Rams eager for ‘clean slate’ in playoff matchup with Lee

Strasburg's Trevin Howard carries the ball on a punt return against Central on Oct. 30. The Rams travel to Robert E. Lee (Staunton) tonight for the first round of the Group 2A East playoffs. Rich Cooley/Daily

STRASBURG – Strasburg High School’s football team stumbled over the final two-thirds of the regular season, losing five of its final seven football games. But the Rams get to start anew this week.

Strasburg, the 14th seed in the Group 2A East playoffs, will travel to Robert E. Lee (Staunton) Friday night for a 7 p.m. first-round game against the No. 3 Fighting Leemen. It’s the second straight playoff appearance for the Rams.

“I think a clean slate is the perfect way to put it,” Rams senior receiver/defensive back Austin Schlentner said following practice Wednesday. “… We’ve just gotta set the season aside but we’ve gotta remember how we got here, the good things we did and the bad things we’ve gotta work on.”

The Rams (5-5) lost two straight games to end the regular season, including a 36-8 road loss to William Monroe last week, and head coach Mark Roller wanted to emphasize to his team during practice this week the importance of staying loose and having fun during game preparation.

“You tend to make a lot of mistakes when you’re really tight,” Roller said. “This is probably the first time all year that I’ve seen them this loose prior to a game. And we’ve had a pretty good week of practice, so we’ll see what happens.”

R.E. Lee (7-3) has continued its winning tradition in 2015 under first-year coach Scott Girolmo, who replaced longtime coach David Tibbs this fall. In Tibbs’ 19 seasons as head coach, the Leemen made the playoffs 14 times.

Girolmo came to Lee after serving four seasons as the offensive coordinator at Liberty (Bealeton) – a Group 4A state semifinalist last season – and he coaches an offense at Lee that is averaging 35.7 points per game this fall.

Roller said “a lot of things pop out” when watching Lee on film, including its size up front on both sides of the ball, and he added that the Leemen show multiple looks on offense, including shotgun and pistol formations with read-option elements.

“They run a lot of crazy formations,” Schlentner said. “They cover guys up and make you think on defense, but I think that we’ve practiced that enough that we can pick up on who’s eligible and who’s not.”

The Leemen boast a senior-exclusive offensive line – led by 6-foot-2, 260-pound senior lineman/tight end Casey Taylor – and a dual-threat quarterback in senior Tavian Brown, who had over 1,000 yards rushing and passing last season.

Roller said the key for Strasburg’s defense, which is allowing 17.1 points and 248.6 yards per game this season and is led by sophomore Austin Miller’s 93 tackles, is to limit Lee’s big plays while forcing the Leemen to use extended drives to reach the end zone.

Lee has won five straight games while scoring more than 40 points in each of its last four contests, including 62 points in a rout of Fort Defiance last week.

“Their offense seems to be clicking really well and I think that’s what they hang their hat on right now is being able to put up a lot of points and put them up fast,” Schlentner said.

Offensively, the Rams have struggled to find the end zone over the past six games, scoring more than 8 points in a game just once in that span. Strasburg is averaging 16.8 points per game, while Lee is allowing 23.5 points per contest.

Strasburg senior running back Justin Carr leads the Rams with 135 carries for 866 yards and 10 touchdowns. Junior quarterback Adam Miller has completed just 48.7 percent of his passes (57 for 117) for 603 yards, four touchdowns and 7 interceptions, while senior Trevin Howard (team-high three interceptions) has caught 29 passes for 281 yards and a touchdown.

Roller said the offense has shown improvement in practice this week.

“I would like for us to be able to move the ball some with the running game,” Roller said. “We haven’t been able to throw the ball effectively here a lot lately, if we can get Adam some passes there that he can complete and gain a little confidence then I think, you know, we’ll be OK. And those front guys, those front five, they need to be able to block and give us a little bit of time to throw it. And I think we have that opportunity.”

Roller said the Leemen are “twice the size as we are” up front defensively and added that he expects Lee to put eight men in the box and play man-to-man on the outside.

“I just think we need to go into this game and take care of things, and do things to be positive, especially as far as offensively,” Roller said. “I mean, we’ve played well defensively and we just need to be able to move the ball some and not turn it over, and those are the little things that we’ve done over the last couple weeks. We’ve turned the ball over, I think, six times in the last two games. We can’t do that and expect to compete, especially now at this level.”

The winner of Friday’s game advances to play the winner of No. 6 Washington and Lee and No. 11 East Rockingham next week.

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