Smoot, Rams continue building on winning culture

STRASBURG – Year in and year out, Strasburg High School’s baseball team has been a consistent presence in the postseason. But perhaps even longtime head coach Jeff Smoot was a little surprised just how successful the Rams were in 2015.

For the second straight season, and despite fielding a roster sprinkled with young players lacking varsity experience, Strasburg was one of the final four teams standing in the hunt for the Group 2A state title. And although the Rams’ season ended short of a state title with an 8-2 loss to Lebanon in the state semifinals at Radford University, the magnitude of what Strasburg accomplished this past spring was not lost on Smoot.

“We ought to be darn proud of what we’ve done because by any measure our season was certainly outstanding,” said Smoot, who wrapped up his 34th season as Strasburg’s baseball coach by guiding his program to its sixth state final four appearance. “We very much, I think in all of our coaches’ opinions, overachieved. We probably did not have the talent to go … 25-2. And so from that standpoint, that was particularly rewarding as well.”

Not only did Smoot, the Northern Virginia Daily’s 2015 Baseball Coach of the Year, guide the Rams back to Radford — Strasburg did so in dominant fashion.

Fueled by shutdown pitching, the Rams rolled to an undefeated regular season for only the second time in program history, it’s 20-game winning streak topped only by last year’s squad that won 22 straight before falling in the state championship game. Strasburg defended its championships in the Conference 35 and Region 2A East tournaments and fielded three all-state performers in seniors Mark Smoot, Ryan Smoot and Noah St. Clair. Additionally, both the Virginia High School Coaches Association and Virginia High School League voted Mark Smoot the Group 2A state player of the year, and Jeff Smoot garnered coach of the year honors from both organizations.

And the Rams did all of that after graduating six seniors from its 2014 team, including five regular starters.

“The guys that walked across the stage last June, there were a good many of them and they were pretty good players. And essentially we replaced an outstanding senior class with sophomores and freshmen, and we knew that we would have some challenges ahead of us,” Jeff Smoot said. “What our players did this year, I think, was just phenomenal.”

The key to counteracting that youth in 2015, Jeff Smoot said, was finding that “delicate” balance between nurturing the underclassmen along and pushing them to raise their level of play to what is required at the varsity level. And though the Rams experienced growing pains early on, he added, the coaching staff was helped by a strong core of seniors who showed their younger teammates “how to go about their business” on and off the field.

Jeff Smoot has long been one to deflect credit for Strasburg’s baseball success to its players but Ryan Smoot, who, along with his twin brother Mark, recently finished his fourth and final high school baseball season playing for his father, said the coaching staff plays a pivotal role in the Rams’ success from year to year.

“I know he’s always saying that he’s a good coach because he has good players,” Ryan Smoot said, “and there’s a little bit of truth to that but I think when you’re running a baseball program for 35 years and you’re good just about every year, I mean, you ain’t that lucky.”

Ryan Smoot said in his four seasons on Strasburg’s varsity squad, the Rams always went about things “the right way,” something that has long been a staple of Strasburg’s teams.

Jeff Smoot credited the Rams’ persistent success on the diamond to a combination of factors, the most important of which are coaching continuity and the solidification of the program’s culture, he said.

That culture has become so deeply rooted in the program that players are aware of it even before they step foot on the field for Strasburg.

“They make you go out there every day to practice and work hard,” said Mark Smoot, who served as a team batboy along with his brother when the two were younger. “If you want to go out there and be lazy, you ain’t going to be on the team. They set a presence every day that you’re going to go out there and bust it in practice and that just carries over grade by grade by grade.

“That’s what good programs do,” he added. “They set a tone and what they stand for and hopefully it can just keep carrying down.”

Strasburg’s business-like approach also rubs off on those outside the program. Opposing coaches are always quick to commend the Rams for being well coached and fundamentally sound, a fact that Jeff Smoot said is a great point of pride for Strasburg’s coaches and players.

If there is a downside to the Strasburg baseball culture, it’s that it sometimes chases players away, Jeff Smoot said, although he added even that might not necessarily be such a bad thing.

“One of the things that we tell our kids often is that if you belong to an organization that anybody can belong to, it probably is a pretty crappy organization,” Jeff Smoot said. ” … We lose some kids that from a talent standpoint that we would like to have, and I think one of the reasons we lose some kids is because of the culture that we have. It’s very difficult out there for our players. The expectations are very high, not to win but the expectations in practice and to do things right. On the field, off the field, in the locker room — they’re pretty high.”

Mark Smoot said he was not sure if his father’s coaching performance this past spring was his best yet — that title likely goes to Strasburg’s 2007 season, when Jeff Smoot guided the Rams to their only state championship, he said — but 2015 certainly ranks up there.

“I hope that at some point the disappointment of losing in Radford will be erased by the memories of all the good that we did,” Jeff Smoot said.

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