Blankenship has blueprint for cross country, track success
Medical Lake track and cross country coach was in right place at right time
Gene Blankenship (left), Medical Lake's co-head track and head cross country coach is seen here with assistant, David McNeil (right) at the recently completed state championships at Roos Field. Blankenship has successfully replicated the blueprint for success he created in California in the 1980s and 1990s with state championships in cross country and track during the last school year.
Like most everyone who has been passed over for a job that they thought was the perfect fit, Gene Blankenship admitted "I was pretty upset at first," when he was passed over to replace longtime West Valley High School cross country coach Jim McLachlan in the summer of 2010.
Four years and two state championships later the head coach of Medical Lake's cross country team and its co-head coach in track has a different take.
"Not getting hired by West Valley was the best thing that ever happened to me," the 71-year-old said. And the Medical Lake community will probably agree after Blankenship helped guide the Cardinals to their first-ever state track team championship May 30, seven months after claiming a state 1A cross country crown.
Winning championships is nothing new to the veteran coach who came out of California in 1993 when his wife, Sue, was transferred in her job.
After winning multiple cross country championships at Hart High School in Santa Clarita, he hooked up in a variety of assistant-coaching roles locally, one short-lived and regrettable stint as a head coach and then back to being the No. 2 guy before the stars here finally aligned.
"One of the best things that I do is build programs," Blankenship said.
He came to Medical Lake at a time when the cross country program was a little down and it gave him another opportunity to try to replicate what he'd done in California. "Things just fell in place," Blankenship said.
In California Blankenship was an assistant track and head cross country coach in the beginning.
The year before he took over at Hart, located near the roller-coaster theme park, Magic Mountain, there was one girl and four boys in the program. When he left in 1993 there were over 150 kids in a school of just over 2,000.
"The first thing that I did with the cross country program here at Medical Lake - I took over two weeks before the season started- was I didn't get much done," Blankenship said.
The next year he instituted the summer running program and a summer campout.
Blankenship is the first one to admit that cross country is not the most fun sport in the world. "We try to do some fun things," and one is the team-building campout he said.
It has been held just before school starts, lasts five days and takes place at Farragut State Park with about 35 kids attending.
"We spend five days together camping out, eating together, running in the morning, running in the evening and try to do some fun things in between," Blankenship said.
That's helped swell the ranks of the program and build interest. A recent sign up for the 2014 season brought in 80 kids in both high school and middle school.
It's the feeder program in the younger grades that is the crucial building block for the type of long-term success he had at Hart. But when he was hired, there was no program in the middle school.
Blankenship asked Medical Lake athletic director Chris Spring if he could start a program but was informed there was no budget to pay coaches. "I can't have a good high school program without a good middle school program," Blankenship explained.
The first year there were six boys and one girl. The real measure of the small start is that four of the boys are still running in the high school program, including Tim Chernishoff, John Pineda, Jeremy Ryan and Kirill Lesnykh. The girl might be there, too, except she moved to Germany.
Blankenship can trace a similar path at Hart. "The first year we did nothing," he said. "We just got killed."
By year two Blankenship said league champions in both boys and girls came from the school. "We never got a girl's team to state but we always got them to the sectional finals most of the time I was there." The boys got stronger and stronger and the last three years were state titlists, Blankenship said.
"We started with hardly anybody running to the most popular thing to do on campus," Blankenship said.
"That's what I'm trying to do at Medical Lake, make cross country the thing to do."
His newest goal is to get track and field to be "the thing to do," when it comes to athletics in the spring.
"My biggest character trait is that I'm very passionate at what I do, and I don't do anything halfway," Blankenship said. And it's that fervor he employs to help make kids love his portion of the high school sports culture.
Cross country and track are sports that require bunches of bodies to be successful. When the Cardinals were in the 2A Great Northern League, "We were just getting hammered," Blankenship said. The 2013-14 athletic season saw a move to the 1A Northeast A League. "That's where we belong."
In 2013 about a half dozen kids made it to state and finished in the top-20 in track. "In all honesty winning that championship in track and field was a big surprise for us," Blankenship said.
And while he's glad to talk about how to build a successful program, Blankenship knows he hardly does it alone.
"In California I had excellent assistant coaches; there's no way one person puts anything together," Blankenship said.
The same is true in Medical Lake where he points to co-coach Steven Keith, specializing in field events and sprint coach, David McNeil.
While the seasons have defined beginnings and end points, for Blankenship, recruiting never ends.
"There's kids walking around the campus at Medical Lake that could be on my varsity cross country team that I can't get to run," Blankenship said. "I keep trying."
Paul Delaney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.