Bluffton's Neil Blanken chooses brains, technique over bulk, brawn

ksalter@islandpacket.comJune 12, 2014 

School is out, but Neil Blanken is still in session.

On a sweltering Tuesday afternoon you can find him just beyond the parking lot, alone in a field alongside the Bluffton High School football stadium, hurling objects into the sky. He trudges back to the circle, a discus in each sweating hand, and uses a towel to wipe his palms dry. Then he restarts the routine.

Many of his peers are already on vacation, free from the constraints of academia, but Blanken believes his work is just beginning. This is when excellence is bred, on a lonely stretch of grass with no one to cheer you on. In this ring, Blanken turned solitude into a state championship. Here he perfected footwork and physics, rotations and release after release. This is where he found a way to whittle his technique to its most efficient point, making up in strategy what he lacks in size.

"In the circle, I'm a lot faster than these bigger guys," Blanken said. "It's not that I'm weak, it's that they're extremely strong. I make up for it pretty well."

And he has the evidence, in the form of a gold medal, to back it up.

Blanken, the reigning South Carolina Class 4-A discus champion, is something of an anomaly. This year, as a sophomore, he snagged the state championship with a personal best 174 feet, 8 inches -- on his final throw of the meet.

He is young for a champion in a discipline that often favors bulk and brawn. Blanken is far from scrawny, which he is quick to point out, but a Hulk he is not. He is built more like a third baseman than a lineman, which corresponds to another of his quirks. A Pennsylvania kid who eventually moved south, Blanken admits that he still, somehow, never fell in love with football.

He tried, of course, but linebacker wasn't for him, and after a year of clashing helmets as a freshman, decided to devote his time to discus.

This weekend, that devotion will take him to Greensboro, N.C., where he will compete against some of the nation's best athletes in the New Balance Outdoor Nationals. Blanken knows that many of the participants will throw farther than him -- he has plenty of time to work on that -- so his expectations for this meet are somewhat different.

"I just want to throw well for me," Blanken said. "I've thrown at this place before, and it's really nice. I really want to catch college scouts. This meet is going to be crawling with them."

That is the ultimate goal, the one that keeps him throwing when others have traded in their discus for an X-Box controller. He's already received mail from schools like Oklahoma and Stanford and is determined to find a place to continue his throwing career.

Former Bluffton track and field coach Alan Dunson believes Blanken is good enough to get there, too.

"It's rare that someone his age possesses the work ethic, the discipline," Dunson said. "He very clearly wants to be the most dominant discus thrower possible. I think he's got an end goal in mind that makes it very clear to him the path that is necessary to get there. He's got his eyes set on competing in college."

Blanken is so good that his coaches can't stop raving about his skills. But their praise goes beyond athletic achievement. Throwing coach Dale Butts says Blanken is an outstanding leader as well, willing to help others improve. Blanken's advice has become so common that the team has taken to calling him "Coach Neil."

"He is certainly very mature for his age," Butts said. "He gets along so well with his teammates and his coaches."

Dunson said Blanken has a very sharp memory, which helps him academically. Dunson, who taught honors geometry at Bluffton, once decided to give Neil's class an impromptu quiz in order to fill the last five minutes of the session. The topic: State capitals.

"I'm thinking I'm going to stump them," Dunson laughed. "He goes through twenty-seven capitals. He stumbled on one."

Blanken let out a chagrined chuckle when reminded of the moment.

"Massachusetts," Blanken said, shaking his head. "I said Springfield."

Actually, the offending city was Montpelier, Vermont.

It is this desire, this pursuit of perfection, that sets Blanken apart. Where other kids might be unwilling to put in the time, Blanken relishes every opportunity to prepare. In fact, he relished it too much his freshman year, to the point where Dunson and Butts had to drive past the field to make sure their star athlete wasn't throwing.

"I would try to overthrow thinking that the more I throw, the more I'd get used to it," Blanken said. "But my body just didn't react to that. I pulled a muscle in my back, and my distances started going way down. Confidence was down. I really had to listen to coach, because I knew that what I was doing wasn't healthy. I really had to back off, but it's paid off this year."

He has a state championship to show for it, and if his coaches are to be believed, he's only just getting started.

Follow reporter Kendall Salter at twitter.com/IPBG_Kendall.

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