State Champions Had Fun With Blanchard In Charge

It was 10 minutes to first pitch – the first pitch of what was arguably the biggest game of his 19-year coaching career – and Jon Blanchard wasn’t worried, or tense.

He was winded.

And opposing fans, who’d made the trip east to Queensbury from Sandy Creek, a little town located almost equidistant from Watertown (to the north) and Syracuse (to the south) and sat filled with anticipation on the opposite baseline, were grumbling with what could only be described as envy.

They’d never seen a coach, or a team for that matter, having so much… fun.

For as the Sandy Creek coaches stood quietly by in the dugout, issuing a few offhanded words of encouragement but still seemingly just as nervous as their players for the task set before them, Blanchard was all smiles and energy as he led his squad through their, shall we say, rather unorthodox pregame ritual.

It starts with a round of, not applause (though that comes later), but high-fives – one to each of his players – and then the coach leads his crew in a single-file line on a winding journey through the crowd of partisan Frewsburg fans on hand. Along the way they give just about each and every one of the fans they pass by a high five.

Then, once they’re regrouped in a circle on the field, the applause starts, and continues until Blanchard is satisfied.

“That started in Myrtle Beach (at the beginning of the season),” Blanchard recalled. “I took the girls on a jog and we high-fived a few of the other teams and fans (at the park) and it just stuck. We really enjoy it, the fans enjoy it and it was a way for us to spread the fact that we were there to not only play hard but also enjoy each other and the atmosphere.”

It’s not something one sees everyday when taking in a ball game, especially just moments before the New York State Public High School Athletic Association Class C state title game, but there is a method to the “madness.”

It makes games fun. And when teams have fun, more often than not (at least in Frewsburg’s case) they win.

“Honestly, my goal was really to enjoy the season every day as much as possible and to allow the girls to do the same thing,” Blanchard said. “Obviously, more than anything, we wanted to win the state championship, but we knew the odds were against us. So both Tom (Mott, Blanchard’s assistant coach), and I and the girls made the goal to enjoy each other and enjoy each game.”

Judging by the smiles and laughter and general easygoing demeanor of the squad not only on that warm yet cloudy Saturday afternoon in Queensbury, but all season, it’s clear that Blanchard achieved those goals.

And, it seems, along the way found that magical recipe for success.

“We had fun,” he said. “We really had fun. I know (the question) is always, Is it possible to be winners and have fun? Do you have to be serious to win? How do you find that balance? For this group it was the right balance.”

With fun at the forefront, and a real desire to extend the season as long as possible (eight seniors, including seven starters, populated the squad) in order to play together just a little bit longer, Blanchard and his Bears achieved something that day in June that no other softball coach, or team, in Frewsburg history had managed: they captured a state title.

“We ran (out onto the field after the win) and I thought, ‘I can’t believe we just won it,’ Blanchard said moments after the victory. “I’m as happy as can be.”

It was the perfect way to end the season for Blanchard, who since returning from a two-year sabbatical three years ago has led the Bears – made up of essentially the same group in each of those seasons – to three straight Chautauqua-Cattaraugus Athletic Association Division 2 titles and three straight Section 6 Class C crowns.

And while in the previous two seasons their runs sputtered and stalled a game short of that ultimate goal, this year was different.

“I think that was the strength of our team,” Blanchard said. “It wasn’t just one person. It was a group of 13 girls and each one played a role in a tremendous manner. A different girl, throughout our season and throughout our playoff run, stepped up to turn the tide.”

And, as he noted a few weeks ago, “It was kind of storybook.”

Indeed.

Along the way there was a big-time, extra-innings triple from Annie Berg in the Class C title game; an Emily Hair two-run bomb that knocked off to-that-point an undefeated Keshequa squad in the Far West Regional; a crucial two-hit, two-RBI performances by Shawna Raymond and McKenzie Cass in the state semifinal victory over Pierson/Bridgehampton of Section 11; and a home run from Sam Mott and a two-out RBI single to opposite field by Blanchard’s daughter, Alanna, in the top of the seventh inning of the state championship battle with Sandy Creek that propelled the squad to a 2-1 victory – the 299th of the longtime Frewsburg coach’s career and the team’s 20th that year.

“It’s a special group I’ve got,” Blanchard said earlier in the season after clinching yet another league crown, “and it’s just a real pleasure to coach them. … Every day it’s been a real pleasure…”

And it’s The Post-Journal’s pleasure to select Blanchard, for the third consecutive season, as Coach of the Year.