2016 Baseball Coach of the Year: Smoot kept Rams close through adversity

Jeff Smoot

Strasburg High School assistant baseball coach Joel Morgan said he can’t remember a season during his tenure in which the Rams faced the type of adversity they did in 2016.

That adversity began even before the high school baseball season did. In January, the school and the community were rocked by a the report of an incident involving members of Strasburg’s boys basketball program that led to the suspension of seven students, who were later charged with misdemeanor assault or battery by mob, and the cancellation of the second half of the boys basketball program’s season.

In the midst of the investigation, and in a school atmosphere that Morgan said was “not the best,” Strasburg’s baseball team prepared to begin its season, the 35th under the guidance of head coach Jeff Smoot.

“When we first started it was all hectic with the stuff that happened,” Rams junior pitcher/shortstop Ryan Bowers said Friday afternoon, “but Coach Smoot just kept on telling us to put it behind us, that we don’t need to worry about it. Just show the town and the community what we needed to do.”

When the Rams began regular season play in mid-March, they struggled while losing the first two games of the season, a rarity for a program coming off back-to-back Group 2A state tournament appearances.

But behind the leadership of Smoot, The Northern Virginia Daily’s 2016 Baseball Coach of the Year for the third straight season, the Rams began to come together, bringing success on the diamond along with it.

“He just, he treated us like we were his kids, basically,” Bowers said of Smoot, who could not be reached for comment for this story. “He taught us to be a family and not to worry about all that stuff, just to play baseball, to be ourselves.”

Following season-opening losses to Page County and Stonewall Jackson, Morgan, who has assisted Smoot for 15 years, said some “harsh honesties” were addressed as the coaching staff dissected areas in need of improvement. Morgan heaped praise on the response of Strasburg’s players.

The Rams won their next six games while outscoring opponents 60-10 in that span.

“I think it was just the way they talked to us, the way they handled the situations,” Rams senior outfielder Nate Butler said. “They just, they never really gave up on us at all. … I feel like (Smoot) really stuck with us through it all and he was able to talk to us.”

Strasburg (15-9) would go on to earn the top seed in the Conference 35 tournament, although the Rams fell to Madison County, 18-11, in the championship game. They bounced back in the Region 2A East quarterfinals with a 15-2 win over Conference 36 champion East Rockingham on May 30 before seeing their season end with a 4-1 loss to Goochland in the semifinals, one win shy of their third straight state tournament appearance.

Both Bowers and Butler said Strasburg’s success was powered by improved efficiency on offense as the season progressed – the Rams scored 10 or more runs in four of their final six games – and the pitching, led by Bowers (6-0, 2.42 ERA, 56 strikeouts), Butler (2.51 ERA) and junior Adam Miller (4-2, 2.35 ERA), was solid after the Rams struggled through some arm problems early in the season. But Morgan said the biggest key was Strasburg’s cohesiveness.

“I just think most importantly, they just kind of stuck together and I think that’s kind of the culture that Coach Smoot has always tried to create, is one where you’re playing for each other,” Morgan said. “You’re playing for your school and your community and for each other and not just for yourself. And I think that in the end was probably the biggest factor.”

Butler said Smoot’s impact on that camaraderie was “pretty big.”

“He helps people understand the game a lot more than other coaches would, but I think he really makes you into a better person. Tougher, stronger, more of a man than when you first got there,” he said. “I think it helps continue through every single sport that you play. Especially baseball, it’s really mental so you have to be mentally tough and he’s gonna yell at ya, scream at ya at times, but that’s honestly just gonna help more.”

The impact of Strasburg’s coaching staff wasn’t just felt by the varsity team – Smoot, Morgan and assistant coach Jason Conroy pulled double duty as the school’s JV baseball coaches due to coaching vacancies left in the wake of the basketball incident. While Smoot handled “some of the management,” a bulk of the coaching responsibilities in practice were held by Morgan and Conroy, Morgan said.

“That was literally, I think, just a team effort to do that and we found a way to make it work and try to do what was right and what was best for the kids,” Morgan said. “And those kids were great to work with.”

By the middle of the baseball season, rumors began circulating that Smoot would not return as the Rams’ head coach next year. Strasburg athletic director Matt Hiserman said Wednesday that Smoot had not officially submitted a letter of resignation.

Morgan said that while he would’ve liked to have seen the Rams win their final game of 2016, Strasburg “ended up with a good year.”

“I would say that, obviously, you have to have good leadership and I’ve always felt that the leadership that Coach Smoot has provided our baseball program has been outstanding,” Morgan said. “So I think with his leadership, and really primarily with the kids being able to respond and overcome some adversity, the season turned out really, really well.”

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