There was a time this past winter when Greater Loudoun Coach Sam Plank wasn't sure that Heritage junior Rusty Smith was even going to make the Lions' summer squad, which will serve as the host team for the 16-year-old Babe Ruth World Series that begins today at Fireman's Field in Purcellville.
Now, he can't imagine Smith ever coming out of a game.
"He went from being on the bubble in the winter to probably being the MVP of our team," Plank said of Smith, the Lions' leadoff batter and starting right fielder. "He was definitely our most consistent player through the summer."
Smith's struggles in the winter stemmed largely from being worn out. As a starter on the Heritage basketball team, Smith was playing six days a week and then showing up half-hearted to winter baseball workouts on Sundays.
In the last basketball game of the season, Smith suffered a broken thumb when his hand slammed against the backboard. He was put in a cast and taken out of commission for a six-week span that extended into the high school baseball season.
"I was having a hard time with everything, from my hand to my knees and my back," Smith said. "I was sore all over. And I had always been a catcher, but after I got the cast off I decided to ask [Heritage Coach Brett Lewis] if I could move to the outfield. I was really just trying to keep myself healthy, but things really started to click for me."
Smith's first game back was against Stone Bridge, a team coincidentally coached by Plank. Smith's RBI double helped the Pride to a 4-2 victory, Heritage's first Virginia AA Dulles District win, and caught the eye of Plank.
"He looked like a different player," Plank said.
And partly, he was. Not only was Smith excelling in his first season in the outfield, he was also working with Jason Bagby of Diamond Sports Training in Sterling to improve his offense. Bagby, who, along with Lewis is one of Plank's assistants, changed Smith's stance and swing mechanics.
Smith batted .350 for the season while batting second for Heritage. His improved offense and dynamic defense earned the sophomore second-team all-district honors.
"He was an absolute standout in the outfield from Day One," Lewis said. "He's got excellent instincts. But what really sets him apart is his ability to read the ball off the bat. It's not often that he's going to get a bad jump or take a bad angle on a ball. When you look up, Rusty is always in position to be a factor in a play."
He'll be relied upon to bring that same playmaking ability to the World Series, where Greater Loudoun will play at least four round robin games starting today through Wednesday. The 10 teams are split into two divisions; the top three in each pool advance to a single-elimination playoff. The championship game is scheduled for 1 p.m. on Aug. 21.
"It's unreal. I still can't believe it'll be me playing in the World Series," Smith said. "It hasn't sunk in yet; it's like a dream."