Gene Blankenship will be the first person to tell you the way he coaches cross country is for the team.
From his days at Hart High School in Santa Clarita, California, in the 1980s, early ’90s, to being at Medical Lake High School for over a decade, Blankenship has built programs from the ground up and transformed them into championship caliber groups.
“I’ve always been known for teams,” Blankenship said. “I’ve even told people from time to time, ‘If you want your kid to be a good team-runner, bring them to me. If you want them to be an individual champ, maybe take them someplace else’.”
Blankenship has coached six state championship teams on the boys’ side.
The Cardinals won three 1A state cross country titles between 2013 and 2017.
Despite his presence around some great teams, he’s never once coached a kid to win an individual state title in cross country.
After 42 years, the wait was finally over.
Earlier this month, Medical Lake senior Reid Headrick capped off his high school cross country career winning the 1A boys state individual title in 16 minutes, 1 second over the 5,000-meter course at the Sun Willows Golf Course in Pasco, becoming Blankenship’s first-ever state cross country individual champion.
“It was probably the most nervous I have ever been for a meet,” Headrick said. “I had been there enough to know that I could do it. That was never a thought in my mind that I couldn’t be a state champion. I think I was the most fit. I put in a lot of work in the year just to get to that point.”
Aside from winning his first state title, it was a historic season for Headrick as he posted a 5K time of 15:26.7, exactly 50 seconds faster than his previous best time from the 2021 season when he finished third at the 1A state meet as a junior.
“It was definitely the most rewarding season I’ve had,” Headrick said. “Just because I’ve put in so much work into getting to the point where I am. I’m glad I could cap it off with something like a state championship.”
Not only was Headrick Blankenship’s first individual champion in cross country, but he was also the first Medical Lake student-athlete to accomplish it.
“I was excited,” Blankenship said. “I was excited when I knew he won the race and I walked around seeing his mom and everybody was there to congratulate him. I tried to get to him as soon as I could and give him my usual hug.”
Headrick’s journey to the top has been one full of ups and downs throughout his career.
As a freshman, he was the second-best runner on the team, trailing only their top runner by 10 seconds. He also helped the Cardinals finish third at state behind a 25th place individual effort.
Then, a few months later, all momentum stopped for Headrick due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
With spring sports cancelled, followed by fall sports being postponed to the spring of 2021, it had been over a year since Headrick had last ran in a cross-country race. And the effects started to show by the times he was running and where his fitness was at.
“After my sophomore year of cross country, I almost quit,” Headrick said. “I almost said, ‘I’m done with this sport’, because I felt like I wasn’t going anywhere. That season was riddled with injuries and me not performing as well as I would have wanted.”
But hope wasn’t lost and he wanted to make improvements.
After the school year, Headrick took a trip down to Tillamook, Oregon, and joined other runners from around the Northwest at the Ultimook Running Camp.
There, his love for running began to come back.
“I was fortunate enough that I went down to that Ulitmook Camp,” he said. “It really brought back that joy for running. It really showed me that I could compete at a high level, and I could do this sport to my full capacity.”
Following the camp, Headrick began training at a higher level.
For the first time in his career, he felt as confident as ever as a runner.
“I finally felt like I was in shape,” Headrick said. “Only training for a summer and then going into cross, I never felt I was necessarily in shape. This year I’ve hit new standards and I’m like, ‘Is this what being in shape really feels like?’.”
Headrick’s junior year began with another top performance at state cross country as he finished third and led the Cardinals to another team trophy. But it was the spring where he really took off.
Headrick turned out for track for the first time ever after playing for the school’s soccer team the past two seasons. He would go on to set two Medical Lake school records in the 800- and 1,600-meter races, running times of 1:55.82 in the 800 and 4:20.09 in the 1,600 as he took down former Cardinal great Dominic Rehm’s times of 1:56.03 and 4:21.86.
“It was that third place in cross,” Headrick said. “When I was able to prove to myself that I could be a top runner, I should pursue track and really go for some state titles. It was time to stop soccer and start focusing more on the future of my running field.”
Headrick’s successes on the track then translated nicely to the cross-country season en route to running his fastest times ever and winning his first state championship this fall. The way he has run recently has also drawn the attention of college coaches.
“It opened a lot of doors,” Headrick said. “Even seeing a future in running, just being able to my first year go out and run times that most kids dream about. It really opened my eyes to maybe I want to do this in college and do it at a higher level.”
“No doubt about it he’s the best distance runner we’ve had here,” Blakenship said.
“He has a lot more to give. I’m an amateur coach if you really look at it. I’ve never been trained, I’ve taught myself. I’ve been coaching a lot of years and I’ve coached a lot of good kids and teams, but a professional coach gets a hold of him and treats him right, he’s going to be really, really good.”
Headrick will conclude his cross season as one of the few Spokane area high school runners traveling with the Bloomsday Road Runners Club down to Walnut, California to compete at the Champs Sports XC Championships at Mt. San Antonio College on Dec. 3, with an opportunity to qualify for the Champs Sports Nationals Championships in San Diego on Dec. 10.
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