Outstanding softball career at Guilford cut heartbreakingly short by pandemic

Posted 4/10/20

PITTSBORO — A March 12 phone call. Maybe ordinary to many yet another phone call in a long litany of phone calls people receive in their lifetime.

But this particular one, Pittsboro native and …

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Outstanding softball career at Guilford cut heartbreakingly short by pandemic

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Posted

PITTSBORO — A March 12 phone call. Maybe ordinary to many yet another phone call in a long litany of phone calls people receive in their lifetime.

But this particular one, Pittsboro native and former Northwood softball standout Kayli Blankenship will never forget. It came from Natalie Conrad, a fellow senior and co-captain on the Guilford College softball team, relaying the message that the Quakers’ softball season was halted. The news had come from a team meeting with coach Dennis Shores.

“I had actually gone home for pre-marital counseling and to pick up my wedding dress from getting altered, so I was not even in attendance for the meeting,” Blankenship said. “I could tell by the tone of her voice that something was wrong and this is when she explained that our season was postponed until April 1st, meaning we could potentially resume play at that time. But until then, we were not allowed to practice or workout at all with the team, meaning that we were going to be home until this time.”

Blankenship said she and Conrad both cried on the call. They didn’t have words for how they felt.

“We were angry, devastated and confused all at the same time,” she said. “We both tried to remain hopeful, but we also knew that realistically, there was a chance our careers could be over.”

Thus Blankenship’s senior season, her final efforts on the collegiate softball field, was cut short. She was working on a productive year — batting .341 with two triples and five stolen bases for Guilford as the team got off to a 7-5 start. In the Quakers’ last game a March 11 contest with N.C. Wesleyan College, she went 1-2 from the plate with a run and two walks to help Guilford to a 12-4 win.

Shores had spoken briefly to his team the day before that game, the second of a doubleheader against the Battling Bishops after the Quakers had just returned from Spring Break. Blankenship and her teammates joked in the outfield that it may be their last game due to the coronavirus. Just 24 hours later, the joke became reality for the Quakers as well as all collegiate athletes across the nation.

Blankenship and Conrad were the only two seniors on the 2020 Guilford College softball team, and the lack of closure is something Blankenship said haunts the pair.

“I think not having closure to your senior season, your career, to me that’s the most difficult thing,” said Blakenship, who started playing tee-ball at the age of 5. “I had come to grips that my softball career was coming to an end and it was time to move forward.”

The NCAA announced that spring sports athletes would be given an extra year of eligibility, giving Blankenship a chance, if she wanted, at what could be termed a more satisfying ending. But another year of tuition wasn’t “feasible,” she said, and with a wedding and a career as a kindergarten teacher on the near horizon, she’s made the decision to move on.

Six days later, she wed former Northwood pitcher Garrett Scott in the back yard of her parents Gary and Etta Blankenship’s home. The young newlyweds moved the wedding, which was originally scheduled for March 24 in Charleston, S.C.

“We knew that (banning) gatherings of over 100 people was coming, so we moved our wedding up so that we did not have to cut the invitation list,” said Blankenship. “Garrett was two years ahead of me in school at Northwood, and I was a freshman when we met, him playing baseball and me softball, and we’ve been a couple ever since. This was our dream, so we made it happen.”

Garrett attended Appalachian State and now works in the Raleigh area, and the couple has bought a house in Holly Springs.

From a young age Blankenship realized softball was her sport of passion.

“Once I was old enough I started playing softball and haven’t stopped since and I also played basketball and soccer as well,” she said. “In high school I played varsity softball all four years and JV volleyball my first two years but it was when I started playing travel softball in 6th grade that I found my passion, although I still enjoyed playing other sports as well.”

In high school, she transitioned from a right-handed batter to a left-handed the summer after her freshmen year. It was then she realized she wanted to play softball in college.

“I felt that the use of my speed would be most beneficial as a slapper and this would be my best shot at playing at the collegiate level, so I stopped playing volleyball so I could train more in the off-season and focus my time on softball,” Blankenship said. “It seems like about every weekend between 6th grade and now has been devoted to softball. Softball is definitely my favorite sport, I love how fast-paced it is, especially compared to baseball.”

With all the devoted time growing up with the sport, it mean she had to have some heavy influences, and there was none moreso than her father Gary.

“My dad has been my biggest influence in softball, he has spent so much time in the yard playing catch, in the batting cage hitting, and driving back and forth to practices and games,” Blankenship said. “When I started slapping, I did not have a slapping coach because no one in our area slapped, it was still a very new art, and dad spent countless hours on YouTube watching videos and drills to teach me how to slap and I definitely would not have been nearly as successful without his guidance.”

Blankenship also noted her travel team coach as another huge influence in her development as a player.

“For most of my life, I have felt like the underdog in softball and I am not really sure where these feelings stemmed from, maybe from my small stature, but I have always felt the need to prove myself,” she said. “My first travel ball team, the Chatham Crocs, I did not fully make the team and I was considered an alternate. This pushed me from the beginning that I needed to prove that I was good enough to be a regular player on the team. There were so many practices where I would come home crying because I was so frustrated with myself, but I am thankful Robyn Allgood even gave me the opportunity to be part of her team, and if she wouldn’t have allowed me to be a member, I probably never would have played travel ball again.

“I was also a little bit older than the girls on the Crocs so I had to move up to play with the older teams during travel ball a year before they had to, making me the youngest girl on the team oftentimes,” she said. “This was a challenge because on every new team and I felt the need to prove myself again because I was young and the new girl, and this mindset continued until I got to high school, where I feel that I was successful and confident all four years. Then college came around and the competition rose, making me again feel the need to prove myself.”

The middle school and high school teams still hold fond memories for Blankenship.

“In middle school at Horton, we went undefeated my 7th and 8th grade years in both softball and basketball, which was something that was very special to be a part of,” she said. “High school was definitely some of the most fun I ever had playing softball. Most of the girls I played with in high school also played on my tee-ball, rec, and travel ball teams growing up. Senior year was so bittersweet because I knew I would never get to play with these girls again. Softball in college has been a transition from playing with the same girls and their families, but I enjoyed getting to meet new girls and create new bonds. I loved the competition of playing against Orange High School every year. We had such an evenly matched battle every time we competed and the stakes always felt so high. These games brought out so much passion in myself and my teammates and it felt like our whole season was riding on one win.”

After a successful career in high school on some of the best teams ever at Northwood, Blakenship made her collegiate choice of Guilford College which presented a great blend of academics and athletics in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference. Ironically it was another former Chatham County softball star that helped lead Blankenship Scott to Guilford College. Morgan (Andrews)

Peterson was a standout at Chatham Central before attending Guilford from 2009-2012 and becoming a four-year starting catcher and captain under Shores and being a four-time Academic All-ODAC selection while graduating with the highest fielding percentage (.984) and most sacrifice flies (8) in school history, and her 228 RBIs and 34 doubles stand second all-time at Guilford. In 2011, Peterson was the first to receive the Jack Jensen Ideal Student-Athlete Award, and she accepted Guilford’s top athletic honor, the Nereus C. English Athletic Leadership Award, the following year.

Peterson now teaches at Southeast Guilford High School and is in her third year as an assistant coach for the Quakers.

“Morgan is a family friend and played softball at Guilford and helped coach my first travel ball team in 6th grade,” Blankenship said. “She brought me to Guilford when I was in high school and gave me a tour, which was when I first fell in love with the school, and then ended up joining our coaching staff my sophomore year at Guilford — and it has been so cool to see it come full circle with her. Stepping onto campus and walking the brick paved paths under the shade of the oak trees, I felt right at home — I do not really know how to explain the feeling I felt the first day I stepped on campus, except that I knew it was exactly where I was meant to be. I still toured other schools, but my heart kept going back to Guilford and I ended up getting an offer my junior year and I quickly accepted.”

For Blankenship, it was the right choice and she followed here heart.

“I believe if I would have waited longer, I could have gotten other offers because I did have schools that expressed interest, but I knew I was meant to be at Guilford,” she said. “My familiy loved Guilford because it was only an hour from home so my parents could come to basically all of my games, and they had been such an important part of my journey getting to college, and I couldn’t imagine playing without them being there.

“My coach emphasized that I was coming to Guilford to get my education, and playing softball was a bonus, and if I ever had class, meetings with professors, or internships at the elementary schools, these things always came above softball in coach’s eyes, which was something that was very important to me. I have absolutely no regrets for coming to Guilford, it was the perfect place for me to grow as a player and a person. Even though my time there was cut short, I am so appreciative of the lessons I have learned and the memories I made at Guilford.”

So what was the difference at the next level, what what advice does Blakenship offer to apsiring young players?

“Honestly high school and college are not even comparable, even at the division three level, a college sport is like a job — every single day you are doing something with your sport, even during the off-season,” she said. “As a college athlete, we have workouts, team practice, individual hitting sessions, and study hall with the team, and playing division three allowed me to pursue a strong academic career as well as continue playing softball. However, this made it very difficult to manage my time, especially early in my career as many of the athletes on campus are deeply involved in their academics, sports teams, clubs, and have work study positions on or off campus.”

Blankenship said high school was much more regulated in comparison.

“In high school, your day is very regulated with school from 8-3, practice, then you go home for dinner and to study,” she said. “In college, the schedule varies daily from athlete to athlete. Time management is the most important aspect of college and learning how to prioritize is critical for success in and out of the classroom and work ethic is also extremely important and will make or break your career. The majority of the athletes in college were the best players on their high school teams, so competition is at an all-time high. And this was a big transition for me because in high school, I knew I was going to start every game in left field, but it college, sometimes I did not know if I was going to play until right before the game started.”

Challenging yourself to continue to work hard, she said — even if playing time is not the immediate result.

“That’s a huge lesson I learned,” Blankenship said, “and I wanted to be able to look back on my college experience and be able to say that I truly gave it my all, and I can honestly say I do not have any regrets. I feel that I worked hard in the gym, in the classroom, and on the field and that is all I could have asked for myself.”

Her career on the softball diamond at Guilford College certainly backs up her feelings as the local product started all four seasons Had the season played out like it was going Blankenship would have likely been only the 3rd player in Guilford softball history to play in 150 games, have a batting average of .350, score 100 runs, collect 100 hits, and steal 50 bases. This on top of being chosen as 2017 ODAC All-Conference 1st team, NCFA All-Atlantic Region 2nd team, NCCSIA All-State 1st team, seven times (every semester) on both Dean’s List and Student Athlete Honor Roll, three-time ODAC All-Conference Scholar Athlete and three-time NCFA All-American Scholar Athlete. Of course those would have been added to if the season had not been canceled.

As far as game memories in her career, Blankenship remembers one particular game the most that took place in her sophomore campaign.

“The most exciting moment for my team was my sophomore year in our conference tournament when the ODAC conference has been considered by many to be the strongest Divison III conference in the country,” she said. “And that year, we were the eighth seed, and barely made it to the tournament before having to play the number one seed in the first round, undefeated and reigning NCAA champions, Virginia Wesleyan. We ended up beating them in the first round and I remember crying tears of joy because I was so excited. We truly shocked the nation that day! We ended up losing the next two games and Virginia Wesleyan still went on to win the NCAA tournament again, but we can still say we beat them in the ODAC tournament!”

That memory is just one of many with her teammates.

“Some of my favorite memories of playing in college are bus rides, mainly after we won, on the way to games, there were often a lot of nerves, but on the way home after a win everyone was so relaxed,” she said. “We would play games, sing songs, and just spend time talking with one another and some of my favorite conversations with my teammates and coaches have been on the bus. Because you spend so much time with your teammates, you get close very quickly and my team felt like my family on campus and there was always someone I could hit with or eat meals with.

“From the minute I stepped on campus, I felt supported by my teammates and I am so thankful for the friendships I made and I still talk to many of my former teammates regularly, and it is so cool to see where life has taken them already. My junior year for home games, my whole team would get in the dugout and we would line dance to copperhead road before the game. This was such a fun time to get the nerves out, let loose, and have fun before the game started. It was always so fun to see the reactions of the opposing team when they saw all of us dancing, sometimes they even joined in and danced with us!”

And there was more dugout fun during the games.

“My junior year, some of the other girls that did not play regularly and I made a talk show during the game and we would commentate play by play, with Gatorade cup microphones,” Blakenship recalls with a laugh. “This was such a fun way to stay engaged during the game but to also enjoy yourself and even if we were not on the field, we always found ways to have fun! When the coaches and girls from the opposing team were near our dugout they would get such a kick out of our commentary and tell us how much fun they had listening to us.”

Given that Blankenship and Conrad were so close as the only seniors, it was only fitting that the local standout had some special words for her fellow co-captain.

“Natalie and I were the only seniors left this year, and with us both being slappers and playing the same position, we were easily each other’s competition from day one,” she said. “Nat is one of the hardest workers Guilford has ever seen and I believe we pushed one another to always be great. It was difficult in our early years to want each other to succeed, if I am being honest, because sometimes the competition got the best of us. However, as we got older, we were each other’s biggest cheerleaders, but we never let up on pushing one another and we would be the first to call one another out if they made a mistake, but also the first person to encourage when we needed it.

“A beautiful friendship came from meeting Nat and it was so amazing to see how close we became, even amidst our intense competition. She said one time that we are just like sisters because we will argue and push one another, but at the end of the day it is because we care so much about one another and want to see each other succeed. Now, we are both bridesmaids in each other’s wedding and I know we will be lifelong friends.”

Now beginning the next chapter of her life away from softball and married to Garrett, and awaiting a job offer as a teacher, Blankenship hasn’t given up on being connected to the sport she loves just yet.

“My dad and I have always dreamed of coaching together, so I definitely see us doing this sometime in the future, and although right now I am trying to navigate what life looks like for me without playing, I hope to find other ways to be involved with the sport in the future,” she said. “I have considered playing in an adult league eventually, but I think it is too soon for me right now to imagine playing without having my Guilford jersey on.”

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