem.”

Moody, who finished third in the nation with seven interceptions last year, might not be in center field to start the season, but Conner said the NFL prospect will be there to end the season.

“Before it’s over with, he will be a starter,” said Conner, who is also an assistant coach on the football team. “He just has to get in the groove of things. He is a great athlete, but in baseball he looks a little rusty. At the same time, his rust looks better than most guys’ polish.”

Moody had plans to join the baseball team alongside Rams quarterback David Kooi, who also played baseball in high school. At 6-foot-6, Kooi brought a dominating presence to the mound as a right-handed pitcher, but those plans fell through after the Florida Atlantic transfer became academically ineligible after football season.

“He fooled himself and fooled me, too,” Conner said about Kooi. “He came and threw bullpen in the fall, and his stuff had natural movement on it, but I can’t dwell on that.”

Moody is just one of many who will be competing for starting spots this season.

“There’s a lot of talent, so there’s a lot of competition,” Williams said. “The work ethic has to be there. If you are starting to not produce, somebody can always step in and take your spot.”

Other Rams expected to play big roles this season are Uwen Udofia, a first baseman and younger brother of Georgia Tech starting point guard Mfon Udofia, designated hitter and former Westover star Kerry Hall, third baseman Juan Waters and catcher Robert Latner.

“We are 3-deep everywhere,” Campbell said. “You have no choice but to perform because there is somebody right there behind you ready to take your spot.”

The Rams are on the road for their first nine games before their home opener Feb. 18 against St. Leo (Fla.) University. After beginning the season with 21 non-conference games, ASU opens conference play March 9 at home with a doubleheader against Clark Atlanta.