By Jeff Nations
STRASBURG -- It was almost as if someone had ripped away Mark Smoot's security blanket and made off into the night with it.
That's the feeling Smoot initially had when he learned that standout tight end and leading receiver Jonathan Kloosterman was done for the season after suffering an injury against William Monroe on Oct. 4. The Strasburg junior quarterback had come to rely on Kloosterman's steady hands and big-play ability. Now, he had to learn to trust others.
It wasn't that hard, actually. Strasburg has a solid group of receivers to choose from this season headlined by seniors Colt Cowgill, Matt Clutter and Wesley Fauver, and junior running back Colton Funk has shown ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. As for tight end ... Smoot's brother, Ryan, has that covered now.
In last Friday's 28-14 win over Bull Run District rival Manassas Park, Mark Smoot showed just how comfortable he is now with his targets by completing 9 of 14 passes for 230 yards and three touchdowns -- to three different receivers. That performance earned Smoot The Northern Virginia Daily's Male Athlete of the Week honor for Oct. 13-Oct. 19. The victory snapped a three-game losing streak for the Rams and was their first district win this season.
"We did need that win bad," Mark Smoot said. "I think we were on a three-game losing streak, and we needed to get that one. Plus it helped us get kind of back in playoff contention. We're going into a big stretch of our schedule right here, so we had to get back on track."
Smoot helped make that happen early on against the Cougars, finding his brother Ryan on a deep vertical strike down the right sideline for a 45-yard touchdown late in the first half to put the Rams up 14-0.
"They actually had the play stopped," Mark Smoot said. "I threw it up to Ryan, and tried to let him make a play. He was on a smaller defender, and he made the play."
Ryan Smoot isn't surprised by his brother's ability to quickly adapt at tight end after starting the season at offensive guard. Ryan, his brother said, was probably among the top three tight ends in the district but happened to be behind the best in Kloosterman.
"It's nice having him out there, just someone I can trust," Mark Smoot said. "It isn't much of a difference. I threw to him all during jv's, so I'm used to it."
Strasburg coach Mark Roller noticed that instant chemistry between brothers right away, and Ryan is making up for lost time with 14 receptions for 220 yards and two touchdowns already this year.
"Those two, I don't know if it's that brotherly thing or not where they just know what's going on, but certainly he does look to him a little bit," Roller said. "But he does keep his options open, and he's starting to learn that there's other people out there. He spreads the wealth a little bit."
Cowgill got a little of that wealth in the third quarter against Manassas Park, as he was on the receiving end of a 32-yard touchdown strike.
Funk got the third touchdown reception on the night later in the third quarter, but Mark Smoot gave the Rams' leading rusher most of the credit for that one after he turned a simple screen pass into a 33-yard touchdown catch. The victory helped erase a tough loss the previous week at home to George Mason, a game played in treacherously soggy conditions.
"We felt like that one and the Monroe game got away from us," Smoot said. "So we just wanted to get back on track. That game didn't really fire us up. We were fired up, just from losing."
Smoot is on pace to set a new single-season school record for pass attempts. This season, he's already thrown the ball 147 times in seven games with 76 completions for 1,049 yards and 11 touchdowns.
"It's nice to be able to have a guy who can chuck it around a little bit because it kind of keeps the defense honest," Roller said. "They can't put eight or nine guys in the box. Now we can spread the field a little bit and still run it, and throw it if we need to."
Roller said he won't hesitate to keep unleashing Smoot's passing skills if that's what it takes to win. This year, though, the Rams have shown remarkable balance with 1,065 passing yards and 913 rushing yards.
"We have a running back who can run it -- through five games, he had over 500 yards," Roller said. "We're asking Mark to throw it a little bit more. I know he can do it. We just have to put him in a position where he can be successful, and run the routes we need to run with him. He has the knowledge, he has the skills, and we're just trying to put him in a position to make him better."
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>