Perfect Rams set high standard
John Keim
Journal Staff Writer
May 14, 2002

They put on a show before the game, tossing a pretend ball around the infield, sometimes scooping these ghost throws out of the dirt. Or leaping for them. It was an infield drill their coach borrowed from then-college power Long Beach State, one designed for only the best teams. A bad team wouldn't dare try it.

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And few teams had the, um, guts to try it in high school. Not to mention the talent.

But, in 1978, Robinson was different.

The Rams accomplished something no one remembered any Northern Region team doing before them. And their feat remained unmatched for 24 years, until Madison equaled it this spring.

The Rams went undefeated in the regular season.

The Rams were good and knew it.

So, at times, they acted the part. They challenged themselves before games, putting a figurative X mark on the back of their jerseys with their occasional routine. Imagine putting on such a display and then losing? But the Rams didn't have to worry about the latter part. At least not for the first 24 games. They didn't do the phantom infield before every game, but they did it enough to have fun.

``You would think, `What a cocky bunch of [expletives],' " said Greg Schuler, a starting junior center fielder for the Rams that season. ``Guys thought they were pretty good. Everyone knew the ballpark was packed whenever we played. It was like putting on a show. People expected something different.''

And Robinson delivered, nearly doing the unthinkable: going through the whole season undefeated. Only a 2-1 loss to J.R. Tucker in the Group AAA state championship prevented that from happening.

Therein lies the irony. Of all the games that season, it's that one, the only loss, that stands out. Memories have collided with reality, blurred by time and, frankly, too many wins to recall. Details from one game are confused by those in another, maybe even conflicting with other seasons.

But the hard numbers are this: Robinson went 20-0 during the regular season, eventually sent eight players to Division I schools and five to the minor leagues.

``That '78 team, talent-wise, was as good as any I've seen in the area,'' said former West Springfield baseball coach Ron Tugwell, whose team was swept by the Rams in 1978. ``If you stack up the best teams in Northern Virginia since 1970, they have to be in the top three.''

The current Madison team does have a link with Robinson. Rams graduate George Priftis, a junior second baseman in 1978, used to work with the father of Warhawks catcher Matt Foley at the Mid-Atlantic Baseball School, helping teach Foley how to hit when he was a tyke. On the night Madison clinched its perfect regular season, Warhawks coach Mark Gjormand bumped into Priftis.

And Madison principal Mark Merrell even pitched against the Rams during that time. There's also a connection as far as the players' style.

``They both had tough kids who played hard,'' Tugwell said.

Also, like Madison, most of the Rams grew up playing together in youth leagues or on Babe Ruth teams. The Rams knew they would be good, based on the returning starters from a 16-4 team. And they had a good mix of older and younger players (in 1979, Robinson went 19-1 during the regular season).

They also had their requisite share of three-sport athletes. Three Rams - Mark Krynitsky, Winston Streeter and Todd Kirtley - played football, basketball and baseball. All three teams advanced deep into the state tournament. None won a title.

They lost in the state semifinals in football on a day featuring a 5-degree wind chill and a field soaked by rain. And they lost in the state semifinals in basketball, aided in part when one of the Rams' best players missed the front end of a one-and-one late in the game.

Those losses produced a hunger by the time baseball season rolled around. And those players carried a trait shared by their baseball teammates.

``We were all feisty and competitive,'' said Krynitsky, the Rams' catcher in 1978 who eventually played at Virginia Tech and in the Brewers' and Royals' organizations. ``When you're 17 and 18 and full of hormones, you do things differently.''

Robinson received a gift when Priftis moved from Pennsylvania a couple months before the season started. The Rams had needed an infielder.

Priftis played second base. Problem solved.

They also had that attitude, with Krynitsky considered the fiery leader. During one game, he nearly got into a fight with a Lake Braddock outfielder. They exchanged words as Krynitsky walked to a drinking fountain in foul territory near the left-field fence.

``He was the heart and soul of the team,'' Tugwell said. ``He was tough as nails. But they had guys in every position who were athletic and fit what the mold of that spot in the order was.''

For instance, Schuler, who was drafted out of high school but played four years at North Carolina instead, provided power in the middle of the lineup. Streeter, batting leadoff, had the speed. Kirtley had a strong arm at short, which is one reason he attended Virginia to play football. As a senior in college, he also played baseball.

Brian Rupe shone in the outfield, played at Virginia Tech and later in the minors and third baseman Seth Wilcox later played at Virginia. Mike Hewitt was a solid first baseman. Pitcher Danny Cox played at George Mason.

But talent alone didn't define Robinson. Players remember showing up for extra batting practice on Saturday mornings, a common habit now but not 24 years ago. And few players balked at staying after practice for more work.

``We were a very singularly focused group,'' Priftis said. ``We were very talented, but it was like the perfect puzzle where all the pieces fit. Guys got along very well. We had a lot of different personalities, but when we were between the lines everyone was of the same mindset, `We've got to work hard.' Somehow, the stars were aligned.''

They spoiled their coaches, allowing them to scrap less-challenging practices for advanced ones. Robinson worked on plays in practice that lesser teams couldn't, perfecting bunt defenses and pickoff situations.

Sometimes the coaches would step back and watch. Nothing else needed to be done or said.

``You didn't have to do much to motivate the kids,'' said retired Rams coach Bob Menefee, who guided Robinson to a state title two years later. ``You just wanted to head them in the right direction and don't mess them up. You don't want to get in their way. I've often said that sometimes you can overcoach.''

Which often is the best coaching for such a team. Besides, all Robinson needed was a relaxed atmosphere. The Rams already had everything else. Staying loose would help them in tight situations.

Thing is, they didn't find themselves in too many of those. But one victory stuck out, mainly because the Rams were down to their final strike in a late-season game vs. Lake Braddock, which led by one.

But the batter reached base and Kirtley tripled off the fence tying the game, which Robinson then won in extra innings. Ho-hum.

``We'd get back on the bus and guys weren't hooping and hollering,'' Priftis said. ``It was just like, we did our job, went home and went to bed. It was a tremendous situation. All the games were hard-fought, but I never remember feeling like we were in trouble.''

The good life continued in the region final, where they beat Oakton, 7-4 - Priftis tripled home Streeter in the first. The Cougars had plenty of talent, too, with numerous players from a team that once had reached the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa.

It wasn't enough.

``I had a good group of kids,'' former Oakton coach Tom Hall said. ``But they had a great team. In this area, it's almost impossible to do what they did.''

Then came the state final, played in Richmond before a minor-league game between Richmond and Rochester.

Robinson entered the championship with a .315 team batting average and a confidence whose average was three times higher.

It didn't matter. Tucker pitcher Mike Gordon one-hit the Rams, tossing one off-speed pitch after another. Robinson's only run scored in the fourth, with Tucker already ahead 2-0.

Schuler scored without courtesy of a hit. He reached on a fielder's choice, stole second and Seth Wilcox's long sacrifice fly pushed him to third. Gordon balked him home.

Finally, in the fifth, Robinson's Jeff Miller broke up the no-hitter with a single to right. But the next eight Rams went down in order. When it was over, Miller remained in the on-deck circle for a few minutes, eyeing a celebration all of Robinson thought would be theirs.

``The guy that beat us was one of them junkers, throwing all off-speed pitches,'' Krynitsky said. ``The ball looked like a softball and all game it was frustrating. He did a good job of mixing his pitches and staying out of the middle of the plate. I remember [Menefee] said he didn't throw hard enough to break a pane of glass and to just be patient. All of a sudden the game was over and it was 2-1.''

The pain set in.

``I remember our principal came on the bus to congratulate us on a terrific season,'' said Priftis, whose relay throw from Schuler to Krynitsky prevented a third Tucker run from scoring. ``No one really wanted to hear it. We were in a state of disbelief that we lost the game to a team we should have beaten. But they certainly earned the game.

``By this point in our lives, since it's been 20-plus years, the 24 [wins] is something to be tremendously proud of. The one loss however, you think and go, `Man, what if?' "

What if, indeed. An incredible regular season became overshadowed, at least for a spell, by the final loss. And it didn't matter that, about two months later, Robinson's summer team defeated one from Tucker in the American Legion state championship. It provided only a tiny dose of revenge.

That's why these ex-Rams say they're rooting for Madison. They know how hard it is to finish unbeaten. They know how it feels to come close and lose. And they don't want anyone to duplicate that.

``We knew if we won the state final and finished undefeated, no team might ever do that again,'' Krynitsky said. ``Then we lost and it loses its value and meaning. But 24-1 - any kid in any league would give their left arm to go 24-1. But losing that state final ... I would have traded that loss for any of those regular-season games.

``One more game and it would have been a phenomenal year. It would have been a mark that would stand for all time. I'd love to see Madison do that. It might be another 25 or 50 years before another team has a chance to do it.''

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