Familiar Spot

Rams eye different outcome in return to state tourney
Strasburg head coach Jeff Smoot has a meeting with his team during their May 14 game with George Mason at First Bank Field in Strasburg.  The Rams face Lebanon today in the Group 2A state tournament semifinals in Radford. Rich Cooley/Daily file

Strasburg head coach Jeff Smoot has a meeting with his team during their May 14 game with George Mason at First Bank Field in Strasburg. The Rams face Lebanon today in the Group 2A state tournament semifinals in Radford. Rich Cooley/Daily file

STRASBURG – Strasburg High School’s baseball team is back in Radford.

A year after falling to Virginia High School in the Group 2A state championship game, the Rams return to Radford University to take on Lebanon in the state semifinal at 1 p.m. It’s Strasburg’s second consecutive trip to the state final four and the sixth such appearance for the Rams in program history.

“Hopefully this year we can get a different outcome than last year,” Rams senior pitcher/first baseman Mark Smoot said Wednesday. “At the start of this year I don’t think a lot of people thought that we’d make it back. But we’ve worked hard this year to make it back, especially my dad [head coach Jeff Smoot]. This might be one of his greatest coaching years.”

Of the 13 players on Strasburg’s roster this season, seven were on last year’s team that lost to Virginia High 7-2 in the state championship game.

“We’re more comfortable with the situation than last year,” said outfielder Noah St. Clair, one of four seniors on this year’s team. “I think we have maybe five, maybe six returners coming back this year and we’ll be ready to go. To be able to have that under your belt, having one last year … it really helps.”

Despite graduating six seniors – five of whom were regular starters – from a season ago, the Rams (25-1) picked up right where they left off at the end of the 2014 campaign. Strasburg went unbeaten through the 2015 regular season and won 20 straight games – two wins shy of the school record the Rams set last spring – before losing its only game of the season to William Monroe in the Bull Run District tournament semifinals.

The Rams have won five straight since that loss, including Conference 35 and Region 2A East championship games against George Mason and Maggie Walker, respectively.

Mark Smoot, the Region 2A East Player of the Year, said Strasburg benefited from the loss in the district tournament because it gave the Rams a reprieve from a back-loaded schedule to close out the regular season.

“We finally had a whole week of practice, so I think we got better that week leading up to the conference tournament and the regional tournament, where we’re at now,” Mark Smoot said. “I think it did help us – not the loss, mentally, because that loss didn’t put us in our place. We weren’t overconfident. But I think just the practice time.”

Strasburg can now turn its sights to Lebanon (21-6), a team making its first state tournament appearance since 2001. The Pioneers enter Friday’s state semifinal coming off a 9-3 loss to fellow Conference 40 member Virginia High in the Region 2A West championship last Saturday, their second loss to the Bearcats this postseason. Lebanon also lost to Virginia High in the Conference 40 title game.

Prior to this season, Lebanon hadn’t won a game in the regional round since 2001.

“Obviously they’re a good team – they’re still playing,” Rams senior catcher Ryan Smoot said of Lebanon. “And we’re going to see a good arm. But I think if we play and take care of the things that we can then we’ll have a shot at the end, which is about all you can ask for.”

Rams head coach Jeff Smoot, who guided the program to its only state title in 2007, said he expects to see a well-coached team with solid pitching when Strasburg takes the field against Lebanon.

“They don’t beat themselves,” Jeff Smoot said. “They’ve got two solid arms and just a well rounded kind of a team without probably a ton of superstars, but a bunch of very, very good players. They return a bunch of starters off their previous team and they are a fairly veteran bunch. They clearly are older than what we are.”

Jeff Smoot said scouting reports have indicated the Pioneers have several “very good” hitters but he added that Lebanon boasts a formidable pitching duo in senior left-hander Mic Leonard and junior right-hander Will Stamper. The longtime coach said he’s unsure which pitcher Strasburg can expect to see on Friday afternoon.

Leonard, who hit a leadoff home run against Virginia High in the Region 2A West championship game, pitched a one-hit shutout in Lebanon’s regional semifinal win over Appomattox County, while Stamper pitched in a losing effort in the regional championship.

Strasburg enters the state tournament averaging 7.5 runs per game, although the Rams have failed to score more than four runs in their last four contests dating back to the Conference 35 championship.

Pitching has been Strasburg’s greatest asset this season, as the trio of Mark Smoot, fellow senior lefty Garrett Richards and sophomore right-hander Ryan Bowers lead a staff that has tossed 10 shutouts this spring and held opponents to one run on seven other occasions. Mark Smoot, Richards and Bowers each pitched complete games in the regional quarterfinal, semifinal and championship games, respectively, with Richards and Bowers hurling back-to-back shutouts in that span.

Jeff Smoot wouldn’t disclose who will be Strasburg’s starting pitcher on Friday.

“Everybody that we have can pitch. It’s a luxury,” Richards said. ” … When one goes out and has trouble, we can just bring another guy in and it’s almost like there’s no difference.”

Jeff Smoot said the Rams have been preparing to be in another close game on Friday and the coaching staff has been preaching the importance of execution and remaining mentally strong through pressure situations.

“What you’ve got to do is you’ve got to execute because generally people are not going to give you a whole lot at this point,” Jeff Smoot said. “You’ve got to be able to get a bunt down, ground out with the infield back and get a run that way, elevate something and get a sacrifice fly with the infield in, those kinds of things. You just do. You don’t go into these kinds of games anticipating that someone is going to win 9-7. You go into it with the idea that we’re playing a low-scoring … kind of a game because they almost always are.”

Virginia High School (24-2) will play Maggie Walker in the first Group 2A state semifinal at Radford University at 10 a.m. Friday. The winners of the two semifinal games will meet for the state championship at 1 p.m. Saturday on the same field.

Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or bfauber@nvdaily.com

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