Albany State baseball players, from left, John Paul Benard, Uwen Udofia and Clifford Peterson touch gloves before a game earlier this season. The Rams started the year 5-12 but have stormed back to raise their record above .500 and are undefeated in the SIAC heading into this weekend’s series against conference rival Tuskegee. (Staff Photo: John Millikan)
ALBANY — Kenyan Conner stayed patient.
During the 5-12 start to the season that included an eight-game losing streak, Albany State’s baseball coach never lost focus and never gave up hope.
“I’m not really a coach that worries about wins and losses, to a certain extent,” Conner said. “I try to prepare my team to win championships.”
The perseverance has paid off for the Rams, who have won 10 of their last 12 games and are a perfect 9-0 in the SIAC heading into this weekend’s three-game series against Tuskegee. Albany State is starting to pull away from the rest of the SIAC with less than a month left in the regular season, and Conner believes it was the rocky start that gave his team the edge it needed.
During the opening month of the season, the Rams played some of the top Division II teams in the nation. It was a stretch that included 10 losses to nationally-ranked No. 1 Tampa, No. 15 Nova Southeastern, No. 16 Florida Southern and No. 30 Valdosta State.
But it was in that fire where the Rams molded themselves into a team that has gone 10-2 since March 1.
“They look at the schedule and say, ‘Coach that’s a tough schedule.’ I explain to them the reason behind it,” Conner said. “We have been yelling (SIAC) championship since day one, and if you win a championship you have to go to regionals and play against those teams. You learn early in the season what it’s going to take to beat those teams.”
Now that they know, senior leader and former Westover star Jacob Campbell can’t wait for another crack at them.
“When we sit back and think about it, we should have won six or seven of those games,” Campbell said. “If we played those Florida schools right now, there’s no telling how the outcome would be.”
That’s how much confidence the Rams have since entering conference play, where they haven’t made the same mistakes they made during January and February.
“We play a tough schedule at the beginning just so they understand that if you give a team more than 27 outs then you put yourself at risk,” Conner said. “Also when you don’t throw first-pitch strikes, teams will sit on a fastball and hurt you. It makes you play the game the right way.
“So now that it’s conference time, we know how to play the game the right way, and we are showing it. Now we are playing a clean game, and the (conference opponents) aren’t playing clean games, and the script is flipped.”
It’s been the Rams’ pitching staff that has keyed the turnaround. Starters John Paul Benard, Andrew Bacon and Allen Fender are a combined 8-0 in their last eight starts and have made it a priority to throw first-pitch strikes.
“Things are coming together, and we are starting to play a lot better,” said Fender, who leads the team with a 3.30 ERA and 32 strikeouts. “Our bats are coming around every game, and our pitching is coming together. We have three starters who are coming in and throwing strikes.”
Bacon, a Lee County native, leads ASU with a .72 first-pitch strike ratio and has won his last three starts since beginning the season 0-4 on the mound.
“They have been pitching really well and with confidence,” Conner said. “They are throwing their fastballs, curve balls and changeups for strikes. It’s hard to beat that.”
Campbell has been the anchor at the plate and is hitting .467 — a batting average that is top in the conference and No. 24 in the nation. In 92 at-bats Campbell has struck out just nine times and has racked up 27 RBIs, six doubles and three home runs.
He hits third in the lineup behind Ryan Latner and Reise McDaniel — who leads the team in on-base percentage — while Nos. 4-6 hitters Uwen Udofia, Robert Latner and Allen Hardy have given Campbell plenty of protection.
Campbell has been garnering interest from professional scouts, who have told him that stuffing the stat book is the first step to earning even more MLB interest. On Wednesday, however, Campbell said he is focusing on leading ASU to its first conference championship since 2010.
“The stats that really matter are 10 wins in 12 games and 9-0 in conference,” he said. “When we take care of the (SIAC championship) ring and get to regionals, then I can start worrying about getting a contract. But my main goal right now is winning and doing what it takes to get there.”