Blankenship’s work rewarded with a scholarship to UAFS

Justin Blankenship, flanked by his parents Mark and Robin, signs a letter of intent to continue his baseball career and education at the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith, as coaches, from left, Tic Harrison, Frank Fisher, Kirk Bock and Craig Harrison look on.By ROB PATRICK

Attention, young baseball players.

No doubt, you've been told many times that hard work and perseverance will pay off for you. Just as certainly, there have been times that you weren't so sure. Maybe you were riding the pine a lot more than you'd like, sharing playing time with a teammate or you're playing but not having as much impact as you'd like.

Well, let me tell you about Justin Blankenship.[more]

Even though he'd been a contributor as an all-star in Little League and Babe Ruth, when he got to high school and American Legion ball, it was a struggle. He didn't play any for the varsity as a sophomore. That summer, he did pretty well for the Junior Black Sox, hitting .325 as a full-time player and going 3-4 as a pitcher with a respectable 3.04 earned run average. He also got a little taste of Senior Legion play with nine at bats.

His junior year in high school brought him a little more varsity action but in his 30 at-bats, he wound up with just a .167 average. That summer, he was a full-time player for the Senior Sox. Still, he struggled at the plate. He wound up hitting just .235 and making a couple of appearances on the mound, picking up a win.

So, entering his senior year at BHS, there was really no reason to believe that, as athletic as he was, Blankenship was college baseball material.

But that's where the hard work and perseverance come in.

Justin Blankenship, son of Mark and Robin Blankenship, worked his way into a stellar season in high school then continued that in Legion. And, on Thursday, Aug. 6, he made an earlier verbal commitment official when he signed a letter of intent to continue his baseball career and education in the prestigious baseball program at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith.

"At the beginning of the year, he was kind of just another player," recalled Hornets coach Kirk Bock, who was beginning his first season at Bryant. "Then, after he got in, he figured out how to stay inside the ball and do some things. He became one of our best players. He's one we really, really hate to lose.

"He realized that he was going to be the guy," Bock added. "Maybe in the past, he didn't know that. He realized he needed to get it done and he certainly did."

In fact, Blankenship wound up earning all-State and all-conference honors after batting .420, second best among the regulars. He led the team in doubles (9) and triples (3) and tied for the team lead in runs batted in with 23, helping the team win a 7A-Central Conference championship.

And it continued in the summer where he was over .400 much of the way before finishing at .385. After switching to lead-off midway through the season, he led the team with 43 runs scored, tied for top honors with 10 stolen bases and he was still second on the team in RBIs with 29. He had eight doubles, two triples and three home runs. In addition, the right-hander (who bats left) helped on the mound, winning a game, saving two and posting an 0.75 earned run average in 18 2/3 innings. He walked just four and fanned 16. And the Sox won a Zone title, a Zone tournament championship and reached the finals of the State tournament.

"When we put him in the lead-off spot, it really helped our lineup," noted Sox manager Craig Harrison. "He's not your proto-typical lead-off hitter because he does strike out a little more but he makes up for it by hitting for a high average. And he runs the bases with aggresiveness but he's smart about it. So, he was a catalyst for our lineup. We started scoring a few more runs after we put him up there.

"And there were other things," Harrison added. "He threw out a runner from right fielder against Texarkana in the District that was a key play for us. And on the mound there were several games that we brought him in. Against Fort Smith Kerwins in the State tournament game, it was probably the key for us to be able to get to the finals because he came in with a difficult situation, bases loaded and one out, struck out a guy then got the next guy out and pitched three innings for us."

"I knew if I was going to play ball in college and try to get a scholarship to help pay for my school that I had to do a lot on my own and just work hard," Blankenship recounted. "I knew, having a new, good head coach like Coach Bock, he had connections with everybody and that if I worked hard on my own and worked hard with him, I'd be able to go somewhere and play. I gave it my all this year."

Not that he wasn't before, of course.

"Those years, I had people ahead of me that I had to beat out," he explained. "This year, I had younger people that were trying to take my spot. That motivated me. I didn't have the spot down so I knew I had to work as hard as I could."

"He kept plugging away," Bock noted. "He worked as hard as anyone we've had." 

"He's also just a fun player to be around," Harrison mentioned. "He's never in a bad mood, it seems, real loose. We joke around. He's kind of a prankster. I've enjoyed being around him, actually the last three years. We put him in at Mountain Home against Jonesboro and we didn't know what we had two years ago. He played well for us last year but then really turned it on this summer.

"We took him to Mountain Home that year and didn't really think he'd play but we thought it'd be a good experience for him, thought he would like it," Harrison continued. "But then (center fielder) Joey (Winiecki) got hurt and (Blankenship) went out and got two hits for us. Last year, he was our left fielder and this year we put him in right and I don't think he missed an inning. He's a good player."

Blankenship's signing with UAFS continues a bit of a pipeline of talent from Bryant to the Lions. Current minor leaguer Aaron Davidson played there; Winiecki, who'll be playing at Oral Roberts next spring, starred there; and left-handed pitcher Trent Daniel, who's headed to Arkansas (Fayetteville) this fall, was a standout as a freshman for the Lions last spring.

At first, Blankenship was being courted by Southern Arkansas University and it got out erroneously that he had committed to go to Magnolia.

"(UAFS) contacted Coach Bock at the beginning of the year but when they thought I had signed with SAU they were done talking to me," he recounted. "It just didn't work out with SAU so when I said I wasn't going there, Coach Bock called them again and they were excited about that. They had me in for a visit and I really liked the campus. They have a really nice baseball program. And it turned out that Fort Smith had a better offer.

"I talked to Trent and Joey and Davidson and they all really liked the program," he added. "They said they liked the coaches and just the atmosphere at the school itself." 

The school is switching from a two-year program to a four-year this fall, Blankenship mentioned. "So they're going to get a lot of freshmen to come in and kind of start a brand new program. That should give me a good shot to play because everybody will be on the same level. There won't be juniors and seniors there."

"On paper, he's a 6.9 runner (in the 60) which isn't bad," Bock said. "But you put him in a game and he just catches everything. He's got more game speed than he's got paper speed. His hitting came a long way. We started him in the nine hole, he ended up in the five and then for Craig he ended up batting lead-off. 

"I think he's a late bloomer," Bock concluded. "His best years are ahead of him. He's on the rise to the peak and that's when you want them. I think he's going to have a great career."

Reflecting on his first two years in high school and Legion, Blankenship observed, "It was tough but I knew when it came down to my senior year, I was going to get to play. Then when I heard we had a new head coach, I knew I'd get an opportunity. It was a whole lot harder having all the practices in the mornings and having practices in the afternoon too, weekends and everything, but we worked hard and we won conference. It was fun. All the practices and everything, as much as I hated them, it all paid off in the end."

And the lesson for all you young baseball players?

Take it from a guy who knows: "You work hard at something, it'll turn out good." 



    Congradulations JUSTIN!!!!! I know your mom and dad are proud of you and all of us at Company A are also. GOD blessed you with a talent to play baseball and if you honor him in it he will continue to bless you.

  2. Mark and Robin Blankenship

    Rob, thanks for the great article on Justin and all of the coverage this past season! Also, a big thanks to Coach Bock, Craig and Tic Harrison.

    Thanks again!!

  3. Leigh Anna Berry


    You have no idea how proud we are of you! Can’t wait to watch you play at the next level! We love you!

    Aunt Leigh, Uncle Kevin, Josh and Jacob

  4. Vicki Haydon

    Congratulations JB!!!!! And to Mark and Robin, too! We look forward to hearing about your success in college baseball.

    Jon, Vicki and Michael Haydon

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