By Brad Fauber
STRASBURG -- Year after year, longtime Strasburg High School baseball coach Jeff Smoot makes it a point to ensure that his players understand the foundation that Rams baseball is built upon.
Smoot, who has coached the Strasburg baseball program since it was rebooted in the spring of 1982 after a 20-year absence, typically doesn't have to work too hard at pushing that point across. A lot of Strasburg players develop that sense of pride at a young age, a benefit of having the town's Little League baseball field located just a few feet from the Rams' home field at First Bank Park, Smoot said.
But he makes sure his players are aware of it all the same.
"We talk to them all the time about carrying the torch," Smoot said last week. "... We've got a good tradition and we try to use that with our players. And I don't think that's something that we've got to work very hard at. They're aware of it."
This year's Strasburg team appeared to fully embrace the challenge of living up the high standards that the Rams' baseball program has placed upon itself. The evidence was everywhere: the school-record 22-game winning streak; the regular-season Bull Run District championship; the Conference 35 and Region 2A East titles; the appearance in the Group 2A state championship game.
"We are proud of it. Any way that you spin it, we had an outstanding season," said Smoot, who coached in his fourth state championship game and made his fifth state final four appearance this spring.
Smoot, The Northern Virginia Daily's 2014 Baseball Coach of the Year, attributes the Rams' success this season -- which ended in a 7-2 loss to Virginia High School in the state championship -- largely to the work ethic of his players. But Smoot said the Rams' drive wasn't necessarily always that high.
Smoot said he and his assistant coaches weren't fully satisfied with the level of commitment that was being displayed by some of their players during the offseason. It wasn't that the commitment was completely absent -- it just didn't match the level that Smoot is accustomed to.
"I would say that by a lot of people's standards, the amount of effort, focus and commitment that we got out of our players would've been more than satisfactory," Smoot said. "But by the standards that we have come to expect by our players -- the standards that have been set by our players that have played here in the past -- we just did not think that some of our guys were measuring up to what they should do, could be, what they were capable of."
Smoot challenged his players during the offseason months, some times more forcefully than others, he said, and he noticed a stark difference as soon as the Rams hit the practice field in early February.
"[We] talked about it in the summer, the fall, the winter, but boy once they started in February we got everything out of them that they had to offer," Smoot said.
Strasburg opened the season with two wins, then faltered on the road against William Monroe in its third game of the season on April 1. But that would be the only blemish on the Rams' record until they fell to Virginia High on June 14 in the state championship game in Radford.
The Rams (24-2) reeled off a 22-game winning streak after their loss to William Monroe, a span that included wins in the Conference 35 and Region 2A East championship games, the latter being Strasburg's first regional title since winning the Region B championship in 2007.
Smoot said the key factor in that success was pitching depth. Led by outstanding seasons by senior right-hander Tyler Doman (7-1, 1.18 ERA) and junior lefty Mark Smoot (7-1, 1.85 ERA), the Rams rarely found themselves behind on the scoreboard.
"Very seldom did we have a guy take the mound that did not give us a quality outing," Smoot said.
But Smoot added that the Rams, who seemed to get contributions from any of their 13 players in any given game, were mentally strong, as well.
"That's something that as a coach you try to instill in your players but it doesn't always happen," Smoot said. "You work at it, you know it's important but it just doesn't always happen. ... We benefit from a lot of them playing multiple sports where they've had to perform in pressure situations in the past. And then at some point success breeds confidence. I think you had that aspect of it, too."
There was also that hunger in the Rams this season to avoid the early playoff exits that had plagued the program over the last two seasons. Strasburg lost in the first round of the regional tournament in 2012 and 2013 -- both times in blowout fashion -- and Smoot said he and his coaches wanted to make sure that the Rams weren't content with simply qualifying for the regional tournament this year.
"In order to be special you've got to do more than that," Smoot said. "You don't necessarily have to win a state championship, because that's really difficult, but you do have to be able to go a little bit deeper into the playoffs than what we'd been going. I think that meant something to them."
Smoot knows the Rams' success means a great deal to the Strasburg community, too.
"All of us are lucky that we're able to play and coach in a community like this," Smoot said. "One of the things that we try to tell our guys is, 'Look, you're playing for a school that's named after your town.' Not everyone is that fortunate. So the name across the front of your uniform is not just a reflection on your school, but it's also a reflection on your community. We're all really lucky to get to do what we do in this town, in my opinion."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @BradFauberNVD