Seniors cope with season suspension - Oconee Enterprise
The lives of local student athletes changed on a dime this week with the suspension of all high school sports beginning on Monday.
COVID-19 has stolen the headlines around the nation and infected north of 4,500 Americans over the last month. Some things are bigger than sports. Seniors around the area are grappling with the hit that comes to their senior sports seasons but also take notice of the importance of the decisions at hand.
“It’s awful, but some things are bigger than sports,” Athens Academy senior Graham Blanks said. “This pandemic is more important than our athletic endeavors. I understand that, so I’m not too upset. It’s going to take a global effort to fight it off. I think by canceling a lot of the events that could potentially facilitate the spread of the virus is a good move...I understand that it is the best thing for not only sports but humanity right now.”
With the suspension comes uncertainty. The word suspension leaves hope that before the school year ends there will be a resumption for spring sports around the state.
For some, that fact is a silver lining. It gives them hope and pushes them to remain creative in finding ways to stay ready should competition resume in the coming weeks.
“I think they probably made the right decision,” North Oconee High School senior baseball player Chandler White said. “I think it could have been a lot worse. At least they didn’t cancel it altogether. We can live with not playing for two weeks but having it canceled altogether would be a whole different thing. I’m grateful that we still have a chance at least and this wasn’t taken away at the blink of an eye right away...There’s nothing that we can really control. We just have to take it with a grain of salt and take it one day at a time.”
For some senior athletes the last three months of the school year and the spring sports calendar was a time chase the state championship they haven’t won yet. For others, the ramifications of not being able to play their respective sport places a lock on their futures.
With travel being restricted prospective athletes can’t make college visits and colleges coaches can’t visit them. Without games there isn’t film to send the college coaches and for first year starters it leaves them exposed to a reality that they may have played their final athletic competition.
“I know that what I’m going through is really tough, but for those guys like Chandler White, Dylan Wilhelm, Bennett Toci and Michael Hotcaveg, all of my fellow seniors who just aren’t quite sure yet about what they’re going to do and were hoping to use this year to show college coaches what they can bring to the table is heartbreaking to see,” NOHS senior baseball player Will Pearson said.
Pearson, who has signed with the University of Georgia to play baseball, feels for all of the athletes who will be forced to sit the next few weeks out.
The Titans were only a hand full of outs from reaching the state championship last season. They were hoping to push past the semifinals and reach the state championship and perhaps win it this season. Having that possibility now in doubt is hard to accept.
“I feel for all spring athletes as a whole,” Pearson said. “For all the spring athletes that are seniors, it’s tough to be going through this. Everyone just works so hard to get to this point, for it be taken away is a hard pill to swallow. It’s really devastating.”
Athens Academy senior runner Graham Blanks has always loved the process with competition being a secondary byproduct of the hours of practice he endures. Blanks feels more of his peers could learn to love that part of their sports in their hiatus.
Without games to look forward to and to prepare for there is plenty of time for practicing and learning new things about their respective crafts in the time off.
It reminds Blanks of the days of little league and youth sports when things were only about learning the game.
“Back then it was about learning the sport for fun,” Blanks said. “Working through this virus is going to be a lot about learning who you are. A lot of people, including me, are going to get something good out of this unique circumstance just learning how to be self-driven, dedicated and working even when there’s no clear endpoint. There are so many question marks right now that you just need to be ready whenever your time comes.”
Blanks earns shot at national title - Oconee Enterprise
Athens Academy senior Graham Blanks couldn’t have seen his now even longer list of accomplishments coming two years ago.
On Saturday, Blanks officially qualified for the national championship with his win at Southeast Regional in the qualifying portion of the Nike Cross Country Nationals. Blanks ran a time of 14 minutes and 57 seconds on the same course he won The Great Cross-Country Festival on and set his personal record earlier this year.
Blanks has had his sights set on winning the regional since the start of the 2019 season.
“It was in the back of my mind since the beginning of the season to try and win the regional meet,” Blanks said. “Just having an opportunity to go to the national championship is huge for me. I’m just excited to go out there and put all my chips on the table and see what I can do.”
Now that he’s qualified, Blanks sets his sights on being one of the first runners from Georgia to be crowned national champion. Winning the national title would be the punctuation on a high school career Blanks admits he would still have a difficult time believing should he come across the finish line first on Saturday.
“It would be kind of insane,” Blanks said. “It would be incredible to win. After I finished I’d have to question if this was real life or not. I’d have to pinch myself.”
Blanks’ journey to Portland, Oregon and the Cross-Country National Championship began with him looking in the mirror and seeing his shortcomings.
Blanks doesn’t possess the most imposing physique. He isn’t particularly tall. Yet, in spite of his physical slights, Blanks wanted to play a sport at the college level. Blanks thought that sport would be soccer. He’d played mid field and wing for much of his life on the pitch.
“I always wanted to keep competing at the next level,” Blanks said. “I loved being an athlete. As sophomore season came I started noticing that I was a little shorter than everyone and I wasn’t as strong.”
Blanks ended his soccer career during his sophomore year of high school to focus full-time on running after finishing in eighth-place in Class A Private during his freshman season. Blanks has won the last two Class A Private state championship race and is heading to Harvard University to run cross-country and track upon his graduation.
“I haven’t really looked back yet,” Blanks said. “I definitely think I made the right decision. Who knows what would have happened if I’d stuck with soccer?”
Even as the accolades have piled up the last few years, Blanks still wasn’t expecting to reach Portland when he dove into the sport fully. His supporting cast made things that once seemed far away, seem attainable.
Former Athens Academy runner Anna Marian Block has been a mentor for Blanks in recent years. The state-title winning duo ran as teammates for two years and text on a regular basis. Blanks still run with Block occasionally.
Block has helped fuel Blanks’ competitive hunger while another former teammate and close friend Ryan Iyer has helped Blanks strive for academic success.
Iyer attends Columbia. For Blanks, seeing his friend balance athletics and his education well enough to earn acceptance into an Ivy League school only pushed Blanks harder in the classroom.
Blanks feels his environment made his journey to Portland much easier.
“Just seeing those two people do such great things just inspired me,” Blanks said. “They say you’re the average of the five people that you surround yourself with. That adds up when you look at Anna Marian (Block) and you look at Ryan (Iyer). I feel like I’m in a place where I’m setting myself up to be as best as I can be athletically and academically. I don’t think I would be looking at the types of schools I was looking at if it wasn’t for Ryan. I don’t think I would be as successful or as driven athletically if I’d never met Anna Marian. She showed me what you can do if you work hard.”
Athlete Spotlight: Graham Blanks Of Athens Academy - MileSplit GA
MileSplit GA- How does it feel breaking the Lamar Murphy Park course record at the Bob Roller Invitational on Saturday and now being known as one of the '4 Kings' in Georgia Boys HS Cross Country? King of the North!
Graham- I'm happy but hungry for more after the race this Saturday. I came in with the goal of breaking 15 but coming out with a 15:07 certainly isn't a disappointment in my books. In regards to the "4 Kings of Georgia Cross Country," I'm not really sure what that is or who they are but I appreciate the title!
MileSplit GA- When did you first become interested in running?
Graham-I became interested in running similarly to how alot of kids did which was running road race 5k's when I was younger. My mom got me into distance running when I was in lower school and I was hooked.
MileSplit GA- When did you realize that Cross Country/Track and Field was your calling athletically?
Graham-I realized that Cross Country/Track and Field was my calling athletically and spiritually when I won a region XC meet my Sophomore year. That Fall I decided to give up year round soccer and focus solely on running.
MileSplit GA- What was the first big race you won that has special meaning for you?
Graham-Winning the cross country state championship my junior year was certainly the first big race that was special for me. It felt like all of my hard work finally paid off.
MileSplit GA- How supportive is the Athens Academy XC running Community of you and the team?
Graham-The Athens Academy running community is tremendously supportive of our program, whether that be doing workouts with us, helping us travel to meets, or even Athletic Director Kevin Petroski running Athens Academy's athletic Instagram account putting our team in the spotlight.
MileSplit GA- Are you friends with any of the guys from other schools you compete against?
Graham-Unlike chsxc73 says on his post from the discussion board a few weeks ago, I am in fact friends with alot of my competition. We all share the common goal of simply running fast making a lot our friendships inevitable. I think it's important for Georgia distance runners to support each other considering the lack of coverage we get from national running media sites and how similar we all are. Hopefully some of us will get to hang out in Coronado in a few months!
MileSplit GA- What are your goals for the remainder of the GHSA season?
Graham- Ideally, I would like to dip underneath 15 minutes, win the state championship, and qualify for Footlocker Nationals.
MileSplit GA- Are you planning on competing at Foot Locker South or NXN Regionals?
Graham- Footlocker South
MileSplit GA- What is your favorite food, movie/tv shows, leisure activities and music?
Graham-One of my favorite leisure activities has to be playing hide and go seek with my pals! Although my friend Brent typically gets lost in the woods a majority of the time, it's usually an amusing game that I can play for hours. I am also a very big fan of Vampire Weekend and The Strokes.
MileSplit GA- What colleges are you interested in competing for?
Graham- I've taken official visits to Georgetown and Columbia and am currently on my visit at Harvard. Hopefully I'll make my decision this week!
MileSplit GA- Have you decided on a degree path/career choice post HS?
Graham-I'm interested in Business, Econ, and Environmental science. Hopefully I can make my mind up soon!
MileSplit GA- Is there anyone you would like to thank/recognize on your journey thus far?
Graham-None of my success would be possible without the help of my coaches, Coach Walton and Coach Anderson, my parents, my boy Jack Cook, and Julian Casablancas for making some sweet pre-race music.
MileSplit GA- What advice do you have for aspiring young MS and Youth distance runners aiming to be their best?
Graham-Knowing when to take time off and understanding that running isn't what defines you as a person are two important skills to have! Although you should take training seriously, you'll never get anywhere if you don't learn how to enjoy the process. Additionally, sprinting the first 800m of a 5k at 100% effort is generally a good idea if you want to PR.
Thanks for your time, and best of luck Graham!
[ click HERE and scroll towards the bottom of the article to view footage of Graham's recent races. Go Spartans! ]
Athens Academy traditionally fields a successful track and field program with excellent participation paired with frequent region and state recognition. The emphasis is for participation and development of enhanced endurance while striving for personal best results within an athlete’s area of specialization. A large reason for success has been a result of so many athletes achieving their personal best performances at the end of the season. State Champion: 2016, 2017