Express returnees back to chase a third straight VBL title

Strasburg Express shortstop Tyler Halas bends down to put the tag on Purcellville's Tommy Ziegen during the second inning of a game last season in Strasburg. Halas is one of five players who returned to the Express at the start of the 2017 season. Rich Cooley/Daily

STRASBURG – Ben Dum, a right-hander from Virginia Commonwealth University, played an integral part in Strasburg’s run to its second straight Valley Baseball League championship last summer.

Dum started seven games during the regular season in 2016, going 4-0 for the Express with a sparkling 1.42 ERA, and in the playoffs he won both of his starts, including the title-clinching Game 2 of the VBL championship series against Waynesboro.

Last season, the Express tied Waynesboro for the best record during the regular season (30-12), went 22-3 at home at First Bank Park and set a franchise record for most wins in a season.

This summer, Dum is back to try to help Strasburg do it all again.

“I formed a lot of relationships here that I wanted to carry on and I felt like we had more work to do here,” the VCU junior said before Tuesday’s home game against Staunton.” I wanted to come here and help the team go get another ring. That’s the goal we set out for this summer.”

Strasburg's Ryan Anderson throws a pitch during a game last season against Front Royal at First Bank Park. Anderson has returned to play for the Express this season. Rich Cooley/Daily

Dum is one of five players from Strasburg’s 2016 squad who rejoined the Express at the start of this season. Four of those players – Dum, fellow pitcher Ryan Anderson, middle infielder Tyler Halas and outfielder Brandon Quaranta – remain on the roster, while middle infielder Erick Delgado left the team this week due to injury.

All said their returns were fueled by the combination of  hunger for more on-field success and the positive atmosphere that surrounds the Express organization.

“As soon as I got here I could just tell right away that there was kind of something special going on,” said Quaranta, a mid-season addition to last year’s team who went on to mash 11 home runs and drive in 36 RBIs in just 27 games. “Guys were real close and every night we came here it was just fun to be out here playing in front of Strasburg and all the fans.

“I think the biggest thing for the guys who came back this year, like I said, we just had fun. The fans wanna win, we wanna win, and I think the culture that is around this town is amazing. So I think a lot of guys just enjoy playing in front of these fans, and I think that’s what’s gonna bring a lot of guys back, hopefully, in the future as well.”

For many who join the Express – or any of the other organizations in the Valley League, for that matter – spending the summer months in the Shenandoah Valley can be a bit of a culture shock.

Quaranta is from Poughkeepsie, New York, and plays college ball for Philadelphia University, while Halas grew up outside of Chicago. Anderson hails from the Tampa, Florida, area and attends Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, and Delgado, a fellow Floridian, goes to school at St. Thomas University in Miami.

Each has had to adjust to life in a three-stoplight town.

“This place is not really a fun place to be at because there’s not much to do, but I mean you experience something new, a new lifestyle,” Delgado said prior to his departure this week. “The culture’s different. The people are different. You get to meet people that you’ve never talked to. … You get to meet people from everywhere and for me that was a must.”

That interaction with the people – whether that be fellow players, the coaching staff, team personnel and fans – was at the top of the list of positive experiences for each of the Express’ five returnees.

“Obviously the town, the town and all the people and everything, the host families,” Halas said when asked what drew him back to Strasburg for a second season. “They took really good care of us. It was great to be around all these type of people. They always treat us like family.”

True to the summer baseball formula, the roster turnover for Strasburg has been great, and the Express have required time to adjust to new players and a brand-new coaching staff, led by manager Nate Ramsey, in 2017.

But Strasburg does have a core of four familiar faces in Anderson, Dum, Halas and Quaranta, who have stepped into the roles that a few players filled for the team last season after the Express won their first VBL title in 2015.

“This year I’m the veteran of the team, really, because I’ve been here already,” Anderson said. “But I remember I was in their spot last year because they’re all talking about everything that’s going on in Strasburg. They’re asking the same questions – how is this year compared to last year? (We’re) like oh yeah, it’s pretty much the same – but we got rings. So that’s pretty cool. We like to share the experience.”

Entering Thursday’s game at Harrisonburg, Strasburg was 5-6 and in a three-way tie for fourth place in the North Division, though the Express had won three of their last four after beginning the season 2-5.

The primary objective for each player is to improve on the field for their college teams – and staying healthy while doing so – although chasing a three-peat is right up there on the list for the Express.

“The ultimate goal is obviously to go make another playoff run, go get another ring,” Dum said. “But looking forward to the next few weeks as the team continues to come together, to see what the ultimate potential of this team is, because I see a lot of talent. Guys are coming out, I see them working hard every day.”