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SEASON PREVIEW: Mix of freshmen, returners to defend ASU’s SIAC title

Albany State catcher Chaconna Marks is one of the Lady Rams’ key returning starters entering Friday’s season opener against Georgia College & State. (Staff Photo: John Millikan)

Albany State catcher Chaconna Marks is one of the Lady Rams’ key returning starters entering Friday’s season opener against Georgia College & State. (Staff Photo: John Millikan)

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Albany State’s Chelsea Hicks will play first base for the Lady Rams and is also one of three returning pitchers. (Staff Photo: John Millikan)

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Albany State’s Domonique Bryant, a former Westover star, hits off of a tee during a preseason practice. (Staff Photo: John Millikan)

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Albany State’s Ambrionna Atkism fields a grounder during a preseason softball practice. (Staff Photo: John Millikan)

ALBANY — Albany State softball coach Robert Skinner stood next to the Lady Rams’ field before a preseason practice two weeks ago and paused for nearly a minute as he tried to think of his freshman shortstop’s name.

“What’s my shortstop’s name? There’s just too many names,” laughed Skinner, a three-sport coach who is in the middle of basketball season and wrapped up volleyball season just two months ago, making him the coach of about 50 athletes. “I never even got half of my volleyball names right.”

Eventually — with the help of an upperclassman — Skinner remembered Kayla Alexander’s name.

And it’s a name that might be hard to forget by the end of ASU’s 2014 season.

In fact, Skinner has an entire group of freshmen who could make names for themselves this season, which begins Friday on the road with a doubleheader against Georgia College & State. The Lady Rams’ season opener was originally scheduled for today at home against Georgia Southwestern but was canceled due to field conditions.

“I have some freshmen that I think are worth looking at and watching this year,” he said. “Kayla is one of those who stands out. She can catch, pitch, play any position. She is probably one of the best softball players we have ever recruited here.”

A native of Atlanta, Alexander graduated from Westlake High School last year and was a star player on the Georgia Elite travel team.

She will be joined by freshman leftfielder Candace Blair and a strong group of returners as the Lady Rams try to win a second straight SIAC championship.

There’s a winning mentality entrenched in Albany State’s softball program that the Lady Rams’ upperclassmen are trying to get Alexander, Blair and the rest of the freshmen to realize.

“We try to show them the mindset of what a winner is,” junior pitcher Alexa Lopez said. “They weren’t here last year when we won conference, so they don’t really understand yet what we had to go through to get there.”

Lopez emerged as the Lady Rams’ ace last season and carried the team on a remarkable run in the SIAC tournament, where they were shocked in the opening round by Fort Valley State but rallied to win seven straight games in a span on three days to capture the school’s sixth conference championship since Skinner started the program in 2002.

Now the Lady Rams have their eyes set on title No. 7.

And Skinner is putting his stock in the pitching staff of Lopez, Chelsea Hicks and Ambrionna Atkism to lead the Lady Rams to back-to-back titles for the third time in their short history.

“We will go as far as our pitching takes us,” he said. “If they get the job done, I really believe that the freshmen surrounding them are good enough.”

Lopez will resume her role as the team’s ace and has developed some off-speed pitches to complement her powerful fastball.

“Her work ethic is very important,” Skinner said of Lopez. “She is very confident in herself. She really believes she can get the job done. She has been working really hard on hitting her locations and changing her speeds.”

The Lady Rams don’t have too many returning position players, but center fielder and Westover grad Domonique Bryant and catcher Chaconna Marks are two veterans who are proven and dangerous.

“Last year we had a lot of power, and this year we have a lot of speed,” Marks said. “Even though it’s a younger team, I feel like it’s going to be a good mix of speed and power.”