Blank's Space

BY CHARLIE GREEN | MAY 13, 2015 5:00 AM

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JD Blank walked to the circle to throw out the first pitch of Iowa’s 2015 Senior Day to his younger sister Megan, just as he had done years earlier in the youth leagues of Southern California.

It culminated an illustrious career for Iowa softball’s star shortstop. Megan Blank has made the All-Big Ten Team in each of her four seasons at Iowa. In 2015, she became the program’s all-time leader in doubles. Her career batting average of .410 is the best in Hawkeye history.

But all the success was far from a forgone conclusion for the Californian when she entered college. From the time she was young, she went about her athletics career pushing herself to the next level.

• • • 

It wasn’t long before Jim and Marcia Blank realized their daughter had a passion for the game.

“We always laugh, when she was 5, 6, 7 years old, we had an old wooden garage door,” Jim Blank said. “She would throw the tennis ball against it for hours on end and just sit there and make plays.”

Megan Blank grew up a self-described “tomboy”; she proclaimed to her parents she would be the first girl to play for the Dodgers. When she was old enough to sign up for baseball, she seized the opportunity. 

And where others dreaded practice, she saw it as another opportunity to experience the game she loved.

“She never understood why the boys would complain, ‘We have to go to practice,’ ” Marcia Blank said. “She would say, ‘We get to go to practice.’ ”

She played those youth-league years as the only girl on her teams. Always smaller than her teammates, big aspirations kept her on par with her older brother and the boys.

When JD was in the major-league level of youth baseball, Megan was placed by age into the minors. She implored coaches to let her play at the next level.

“Growing up whatever I did, I did it because my brother did it,” she said.

She got her wish. And as JD hit his growth spurt before most of his buddies, few were willing to stand on the receiving end of his newfound power as a pitcher.

Undeterred by fear and eager for to prove herself, Megan stepped up to the challenge.

“I could throw a fastball pretty decently and nobody else wanted to catch me, but she did,” JD said. “She was never afraid to play with the big kids.”

Over time, as her male peers grew bigger, Megan’s parents persuaded her to cross over to a sport she has excelled in for the last 10 years.

At age 13, Megan Blank began playing softball.

• • •

One of the most amazing aspects of Blank as an athlete is her ability to make unmatched adjustments to new styles of play — something that eventually came to define her career at Iowa.

But in that time, it was a transition between similar but very different games. She realized making the throw from short to first was different with a bigger ball. 

It didn’t take her long to adjust.

“I remember at the tryout, I think I had thrown a softball once before, and I couldn’t make the throw to first,” Blank said. “It would sail right every single time. It was weird for the first few days.”

So began, and in many ways continued, her drive into mastering her greatest strength — fielding. Watch her today, and you’ll see her make a variety of difficult plays look routine.

Polished reflexes allow her to glove almost anything hit in her vicinity. Veteran instincts make split-second decisions second nature. She’s a master of halting her momentum or rolling with it to make the outs needed.  

Blank continued to excel in the field on her high-school travel teams, as fans began to deem her plays at shortstop as “Jeter-esque.”

But still, she was small, and because she did not play on the most elite of travel teams in the area, college recruiters overlooked her.

“She was probably one of the better defensive shortstops in Southern California, but she wasn’t the power hitter that a lot of these kids were” Jim Blank said. “A lot of these girls were women already; Megan was just starting to go through her growth spurt.”

Jim Blank, on a visit to his hometown Iowa City, urged the coaching staff to come out and watch his daughter play.

They did in the summer after her sophomore year and were sold. In 2012, Megan Blank began her career as a Hawkeye.

• • •

Her freshman season was an exhibit of the kind of player college programs overlooked in the recruiting process.

She hit .390 in the 2-spot, enjoying the luxury of hitting in front of two other great hitters in Katie Keim and Liz Watkins.

“I think I even surprised myself freshman year. If I could poke the ball through the hole, I considered it a success,” she recalled. “I rarely ever swung away.”

Her success came as a slapper, a style predicated on batting for contact and speed rather than power. But as the team was set to graduate Keim and Watkins, the coaching staff presented Blank with a request — to change her style to compensate for the impending loss of power.

Blank agreed, and over the course of the offseason added muscle and changed the technicalities of her swing — the results were nothing short of staggering.

“Here’s a girl putting up big numbers every game slapping,” junior Erin Erickson said. “It seems like a flawless transition; it blows my mind that [travel ball] coaches had her slapping before.”

The lifelong slapper batted .437, nearly 50 points higher than in her freshman campaign. She added 11 home runs, 59 RBIs, and a slugging percentage of .766, eventually becoming so relaxed she’d find herself yawning before stepping into the box. 

Blank said she hadn’t even hit a home run before coming to Iowa, which her teammates tease her about. But by the end of four college seasons, she had 27.

She’s proven she can do just about anything in the sport — but not quite everything.

• • •

At the beginning of the 2015 season, Blank, the team’s lone senior and four-time all conference selection, was not voted captain by her teammates.

“I know I’m not the most vocal leader,” Blank said. “I kind of took that upon myself this year to kind of come out of my comfort zone and become more vocal.

“It was never something I was expected to be handed to me.”

You won’t hear the pregame pump-up speeches from Blank. Often, emotion can fuel or undermine a player’s performance; that’s not the case with this particular shortstop.

A player of few words, her game is driven by the calmness of her personality. She leads by example, letting her play speak for itself.

And it has.

• • •

Blank powered through another monstrous season in 2015, even as the team struggled.

“I don’t want to say it’s a failure on the team’s part,” Erickson said. “But it kind of makes 18 other people reflect back and wish we could have done it for Megan.” 

In the Big Ten Tournament, the Hawks won the first two postseason games of Blank’s career en route to reaching the semifinals. She ended her career by hitting .545 in her final postseason and making the all-tournament team.

After hitting .442 her senior year and posting a .960 fielding percentage, she earned her fourth-straight All-Big Ten selection, becoming the second player in program history to do so, this time by a unanimous vote.

Her play in the field earned her a spot on the All-Big Ten defensive team as well.

Yet despite her success over the course of her Iowa career, a span in which she started every game at short, she was still being overlooked — this time by the pros. When it came time for the National Pro Fastpitch to draft on April 1, Blank’s name was not called.

The Chicago Bandits have, however, since invited Blank for a tryout. And general manager Aaron Moore expressed optimism about Blank’s chances of making the team.

“I think she’s been overlooked a little because the team has struggled in recent years,” he said. “But she can do a little bit of everything, and defensively, I think she can come in and contribute right away.” 

“I think I’ll always try to play with a bit of a chip on my shoulder, because I think that helps me perform better,” Blank said. “If you can play with a bit of an edge, I think that gives you a little advantage over others.”

She’ll do it the same way she always has — cool, calm, and composed — as if she were still on the field in the youth leagues of Southern California.

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