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Gene Blankenship: The pacesetter

The influence of former Hart coach Blankenship is still felt in the local running community

Posted: December 25, 2010 9:08 p.m.
Updated: December 26, 2010 4:55 a.m.
Former Hart High cross country head coach Gene Blankenship stands next to newspaper clippings and CIF plaques at his home in Spokane, Wash. The memorabilia commemorates the three state titles he won while coaching the Hart boys in the early 1990s. Former Hart High cross country head coach Gene Blankenship stands next to newspaper clippings and CIF plaques at his home in Spokane, Wash. The memorabilia commemorates the three state titles he won while coaching the Hart boys in the early 1990s.
Former Hart High cross country head coach Gene Blankenship stands next to newspaper clippings and CIF plaques at his home in Spokane, Wash. The memorabilia commemorates the three state titles he won while coaching the Hart boys in the early 1990s.
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Gene Blankenship wouldn’t call himself “underrated.”

“I don’t know about underrated,” laughs the 68-year-old former Hart High School cross country coach. “I got quite a bit of glory while I was there.”

Indeed he did. Blankenship coached the Hart High boys cross country team to the first state title of any kind in the history of the Santa Clarita Valley in 1990, and the boys won two more state titles in 1991 and 1992. His boys and girls teams each won 10 straight Foothill League championships from 1983-92.

He has a “team room” at his home in Spokane, Wash., decorated with memorabilia and newspaper clippings from that time.

Under Blankenship, Hart set a standard for cross country that a lot of today’s local programs follow.

“He was the ultimate pied piper,” says Saugus head coach Rene Paragas, who ran during Blankenship’s last year at Hart. “He took a program that had six boys and two girls and built it into a champion.”

If you ask Blankenship, it wasn’t just him.

He recounts contributions from a lot of different people, most importantly the kids who ran for him. The group also includes Dave Klinger, the coach who brought Blankenship into the Hart program, and Phil De La Cerda, an assistant coach who pushed the boys team over the hump during its state run.

Those state titles are what most people remember about Blankenship and his time at Hart.

By the time 1990 rolled around, they were all that was missing from the program.

***

When the Hart boys arrived at the CIF State Cross Country Championships on Nov. 24, 1990, Blankenship says the meet announcer spent most of his Division I boys race preview on CIF-Central Section power Madera High.

Fitting, since all anyone talked about that year was Madera.

The Coyotes were ranked No. 1 in California and No. 3 in the nation entering the state meet. Twice that season, they had defeated Hart at invitationals.

Due to academic eligibility issues, those Hart teams weren’t at full strength. But Madera was still expected to beat the Indians, who drove up to the meet in a van decorated with all their accomplishments that year.

“We pulled in the parking lot, listening to the announcer go on and on,” Blankenship says. “I asked the boys, ‘What’s missing on this van?’ They said, ‘We haven’t won a state title.’ I said, ‘Don’t you think we ought to do that?’”

With that in mind, Hart crushed Madera to win the Division I state championship. All five scorers finished ahead of Madera’s second scorer, led by Billy Dixon’s eighth-place individual time of 15 minutes, 48 seconds.

After beating Madera so handily, Blankenship could barely contain his excitement afterward. He lost track of other things walking back to the team campsite — including whether or not his team actually won the meet.

“I got halfway back to our campground and said, ‘(Wow), I was just watching Madera,” he recalls. “Did anyone else beat us?”

Nobody did, and nobody would at the state meet for another two seasons.

Especially not in 1991, when the Indians finished ranked No. 1 in the nation and didn’t lose a meet all season. They became the first boys team in the history of the state meet to repeat as champions, ripping second-place Peninsula by 45 points.

Keith Grossman’s fourth-place individual time of 15:24 led the group, which put all seven of its runners in the top 37.

In 1992, people expected that kind of performance out of Thousand Oaks. The Lancers had beaten Hart at the Mt. SAC Invitational and the CIF-Southern Section finals, and the two teams ran into each other at a restaurant in Fresno the night before the state meet.

“As we’re walking out, in comes the Thousand Oaks team,” Blankenship says. “I just remember (Lancers coach Jack Farrell) says to me, ‘Well, at least you beat us to dinner.’ I came real close to saying, ‘Yeah, we’re going to beat you tomorrow, too.’”

Because of his respect for Farrell, Blankenship laughs off the incident now.

Hart laughed off Thousand Oaks in the state finals, led by Brett Strahan’s seventh-place time of 15:37.

All three state championship teams made their move midway through the race, overpowering the competition on the way to the finish line.

That was the product of a tough training regimen, implemented by Blankenship and De La Cerda, whose son Paul was a scoring member of all three state champions.

“We’d go up to Mammoth and train at mile-high altitude,” Paul says. “We took a team trip there and trained hard, but it was fun. We made friendships that lasted a lifetime.”

Together, they built one of California cross country’s greatest dynasties.

“Our boys just decided they weren’t going to lose,” Blankenship says.

A decade earlier, Hart High boys were deciding to ignore cross country altogether.

***

In 1945, Hart High School opened. In 1946, students selected the school colors and the nickname “Indians.”

Not until 1983, however, did those Indians win a league title in cross country.

“The school had no history in cross country whatsoever,” Blankenship says. “My first thought was that if we’re going to do anything, we’ve got to get kids involved. We’ve got to have numbers. We can’t just stress training. We’ve got to make this a fun thing to do at Hart High School.”

Klinger was a teacher at Hart High and the head coach of the cross country program when he convinced Blankenship to join him in 1982. Blankenship, who ran at Leuzinger High of Lawndale and El Camino College, had just finished a one-year stint as a volunteer assistant at Canyon.

By the time he arrived, Blankenship says Klinger had already done a good job of recruiting students to come out for the team.

Hart joined the Foothill League in 1982 for cross country, competing against Alhambra, Burbank, Burroughs, San Gabriel and Schurr. The Indians had 25 boys out for the team and seven girls, but they didn’t win any meets early on.

At that point, Blankenship and Klinger made a program-changing decision.

“About two or three weeks into the season, we decided we were going to focus on the frosh/soph boys,” Blankenship says. “We put all the juniors and seniors on varsity, but we put all the better kids down at the frosh/soph level. (That team) ended up finishing second in league. It kind of taught the kids what it felt like to win.”

That experience, coupled with an incoming freshman class that Blankenship describes as the best in the valley at the time, finally led to a breakthrough in 1983.

Both the boys and girls teams won league titles, and neither would fail to do so again for at least a decade.

But there was more than just success on the course that attracted kids to cross country. Because Blankenship recruited as many runners as he could, kids would join because their friends were running. Blankenship took the team on trips where the runners would camp out and train together before the season. They had team pasta dinners before meets, occasionally at multiple locations because of the amount of runners in the program.

Foothill League cross country coaches share much of the same practices today.

“Our program is very much patterned after the formula he developed,” Paragas says. “Strength in numbers, the whole summer trip thing, the things we did at Hart that I liked, we do (at Saugus).”

There were other incentives. Blankenship would buy new warm-ups and uniforms every year for the varsity team, but the rest of the teams got stuck with old apparel.

“That was Gene Blankenship’s idea,” he says. “You want to be part of varsity. If you make varsity, you’re going to get new warm-ups. Otherwise, you’re going to get crappy warm-ups.”

Everything Blankenship was doing paid off. Hart became the premier cross country program in the Foothill League, and both the boys and girls made routine trips to the CIF-Southern Section finals before the boys won the 3A championship in 1989.

By that time, the CIF State Cross Country Championship meet was 2 years old, and Hart was making its first visit to the event. The Indians finished 14th in the Division I race, a performance the runners would later chalk up to an intense focus on CIF finals.

By 1990, the focus was squarely on the state meet.

That was thanks in large part to Phil De La Cerda, who joined the program after meeting Blankenship at a youth track meet in the San Fernando Valley.

His three children, including Paul, all ran for Blankenship at Hart High. They endured their father’s intense workouts, which included high-altitude training and mile-repeats, an exercise designed to improve speed over long-distance races.

“(De La Cerda) brought us to a different level,” Blankenship says. “He just kind of pushed me and pushed the kids to train harder.”

Once they started working together, Paul says his father and Blankenship were inseparable.

“Those two would spend hours strategizing a day about how to make all of us scrawny guys into champions,” Paul says. “Their dream was to bring a CIF championship to Hart in cross country and to bring the first state championship the valley had (ever seen). It was a plan. They didn’t just fall into it.”

Because of their work, Hart had the strength to push itself to state titles in 1990, 1991 and 1992.

Under Blankenship’s watch, cross country had changed at Hart High School forever.

But the following year, a different kind of change was in store.

***

Rumors were flying during the fall of 1992. People began calling Blankenship and asking about them.

He called a press conference on the Monday before the CIF-Southern Section finals to make the announcement.

He was leaving Hart after the 1992-93 school year.

“I tried to keep it from everybody, because I wanted them to focus on the team,” Blankenship says. “But it got to be just too much.”

He stayed to coach the track and field team in the spring of 1993, a season that ended with three of his distance runners advancing to the CIF State Track and Field Championships.

After that, he moved to Spokane with his then-girlfriend and now-wife Sue, who worked for avionics developer Edmo Distributors Inc. The company was relocating to Spokane, and Blankenship followed Sue.

“Since she was the breadwinner and I was a retired bum, I really had no choice,” Blankenship laughs. “Without my wife’s support, I could never do this stuff. A coach is only as good as the kids who run for him and the assistant coaches and families who support him. Period.”

Blankenship has bounced around several different high schools in Washington, and he currently coaches at Medical Lake High, which is about 16 miles southwest of Spokane.

During his time in Washington, he says he’s been an assistant coach on two state championship track and field teams and two cross country teams that reached the state meet.

As for what he left behind, Hart fell short of the state meet in 1993 and finished fifth in Division I in 1994. The Indians haven’t finished that high since.

It only adds to Blankenship’s legend in running circles. He still makes trips down to the Santa Clarita Valley, usually staying with Klinger. He says he’s been present for all but one of the Saugus girls’ five straight state championships.

Even without his success, it wouldn’t be hard to pick out Blankenship of a crowd. Because of a rattlesnake bite suffered in 1965, he had to get his left arm amputated 2 inches above the elbow.

But when it comes to locals, Blankenship is remembered for his personality, not his physical appearance.

“He has a very, very, very loyal, big following down here,” Paragas says. “He can come back 17 years later and walk into some place, and five people will come up to him. People will know it’s him and stop and talk to him.”

That’s because Blankenship made such an impact on his runners.

He set the standard for how some of today’s most successful local cross country programs are run.

His teams were the first state champions the Santa Clarita Valley knew. In any sport.

There have been bigger names in the local coaching ranks, typically in more mainstream sports, but few have matched Blankenship’s overall impact.

Sounds like he could be a little underrated, doesn’t it?

“It is Gene, ultimately, that allowed us to focus and be champions,” Paul De La Cerda says. He started it. He truly is the godfather of running in the Santa Clarita Valley.”

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