Albany State baseball coach Kenyan Conner talks to his players and their parents during last week’s First Pitch Reception at Eula Lovett Hall. (Staff Photo: John Millikan)
ALBANY — Jacob Campbell doesn’t want to be remembered as the leader who couldn’t win.
It’s what pushes the Albany State senior and former Westover baseball star. It’s what is driving him to make 2014 different.
It’s simple for the four-year starter who has been the cornerstone of the ASU program for much of his career: SIAC championship or bust.
“I don’t want to be remembered as the guy who couldn’t get it done,” Campbell said. “I would take it personal if I go four years and don’t win a championship. Last year’s senior class won a ring as freshmen. I don’t want to be the guy coming back for the alumni game who didn’t get it done and never got a ring.”
For the first time in more than a decade, no player on Albany State’s roster has won an SIAC championship, but Campbell plans to end the drought with a conference title in his final season.
And he’s serious about it.
“Being here for four years, everybody on campus comes to me and says, ‘Hey man, it’s on you this year,’ ” said Campbell, who will start in the outfield for the second straight year. “Especially being from Albany and not bringing a championship back yet, it makes me take it personally a little bit. It would be big to win one.”
Campbell’s final season starts today when the Rams host Miles College in a doubleheader that won’t count toward the conference standings. It’s a season opener against a Miles team that knocked the Rams out of last year’s SIAC tournament — and it’s a season opener where the Rams want to make a statement.
“This is the best team we have put on the field in the four years I have been here,” Campbell said. “My freshman year we had a few guys who could hit home runs. My sophomore year we clicked all around, but we didn’t have the talent. Last year we just had bits and pieces. Now we don’t have many guys who can hit it 400 feet, but we are going to spray the ball all over the field. We have pitchers with left-handed arms, and that’s big in the conference.”
One lefty who could rise to the top of ASU’s rotation is former Worth County star and 2010 Herald Player of the Year Allen Fender, who was released from his scholarship at Darton in 2011 after breaking his hand and hasn’t played baseball since.
But the crafty southpaw earned a tryout with the Rams after catching the eye of a college coach at a recent slow pitch softball game, and now he’s part of a starting rotation that includes returner Clifford Peterson and first-year sophomore Andrew Baker, who threw at Lee County and Randolph Southern in high school.
Other pitchers that will see time on the mound will be 2013 Terrell Academy grad Josh Brunswick, Albany State quarterback and Grambling State transfer Frank Rivers, Damarkus Green and Ryan Latner, a submarine knuckleballer who will start at second base.
“I’m excited to see the pitchers get in a game and just go at it, because we have a deep pitching staff this year,” ASU junior shortstop Allen Hardy said. “We can be pretty good. Everybody just has to do their part and stay inside themselves and let the rest take care of itself. It’s going to be hard to beat us.”
Speaking in front of his players and many of their parents at last week’s First Pitch Reception at Eula Lovett Hall, Rams coach Kenyan Conner, who is in his fourth year as head coach but first without an interim tag, said his 2014 team has the makings of something special.
“I have a big outlook for the season this year, and I think I have enough talent to win games, but talent alone is not going to get it done. These guys are going to have to play as a team. If they do that we should be fine,” Conner said.
Conner hosted the inaugural First Pitch Reception as part of a push to connect the baseball program with the community, something Conner has been preaching for the past two years.
His players are buying into it, too.
“In the past we have had some student support, but we really want to get the program back to where you go to these other schools and the whole city comes out to watch,” Campbell said. “That’s where we want to get, and that’s what coach has been trying to instill in us.”
Campbell and Hardy, who are both getting looks from professional scouts and have hopes of being selected in this year’s MLB Draft, anchor the Rams’ lineup, which returns outfielders Jared Arrington and Hector Carrasquillo, second baseman Ryan Latner, catcher Robert Latner and first baseman Uwen Udofia. First-year starters include outfielder Reese McDaniel and third baseman John Paul Bernard.
It’s a lineup that can continue Albany State’s legacy of swinging the bat as good as anybody in the conference.
“We are capable of being strong at the plate this year,” Hardy said. “I think we can hit with any team that we face.”
And it’s a lineup that Campbell believes can give ASU its first SIAC baseball title since 2010 after the program won six from 2001-10.
“I’ve heard it from the older guys how it feels to win a title,” Campbell said. “It would be nice. Coach (Conner) told us the other day that he has 18 or 19 championship rings, and I haven’t won anything. It would be special to go out my senior year winning my first.”