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PREVIEW: After wild ride, ASU softball heads to NCAA Regionals

Albany State shortstop Vanessa Jones and the Lady Rams enter the NCAA Regionals on fire, having won seven games in a row to win the conference title and get to this point. ASU opens with rival VSU today. (Reginald Christian/Albany State University)

Albany State shortstop Vanessa Jones and the Lady Rams enter the NCAA Regionals on fire, having won seven games in a row to win the conference title and get to this point. ASU opens with rival VSU today. (Reginald Christian/Albany State University)

Want To Go?

WHO: Albany State softball team (36-24) at No. 3 nationally ranked Valdosta State (40-14).

WHAT: NCAA Division II Regionals opener.

WHEN: 7 p.m. today (single game)

WHERE: Valdosta State.

ALBANY — Albany State softball coach Robert Skinner wasn’t using the word impossible.

But as he talked about today’s NCAA Division II Regional game against Valdosta State — the reigning national champion — he was anything but comfortable with the matchup.

“How much harder can it get?” Skinner asked. “It doesn’t get much harder than this. You have to go in thinking that in order to be the best, you have to beat the best. And they are definitely the best.”

After fighting through the loser’s bracket to win their conference tournament, the Lady Rams (36-24) earned the No. 8 seed in the South 1 Regional and drew the unenviable task of playing No. 1 Valdosta State, the third-ranked team in the nation, in the opening round.

Valdosta (40-14) swept ASU, 4-0, in the regular season and has beaten the Lady Rams in two straight Regional openers, but Skinner isn’t throwing in the towel — and neither are his players.

“Valdosta is just a name to us,” ASU sophomore pitcher Alexa Lopez said. “Regardless of what happened between them and us this season, this is a whole different story. We are all ready to prove that we deserve to be here.”

Valdosta beat ASU, 16-0 and 9-0, in a doubleheader on Feb. 19 and then swept the Lady Rams, 11-3 and 9-0, on March 26. And the Lady Blazers enter red-hot, having won 16 of their past 18 games.

Valdosta State has been ranked as high as No. 1 this season and has two first-place votes in the latest national poll, but beating a nationally ranked team isn’t an impossible task for the Lady Rams, who knocked off No. 15 Columbus State in a 6-0 shutout on Feb. 20.

“It’s not like it can’t be done, but we have to play a perfect game,” Skinner said. “We can’t make mistakes. The thing that concerns me is our layoff. We have to shake that rust off, but we can’t shake it off in the first inning. We have to shake it off before we step on the field.”

The Lady Rams haven’t played since April 21 when they beat Miles to win the conference championship, a tournament where they had to win seven consecutive games after a stunning first-round loss to Fort Valley State.

Skinner knows his team can’t afford another slow start today.

“You beat Valdosta by not making any mistakes and outhitting them,” Skinner said. “They feed on your mistakes. You have to play almost a perfect game defensively, and you have to outhit them.”

Former Westover star Domonique Bryant will need to get things going for the Lady Rams at the plate. She is the team’s leadoff hitter and is batting .379 with a .606 slugging percentage and has the capability of jump-starting the offense.

“I think if Domonique Bryant can get things started, then everybody else will follow suit,” Skinner said. “She has been our trigger. If she gets a jump on the pitcher early in the game then it seems like everybody eases up and gets more relaxed at the plate.”

Of course, Bryant won’t be facing the same pitchers as she did in the conference tournament when the Lady Rams belted 36 homers in eight games.

“These are definitely different pitchers with a lot more speed,” she said. “But it’s nothing we can’t catch up to. We have been training hard, so we are ready.”

Lopez thinks she is ready, too.

The sophomore was the losing pitcher in the conference opener but regained confidence as the tournament went on before throwing a complete game in the title game against Miles.

“I feel like from here on out I have to pitch every game to my best ability, and I trust my team to be able to hit the ball like we did in conference,” Lopez said. “I feel like everybody is focused and staying calm about it. Really what helped us in conference is keeping faith in ourselves.”

ASU has never won a Regional game and hasn’t beaten the Lady Blazers since VSU coach Thomas Macera took over the program seven years ago, but the Lady Rams are confident they can shock the softball world today.

“There’s not a doubt in my mind that we can do this,” Bryant said.