2017 Baseball Coach of the Year: Lenox guides Generals to monumental year in final season
QUICKSBURG – Ever since Mike Lenox was hired as the head coach of Stonewall Jackson High School’s baseball program six years ago, he’d regularly fought against the morale-sapping idea that each year held in store only more of the “same old Stonewall.”
It was a popular perception built by years of below-average seasons and a steady influx of losing records. Before the 2017 season, it had been 22 years since a Stonewall baseball team qualified for a regional tournament. Lenox wasn’t even sure when Generals last had a winning season.
This past spring marked Lenox’s final season as the Generals’ baseball coach – he has since taken over as the school’s athletic director – but he steps down having won that battle against mediocrity.
He convinced the 2017 Generals that things could be different, that the program had the talent to do something new and exciting.
The spring turned into a whirlwind of highs and lows during the regular season, eight-hour round-trip car rides to all corners of the state for postseason games and a string of unexpected playoff success. It culminated in a spot in the Virginia High School League Group 1A state championship game, the first such appearance in the program’s history.
As he reflected back on the season four days after his team fell to Auburn 6-0 in the state championship in Radford on June 10, the 29-year-old Lenox said it wasn’t the victories he would remember most. When he thinks about Stonewall’s magical season, his mind will produce images of his players, their personalities and what they have become. He will see the community support and recall the stories of students listening to the radio broadcast of the state title game on their phones in the middle of class.
“Those little things are what I’m gonna remember,” Lenox, The Northern Virginia Daily’s 2017 Baseball Coach of the Year, said last week. “There’s gonna be a hundred more baseball games that I might watch or even be a part of when I have kids or whatnot, but it’s gonna be just the guys that I can remember probably vividly. The car rides and stuff like that. That’s what I’m gonna remember and that’s what I’m gonna probably miss the most about it all.”
While Stonewall prepared for the program’s first state tournament appearance in the practices leading up to their state semifinal game against Eastside on June 9, multiple Generals admitted that they never would’ve predicted they’d be standing on the cusp of history at the start of the season. Count Lenox in that group.
But the head coach knew the Generals had talent and as the season progressed, Lenox said he saw his team doing all the right things on the diamond. They just needed to “come together at the right time.”
Stonewall, which entered the playoffs with a losing record and ended the year just two games over .500 (14-12), got the signature win it needed in the Conference 44 tournament semifinals against Riverheads, a team that had beaten the Generals twice in blowout fashion during the regular season. The 2-0 win saw the Generals score both of their runs on a balk and a groundout-turned-E6 after Lenox won an appeal to the home plate umpire.
“You need some luck to get to where we got to and the ball bounced our way with the balk and the overturned call,” Lenox said. “… We kind of started seeing everything wasn’t against us.”
Four days later, Stonewall hit the road bound for Central-Lunenburg in the Region 1A East quarterfinals and walked away with a 4-3 win. The Generals were the seventh seed out of eight in the regional field.
“That’s when they started seeing like nobody’s gonna be better than us, and they really, really believed that,” Lenox said.
A blowout 13-0 win over Lancaster followed two days later, a victory that clinched Stonewall it’s landmark state tournament appearance. Two days after that the Generals fell to Windsor in the regional championship game.
Stonewall, which endured a trio of road trips that were each no shorter than 300 miles roundtrip, played six of its seven playoff games on the road. The tour of the state during the regional tournament left just enough time for a day between each game to practice get caught up at school while hearing the growing optimism coming from the hallways and the surrounding community.
“It just kind of was a blur to be honest,” Lenox said of the regional tournament. “… We’d show up, play, win, get back in the car and say where do we gotta go? It wasn’t ‘let’s soak this in.’ I said you all enjoy it tonight and then forget about it because we’ve got another one to go.”
By the time the Generals reached the state tournament, most of Lenox’s coaching was done. Outside of some preparation for the Eastside’s hard-throwing ace Austin Smallwood – the eventual Group 1A Player of the Year whom the Generals blasted for 13 hits in an 11-3 win in the state semifinals – Lenox simply let his team go to work.
“I wasn’t trying to fix this, fix that. I just said compete, you know what to do,” he said. “I just tried to sit back and enjoy it as much as I could. Just gotta keep the reins on everything and keep them focused, but other than that there was no real X’s and O’s.”
Stonewall fell short of winning the program’s first state title, but the playoff magic did plenty to rejuvenate a school and an athletic program hungry for success in a major sport. Lenox said the “buzz” created during the Generals’ run could be felt all throughout Shenandoah County.
“That’s, I think, one of the greatest things that came from this,” Lenox said.
“We didn’t just make it there. We exceeded everybody’s expectations of what could happen. That’s something that won’t be forgotten, Stonewall has done this.”
The Generals lose five seniors to graduation in Wyatt Estep, Cole Holsinger (an all-state honoree by both the VHSL and VHSCA), Brett Jones, Duncan Schroeder and Dylan Vann. Many of the seniors and juniors on the 2017 squad were three- and four-year members of the varsity team.
“I think that was the most difficult part for me was saying goodbye to those guys,” Lenox said. “Watching them grow up, and their parents and families and the community, I couldn’t express enough gratitude for what they gave me. It was just a magical experience for multiple different reasons.”