STRASBURG - When Strasburg boys basketball coach Larry Fox took over the varsity program two years ago he knew the first thing the team needed to do was to get back to the hard-nosed defense it had played in years past.
This season Fox got that from his team as the season went on and it helped lead to a strong finish, which came up just one victory short of a state berth and a 15-11 record.
Fox, The Northern Virginia Daily's Boys Basketball 2018-19 Coach of the Year, said it was a challenge to get his team to buy into playing hard-nosed defense this season after the guard-oriented team scored 85 points in the season opener. He said as the season went on they started to understand how important it was to play defense.
"Towards the end of the year I think that's what got us on our win streak and got us one game away from the state tournament," Fox said of the Rams' defense. "The key was kind of they bought into playing defense and kind of understood 'hey those coaches are right - we're not going to be able to outscore everybody every night.' And I thought they did a good job with that."
Fox said work ethic is an important part of the program's success for him all the way down to the players. Fox took over the varsity program less than two years after the team had most of its games suspended due to an incident on a bus ride home after a game. A subsequent investigation led to seven students later pleading guilty to misdemeanor assault or battery by mob in Shenandoah County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court.
The following year the team went 3-19 under new coach Hamilton Doyle. Fox coached the junior varsity team that season. When Doyle stepped down after one year, Fox became the head coach of the varsity team and he said that group of seniors led by Justin King, Grant Scott and Austin Miller really set the tone for getting the program back on track.
"Justin and Grant and Austin - that group - it was just a blueprint of where we wanted to be and where we wanted to go," Fox said. "They kind of started it back again and I think this group that we had here just kind of emulated that and carried on that tradition. I really do think we're headed in the right direction."
The Rams faced some adversity this season. Juniors Craig and Kamryn Pangle transferred from Sherando High School shortly before the season started and junior point guard Dylan Hamrick suffered a broken collarbone during football season and had to miss the start of basketball season.
"Craig and Kamryn came in and they were probably used to playing a totally different style of basketball than we wanted to play," Fox said. "So it was an adjustment for us. It was an adjustment for them. We struggled with how we wanted to handle that. Did we want to get them to play our style of basketball? Or did we want to adjust to how they could help us? And we did a little bit of both. And I thought our older kids here handled that rather well. And I thought that those kids handled it well. And I think that played a huge part in us having a successful season."
Early in the Bull Run District season, Fox said the Rams picked up what he felt like was a huge win for the program - a 60-46 victory over Madison County.
"I thought us beating Madison was kind of a moment where we kind of flipped the switch a little bit," Fox said. "The past two, three years they've always been a pretty good program as far as being able to compete with those guys. And I think the first time we beat them was kind of a big 'ah-ha' moment. Like 'hey we can compete with these types of teams. We are very competitive.' I thought that was one of our bigger moments of the season."
Towards the end of the regular season the Rams went on a five-game winning streak and won seven of nine games.
The Rams were the No. 3 seed for the Bull Run District tournament, where they lost to second-seeded Central in the tourney semifinals.
The following week in the Region 2B quarterfinals the Rams knocked off defending Class 2 state-runners-up Robert E. Lee, 54-50 in overtime on the road.
"It was a huge win for our program," Fox said. "Like I said before when I think of basketball in the state of Virginia off the top of my head I think of R.E. Lee and I think of Martinsville. And I felt that was a huge confidence builder for our kids getting back to believing in themselves. I thought that was a huge moment for our school and for our kids."
Fox, a 1993 Warren County graduate, said he started coaching high school basketball at Warren County working with current Skyline girls basketball coach Jim Kenney. He said Kenney and former Skyline boys basketball coach Sonny Dyke were big influences on him. Fox said that another huge influence on him was his former Warren County coach Jim Moose. He said Moose was the one "that got me to fall in love with the game."
Fox said it was also great having former Strasburg boys basketball standout J.R. Anderson as his assistant coach this season. Anderson was part of a run to the state semifinals during his high school career at Strasburg.
"He came in and he was a good fit for us," Fox said of Anderson. "And of course he played here at Strasburg. I was constantly in his ear - different situations what do you think here? What do you think we should do? ...He sacrificed a lot and he was good for our kids. A lot of those guys look up to him."
The Rams junior varsity team went 20-3 under coaches Jalen Doman and Levi Dofermire this season. They won the Bull Run District regular season and tournament championship.
Fox said the future of the program is bright. The team is only losing two seniors to graduation - Stephen Kloosterman and Seth Stickley. Fox said the key is for his players to continue working hard in the offseason.
"I just want us to continue improving," Fox said. "I want the kids to understand they're going to have to sacrifice a lot. There's going to be ups and downs. I kind of got them all together after the Rapp game over there (on Feb. 5) and said 'guys, we're only losing two kids, spots are going to be open. And there's going to be spots to be taken away.' So I think for those kids to just get in the gym and work really hard - I think is going to get us to the next level where we want to be."