For all the accolades Jake Blenden and Paula Smith earned over the course of their polished high school athletic careers, the two were faultless finishers.
On May 4 in Austin, Blenden screamed back from a six-stroke deficit with just nine holes to go to snatch up his first Class 2A state title on his last day as a Crawford athlete. Meanwhile, just a week later and only miles from the site of Blenden’s triumph, Smith’s last-ever track event produced a 4x400 relay gold and simultaneously lifted Connally to an outright 3A girls’ state track title.
Both events were emphatic bookends to a pair of outstanding senior seasons. For Blenden, whose sports schedule rarely stopped, and Smith, whose incendiary speed carried the Connally track and field program to new heights, stand-out senior seasons earned them the 2012 Super Centex Athlete of the Year awards.
Blenden is just the second athlete from Crawford to win the award after Lee Murphy took it home in 2005. Likewise, Smith, who finished her high school track career with 92 first-place finishes, is the second from Connally after Bridgette Brackens won in 2002.
“Paula has obviously done a fanatstic job,” Connally track and field coach Lisa Baucom said. “She’s excelled beyond all expectations. She’s been somebody that’s represented us well for all four years she’s been in high school.”
“The kid is a winner,” Crawford golf coach Brent Elmore said of Blenden. “He was more about team than he was about himself. He didn’t care how he did, as long as his teams won a game. A lot of times you get kids who are good athletes and they know it, and they don’t care about anything but themselves, and Jake was never like that.”
Smith entered high school with an ambitious slate, tackling volleyball, basketball and track to keep busy with sports year-round. But she soon discovered that the first two sports were in reality becoming outlets to keep in shape for the coming track season.
After getting through her volleyball and basketball seasons, she first splashed onto the scene as a freshman on the track team in 2009 when she stood in for Connally’s then-anchor leg Amara Washington in the mile relay at a Lorena meet while Washington was out injured. It was Baucom’s first glimpse of Smith’s stunning closing speed in a competitive race, and she made Smith the anchor of the mile relay team almost immediately. Fittingly, it took graduation to wrest the honor away from her.
“Just them putting me as the fourth leg on the mile relay, it just gave me a whole bunch of responsibility,” Smith said. “So I was just excited to be the fourth leg as a freshman and everybody else was seniors and juniors.”
The event was a signal flare for the rest of the state as Smith used it to launch her stellar track career. Later that year, Smith played her part in Connally’s shared 3A state girls’ track title with Texarkana Liberty-Eylau, running the anchor leg in one of the state’s best mile relay teams and snagging silver in the 400.
Unfortunately, that became a running for Smith. While she continued to play in the middle for Connally’s volleyball team and as a slashing guard for the basketball team, her focus on track produced silver medals in the 400, her best event, in both her sophomore and junior years at state. But no golds.
Entering her senior year with not only the weight of her team but the weight of that event pressing down heavily, Smith felt the burden, especially when state came around.
“It was a lot of pressure,” Smith said. “(Coach Baucom) said all we had to do was medal in every event (at state), and it was only a few of us that went to state. It seemed like it was going to be kind of impossible.”
As a senior, Smith’s basketball campaign at Connally was motivated by a sub par team season in volleyball. Spurred into action, Smith averaged 14.5 points and eight rebounds as a first-team Super Centex player to lead a Connally team that narrowly missed the postseason in a third-place tiebreaker loss to Gatesville.
But all was prelude to the track season, and it wasn’t necessarily the most exciting prospect for Smith’s senior year.
“Senior year I dreaded the thought of track coming around,” Smith said. “Its just the workouts are hard. I love the track meets but I dread the workouts.”
Not that it stopped her from competing. Smith burned through regionals by qualifying for state not only in the 400 and as the anchor leg in the mile relay, but also in the high jump and long jump. Smith had never been to state in the two field events, but both were crucial for Connally’s chances at a title. Realistically, she needed to medal in all four events for Connally to have a shot.
“Paula knew that if she wanted to finish her high school career with a state title in track, realistically she’d have to perform,” Baucom said. “We relied heavily on her. She went in with the attitude that she was going to win medals.”
She stunned herself when she took second in the long jump, and she shocked just about everybody when she hit 5-7 to win the 3A girls’ high jump gold medal on the second day of state. Thus began a long day. She was whisked from the winner’s podium straight to the field to compete in the 400, where she eviscerated the field by nearly two seconds with a personal-best 55.70. Shortly after coming off the winner’s podium, she spent the next 20 minutes throwing up.
Exhausted, Smith dragged herself to the track about an hour later to run the anchor leg for Connally’s vaunted mile relay team. It was the last event of the day, and a first place finish would assure Connally of the outright team title that had eluded the Lady Cadets during Smith’s freshman and sophomore years. Smith was so tired that she sat down on the track before the gun sounded to get some rest.
Smith watches the video of the 4x400 about once a week, and she’s still stunned by what she sees: Mara Thomas and Talea Turner falling back in the first two legs only for Khalaya Williams to make up enough ground to sit in second when Williams handed the baton to a weary Smith for the anchor leg.
“(Williams) is the type of person that over-thinks everything,” Smith said. “She was like, ‘This is a lot of pressure, we’ve got to win state.’ She wears herself out. I was like, ‘Just listen to me. Keep it close. You know I can catch her, just keep it close.’”
The final moments of the tape are what continually catches Smith, who is committed to Coppin State in Baltimore to play volleyball and run track. Smith took the baton in second and kept pace with the leader before exploding with about 200 yards left, making up the entire three-second margin of victory herself. Exhausted but satisfied, Smith ended her high school career at state with a silver, three golds and a state title.
“I’m just glad everything turned out the way it did,” Smith said. “I’m still trying to grasp it.”
Finding his calling
Blenden’s high school career had similarly ambitious beginnings. He picked up a dizzying five sports his freshman year, eventually whittling it down to four — football, basketball, baseball and golf — by his sophomore year after dropping track. Those four sports carried him through the next three years of his high school career. He was a varsity player on all four for his entire high school career, which allowed him to play integral parts in Crawford’s undefeated football regular season his junior year and then the boys’ basketball team’s run to the regional tournament later that winter.
But golf, the only game where Blenden relied only upon himself, had always been his premier sport. As a freshman, Blenden squeezed through regionals and qualified for state in Austin, where he finished 19th. As he soon learned, the pressure to get back to Austin each year only increased.
“I think it puts a lot of pressure on you, knowing that you’ve been there and people expect you to be there again,” Blenden said. “It just puts a lot of pressure on yourself knowing its not going to be a successful year if you don’t make it there again.”
But Blenden was armed with his cool, grounded demeanor, which proved to be a faithful ally over his remaining years at Crawford. Blenden returned to state his sophomore year, where he won a playoff hole to take the bronze medal, and he went back again his junior year and finished tied for eighth.
But as Smith can relate to, he saved the fireworks for his closing act.
As usual, Blenden’s senior year began with a torrent of success. He took over the starting quarterback position from the graduated Jake Talbert and starred as a two-way athlete at safety, the position that eventually earned him a spot on the Super Centex defensive second team.
Blenden helmed Crawford through a 9-1 regular season and into the playoffs before his senior year hit a serious snag. In Crawford’s first playoff game against Nocona, Blenden suffered a bad ankle sprain on the game’s first snap and was forced to the sideline. He tried to return to the field to captain the offense, but his ankle rendered him useless.
For most anybody else, the injury meant a few weeks of rehab. For Blenden, who had three sports left on his plate, threatened the rest of his season.
“I’ve hurt so many things,” Blenden said. “My whole body always hurts. You always hate getting hurt your senior year. Knowing you got hurt in your last football game ever kind of sucked.”
Blenden played through pain all year, and his ankle still isn’t fully healed. He missed about a month of the basketball season as Crawford struggled and missed the playoffs, but he seemed to regain strength when the baseball and golf seasons began. The two sports overlap, so much so that he once threw pitches with his golf coach at state between warmup swings.
While Blenden was his usually dominant self on the links throughout the spring, he added a solid baseball campaign in which he hit .388, clubbed six home runs and drove in 40 RBIs in the three-hole in the lineup. The year earned him first-team Super Centex honors and got him named to the All-State second team.
But, as always, golf held sway, and Blenden’s senior year added the state title-winning feather to his cap that he’d longed for since freshman year.
“At state he ran into a lot of kids and all they did was play golf,” Elmore said. “But since Jake was so multi-talented, he was put into pressure situations his whole career.”
Blenden didn’t enjoy a great opening day at state, and headed into the final nine holes he was six strokes behind leader Ryan Martin. The prospect of a gold medal seemed hopelessly distant.
“The top four players were in our group,” Blenden said. “After nine, I knew how far back I was. I was honestly trying to play for second. With about six holes left I was in fourth place in the tournament.”
But Blenden’s calm earned him legendary status down the back stretch. As Blenden continually drilled fairways and carded birdies on 12, 14 and 17, the pressure ate away at Martin. He made his first bogey of the entire tournament on 16, and Blenden sensed blood in the water. That drew the Crawford senior within four strokes with two holes to play.
The shot of his life
Then Blenden hit the greatest shot of his life on the par-5 17th, a 225-yard zinger with an iron that bent over a tree and onto the front of the green, paving the way for an eventual birdie. Martin, meanwhile, opted for the three-wood, dumped his shot into the woods and double bogeyed the hole. Just a stroke behind Martin now walking to 18, the last hole of the tournament, Blenden only had to lean on Martin until he fell over.
“I just figured I’d let him come to me,” Blenden said. “He had come to me the last two holes, making mistakes.”
Blenden hit first and went conservative off the tee box with a picture perfect iron shot straight down the fairway. Sure enough, Martin pulled out a three-wood and dumped it into the water before skying his approach over the green en route to a triple bogey. On the final day of his high school athletic career, the ever-calm Blenden ended up beating Martin by two strokes to win gold.
“It really hasn’t sunk in yet,” said Blenden, who plans on walking onto the MCC golf team this fall. “I expected it to be a little different. After I won it was kind of like, ‘This is another tournament, what’s next? What can I do next?’ It was special, but it was kind of one of those things where I was thinking, ‘Let’s go win something bigger.’ Definitely to finish up with that was pretty amazing.”
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