By Brad Fauber
STRASBURG -- Ryan Murphy had just graduated from the fifth grade when he watched Strasburg's baseball team last reach the state final four.
Murphy was in attendance at Radford University in 2007 as his older brother, Mike, and the Rams rolled to the program's first and only state championship with a win over Grayson County in the Group A title game. The current Strasburg senior remembers how important the win was for Strasburg High School and the community, how great the atmosphere was at Radford, and the one thought that kept popping into his mind that hot June afternoon.
"I just always thought to myself, 'I want to be there one day,'" said Murphy on Wednesday.
He is getting that chance.
Strasburg, which has won 21 straight games and claimed Conference 35 and Region 2A East championships this season, is back in the state semifinals for the first time since 2007. The Rams (23-1) will play Randolph-Henry in the Group 2A semifinals at 1 p.m. Friday at Kiwanis Field in Salem.
There are instances all throughout the season of different players rising to the occasion for Strasburg, and Murphy is right there among them.
"He has been very, very good for us, and obviously a player that I think flies under a lot of people's radar," Rams coach Jeff Smoot said. "He's very quiet, unassuming and not undervalued to us as coaches, but maybe people on the outside do not understand the value that he's had to our team. He has been very, very good on both sides of the ball. In fact, I think just outstanding at shortstop.
"We wouldn't be where we are without him," Smoot added.
Murphy has firmly embedded himself atop the Rams' batting order this season, where he has been a catalyst for a potent Strasburg offense that is averaging 8.5 runs per game this season.
"His on-base percentage is very good," Smoot said. "... He has a little more plate discipline, a little better command of the strike zone than he did as a junior."
But Murphy holds just as much value on the defensive side of the ball, where he often makes difficult plays seem effortless.
"Ever since I was in Little League I always liked playing defense, making big plays and stuff like that," Murphy said. "I think I've helped us a little bit."
Smoot, who has coached at Strasburg for 33 years, said Murphy is one of the best infielders the Rams have ever had when it comes to judging ground balls. That ability to swallow up nearly every ball that is hit his way has instilled a sense of confidence in Murphy's teammates.
"Whenever I see a ball hit to shortstop I don't even watch because I know Murph is going to make the play," Rams senior pitcher/outfielder Tyler Doman said. "... It's nice having somebody like that back there."
"We all know what Murph brings to us. We don't take that for granted," junior catcher Ryan Smoot said. "He's one of the best defensive shortstops probably in the state, and then he does his job leading off. He's really quiet, never says too much but he goes about his business the right way."
There was also a point where Murphy, a two-year starter for Strasburg, was one of the Rams' go-to arms on the mound, but a bout with rotator cuff tendonitis earlier this season forced him to drop his pitching duties after making just two appearances this season.
"I was a little disappointed. I wanted to help out a little bit more," said Murphy, who was a regular starter on the mound for the Rams last season. "But I understand that injuries come in these kinds of sports, so I just accepted it and moved on."
Murphy's injury made Jeff Smoot's decision to keep his shortstop entrenched in the middle of the infield that much easier.
"Had he been able to come back and pitch for us," Jeff Smoot said, "I'm not sure that he would have because we have a little depth in our pitching staff and I'm not sure that we could've afforded to have taken him out of the middle of the diamond. He's that valuable to us."
Murphy, who said that he just "loves winning" and was fueled by the desire to help take his teammates as far as they could go this season, is grateful for the chance to share a similar achievement with his older brother.
"It was a goal, but I never really imagined that I would be in the same game," Murphy said. "It's surreal."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @BradFauberNVD