Blankenship hopes to check state cross country title goal off the list
If one of his Medical Lake teams emerge from their scramble over the 5,000 meters that make up the course at Sun Willows Golf Course in Pasco and claim a state cross country championships Saturday, Gene Blankenship will be able to cross a big item off his “To-Do” list.
No “bucket list” for Blankenship who is an avid runner and ought to be far away – he hopes at least – from kicking the bucket.
“My burning desire is to win a state championship in the state of Washington,” Blankenship, the Cardinals 71-year-old head coach said. It’s something he’s done pretty regularly in the past in California.
Blankenship’s boys team, the state’s No. 1 ranked school in the classification, has as good a chance as any he said. La Center High School north of Vancouver, Wash. and Meridian High from Bellingham are the prime challengers.
His 2012 boy’s team finished third behind the Charles Wright Academy and fellow Northeast A League school, Lakeside from Nine Mile. The girls were sixth.
In his fourth season as head coach at Medical Lake, and wrapping up his 34th in the sport, Blankenship spent 15 years building programs in California where he was born, grew up and saw himself saved by discovering running.
Blankenship has been running since his freshman year in high school. He got hooked on it and it likely saved his life. “I was on my way to being a hood,” in Lawndale, one of a number of tough parts of the Los Angeles area, he said in a 2010 Cheney Free Press story.
“Seriously, I was on the way to being a school dropout and a troublemaker, and I’m not very tough so I probably wouldn’t have lived very long to be honest with you,” Blankenship admitted.
After competing in track at the junior college level in California, and doing some volunteer coaching, Blankenship moved to Hart High School in Santa Clarita where he turned around a futile cross country program. In his first year “We got killed,” Blankenship said, but he followed that with the school’s first-ever league titles in both the boys’ and girls’ teams in 40 years in 1983. His last three teams at Hart won consecutive state championships.
As he did in California, Blankenship’s taken a Medical Lake team that struggled for years, injected some fun into running by having team-building camps and dinners, among other things. “We’re a running family,” Blankenship explained. “That’s what I’ve tried to do in every program I’ve been in.”
Blankenship insists the fun in running can be found in almost anyone and that he knows the key.
“You get as many kids out, you get them to believe in what we are doing,” he said. “You get them to believe you are going to be a champion.”
The man, whose left arm was lost due to complications of a rattlesnake bite when he was in his 20s and never let that handicap hinder him, gleaned his philosophy from a world-famous cross country coach from New Zealand named Arthur Lydiard.
Lydiard coached coaches, and his main tenant was, “You don’t have to look in someone else’s neighborhood to find talent, it’s at your school or in your neighborhood. All you have to do is find it, get it and get it out to train.”
That beckons the question: How does one make running miles and miles fun for kids? One thing might be their annual overnight trip, a preseason camping and running getaway.
“The school district is scared to death of the overnight trip,” Blankenship said. “They just see all kinds of things going wrong.” Blankenship has so far convinced the powers-that-be otherwise.
“We just do fun things,” he said. “When you start to win it becomes a lot more fun, period.”
“I think we’re going to run exceptional well through three on Saturday, OK at four and if Noah (Kroeze) gives us his best race of the season, we’re going to win the title,” Blankenship predicted. Those top-3 runners are Micah Dingfield, the recent Bi District’s 1A most valuable runner, his brother, Jacob Dingfield, Domenic Rehm who jostle back and forth competing for No. 2 and No. 3 and Tim Chernishoff (No. 4).
Beyond Saturday and the end of the season, Blankenship’s said that with the influx of a bunch of new runners he’s probably committed to running the program for another four years.
“Unfortunately I can’t be there long enough to get into their coaching hall of fame,” where being a Cardinal coach for 20 years is a prerequisite.
His focus is not on the hall of fame, however. “My goal is to get as many kids out running as possible, do as good as we can and hope the kids have fun.”
Winning a state title this Saturday and having a banner to hang in the gym will be an added bonus.
Paul Delaney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.