|

Iowa softball's Blank spent her summer adding power to her swing

BY CODY GOODWIN | MAY 09, 2013 5:00 AM

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

It was a curious decision to those on the outside. After a historic freshman campaign — one that included a .390 batting average, 29 RBIs, 22 extra-base hits, and a pair of home runs, resulting in selections for the first-team All-Big Ten and second-team All-Midwest Region — Megan Blank decided to change her swing.

It was a task first laid out by her coaches. As the story goes, members of the Iowa softball coaching staff talked with their shortstop slugger during the team’s exit meeting following the 2012 season. They wanted her to add some muscle over the summer. This, along with a bit of technical work, would help to push some of Blank’s 17 doubles, and perhaps a few of her longer singles and triples, up and over the wall.

“What they wanted me to do at the end of the year was gain about 10 pounds of muscle so that those doubles would be home runs,” she remembers about the meeting. “… I still gained some muscle. Just not quite what they initially mentioned.”

Iowa softball coach Marla Looper said the idea was more in line to help Blank be “functionally stronger.” Doing so would help Iowa’s slugger from a technique standpoint. There were holes that she and Iowa softball hitting coach Stacy May-Johnson saw in Blank’s swing that, if fixed, would help improve her power numbers immensely.

But Blank had a different approach. And the results speak for themselves. The 5-6 sophomore just recently capped the 2013 regular season with a .436 average and 58 RBIs — both of which are the Big Ten’s third- and second-best in their categories. She totaled 11 home runs and increased her slugging percentage by .165 points. Blank, as it sits now, ranks fourth or higher in seven major hitting categories in the Big Ten.

This year’s numbers surprised even Blank — “I didn’t expect to hit as many home runs as I have,” she says now — and are the product of a long, competition-filled and sometimes-tedious summer journey. The plan her coaches initially wished for was cast aside for a different approach.

“I didn’t quite do that,” Blank said about gaining muscle. “I just changed my swing.”

•••

This swing-changing process — one that involved smaller tweaks and adjustments that would ultimately yield this year’s numbers — first began with a hint of jealousy.

Blank traveled back home to play summer ball in Southern California with Iowa teammate Kayla Massey. Parts of Orange County, which is about an hour from Blank’s home in Culver City, have a deep obsession with the sport, she says. She claims the area also produces some of the country’s most potent softball power hitters.

Blank named summer-ball teammates Washington’s Kylee Lahners and UCLA’s Ally Carda as sluggers she watched throughout the summer — Carda has tallied 15 home runs to this point in the season, enough for 25th-best in the country. She watched their mechanics, the way they stepped into the box for their at-bats, how they swung at certain pitches.

The envy stemmed, not from the specific methods but more so from the success those hitters were having.

“One of my teammates [Lahners] over the summer didn’t take a single warm-up swing before the state tournament and hit back-to-back home runs and then another home run in the next game,” Blank said. “So we told her, jokingly, that she couldn’t take any swings before the game. She has to just go up to bat, and she’ll just hit home runs. It was insane.”

Blank wanted those results. She watched in awe as many of her teammates displayed slightly different swings, but generated similar outcomes: home runs. Blank craved that, and knew playing alongside these power hitters — and more importantly, astutely watching them — would allow her to understand what worked so well.

Perhaps she could even adjust her swing to mimic theirs.

Thus, the steady process of appropriation began.

•••

As the summer progressed, Blank slowly picked up on her teammate’s hitting habits and techniques.

She began with her stance. Blank watched as one of her teammates started in a more upright position and co-opted that stance to create one that was similar but more tailored to make her feel comfortable.

Once she was confident her stance was set, she proceeded to her stride — something Blank called a “toe-touch.” She worked more on the timing of her swing in relation to the pitcher, allowing her to add a bit of momentum and aggressiveness into her swing.

“I played around with a few different things over the summer,” she said. “[Most of her teammates] all have the exact same swing. I just tried to mimic that a little bit, in my own sense.

“You have to change one thing at a time. It’s really tough to change a lot of stuff at once. … Whatever felt the most natural with and I saw the most results with, I stuck with that.”

Blank’s adjustment of her swing was unknown to almost all her teammates — “I had no idea,” a wide-eyed Massey said when asked if she knew. Blank spent the weekdays playing with her new stances and swings but turned back to her normal, contact-oriented swing during the  games.

On occasion, she’d implement what she had been working on during the week into her weekend games. The results weren’t perfect, and she faced frustration a few times because of the outcomes.

“I always managed a hit or two,” Blank said. “But the outcomes weren’t as drastic as I wanted them to be. It was a little more like the outcomes that I had last season as opposed to what I was striving for this season.”

When frustration truly mounted, Blank would confide only to her parents. They told her to just stay the course and see it through. Patience is key in a process like this.

“The one thing I’ve always told her is to be patient,” James Blank, her father, said. “When you start swinging at bad pitches, the pitcher has the advantage. If you can be patient, the pitcher will have to come to you, and you’ll get better pitches to hit.”

•••

The summer of work was in the books. Megan Blank met with May-Johnson early last fall to show the progress she had made. Though nervous at first, she was excited to see that Iowa’s hitting coach was on board with what she had been working on.

Still, there were kinks that May-Johnson wanted Blank to iron out before the new product was ready. Specifically, May-Johnson — an Iowa alum and a member of the 2011 and 2012 USA Softball women’s national team — wanted Blank to focus on creating backspin when she hit outside pitches.

“It’s really easy sometimes to turn hard on inside pitches and create that backspin, but it’s a lot harder on an outside pitch to have a cleaner, truer swing,” May-Johnson said. “The other thing we talked a lot about was for her to understand where she’s making contact on the ball. If she’s perfectly squaring the ball up, it’s not going to go over the fence. She has to find the bottom side of the ball just a little bit in order to get the height to get it to go. So we talked about putting just a little bit of backspin on the ball to get it up in the air a little bit.

“So we set up a tee in an open field and just said, ‘Hey, this is the spin we’re looking for.’ It’s very, very easy to see it when you hit it off the tee in an open field.”

The drill helped Blank angle her bat correctly to create a solid point of contact. Getting just underneath the ball, with a fluid, powerful swing, created backspin. That backspin helped carry the ball up over the wall.

This drill, which Blank also now uses to occasionally blow off steam, helped to finish the transformation of her swing.

“She was a great hitter last year who just hadn’t quite put it all together,” May-Johnson said. “You knew the power was going to come.”

•••

The power has come. On Wednesday, Blank earned her second-straight first-team All-Big Ten honor. Her offensive production ranks near the top of the conference, and she has approached the top of Iowa’s record books, too.

Her 58 RBIs is the second-best single-season total in Iowa softball history — first place is just 61, set by Debbie Bilbao in 1997. Blank’s 11 home runs also sits third on the single-season totals, just one away from second and five away from first. Emily Nichols set both of those marks in 2007 and 2005, respectively.

These numbers often give head coach Looper a reason to crack a huge smile.

“The biggest thing was just her confidence in what she was doing,” Looper said. “It could be the ugliest thing in the world, but if you’re confident in what you’re doing, that you’re going to put good wood on the ball, let it be.”

These numbers, as one might easily guess, also brought along pressure. It ranges from rewriting the Iowa record books to slapping that walk-off hit through the gap.

But Blank is up for those challenges.

“There’s always a little bit of pressure,” she said, smiling. “But if you have confidence in yourself, then everyone else is going to have confidence in you.”


In today's issue:





 
Privacy Policy (8/15/07) | Terms of Use (4/28/08) | Content Submission Agreement (8/23/07) | Copyright Compliance Policy (8/25/07) | RSS Terms of Use

Copyright © The Daily Iowan, All Rights Reserved.