Sometimes the best thing about leaving home for college is the experience of coming home. Golden Gopher sophomore cross country runner Ben Blankenship, a Stillwater native, came home to Minnesota after a year at Mississippi State and is now enjoying his new college team at his home-state university just miles from where he grew up.
Coming off of a stellar high school running career that included a pair of state titles in the 1,600 meters on the track, Blankenship was heavily recruited by several different colleges, including the University of Minnesota. During his senior track season, after recovering from a broken leg injury, he bit on Mississippi State’s scholarship offer and decided to sign with the Bulldogs.
With previous knowledge of Mississippi State’s coaching staff, program and success in mid-distance running, Blankenship was excited about the idea of getting away from Minnesota and seizing what seemed to be a great opportunity. Even as a true freshman, Blankenship found himself in a leadership role. However, even as one of the top runners in the program, Blankenship quickly began to realize there was something missing. It didn’t take him long to decide to look to transfer.
What he was looking for was right where he left it in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. The Gophers enjoyed one of their finest seasons in decades a year ago, placing eighth in the NCAA Championships, a finish that looked very appealing to Blankenship. So, he decided to transfer and return home to Minnesota. Blankenship joined the Gophers this fall with hopes of adding even more success to the already prestigious program.
Blankenship has stepped into the role of one of Golden Gophers’ top runners in his short time at Minnesota. With the home-state advantage and a solid training regime, Blankenship feels more confident and comfortable than ever, something Gopher head coach Steve Plasencia has certainly picked up on.
Coming into the home stretch and the championship portion of the season, Blankenship remains calm, cool and collected. Plasencia describes Ben as having a “light attitude” meaning that he has a relaxed dynamic to his competitive nature. A team with mixed personalities creates a good sense of balance, according to Plasencia, something the Gophers have found to be a winning combination.
Blankenship has consistently been a top-seven finisher for the Gophers, which in cross country terms equates to scoring for the team. When asked how it feels to compete for a nationally ranked team and train every day with two All-Americans in teammates Chris Rombough and Hassan Mead, Blankenship grinned and replied it “feels great.” Wearing the Maroon and Gold, Blankenship feels a greater sense of belonging while representing his home state and being a part of the Golden Gophers successful present and future.
Blankenship and his Gopher teammates hope to put another mark of excellence in the program’s ledger this weekend when Minnesota travels to Michigan to compete in the Big Ten Cross Country Championships. Blankenship could play a major role in the Gophers’ finish.
With Rombough and Mead up front to lead the pack, the Gophers need their third, fourth and fifth runners to close the time gap between those All-Americans and the remainder of the squad. Blankenship enters his first Big Ten Championships with the goal of finishing in the top 10, which would be a very good thing for the team and their bid for the title.
Coach Plasencia feels confident about where his charges are heading into the postseason and feels that as a team, “we haven’t run our best race yet.” Plasencia’s training is catered to consistent improvement, as he institutes a more conservative approach to training early on and then continues to build on that foundation. This has proven to be effective as evidenced by the Gophers’ 10 NCAA Championships appearances during Plasencia’s tenure.
At one point during this season Blankenship stated, “this is the first time in my college career that I feel ready to run.” Blankenship went on to explain that he never felt in shape enough to race well last season and with Plasecia’s direction, the training has reaped success.
After the Big Ten meet, the Gophers have the challenge of extending the race distance to 10 kilometers for NCAA Championships competition. According to Blankenship this should not be an issue since they have been training for the 10K all season.
“I want to say I prefer the 10K so that I can get to nationals,” Blankenship shyly admitted.
Plasencia is very glad Blankenship made the decision to return to Minnesota. He believes Blankenship’s greatest talents have yet to be seen because they will be highlighted at the middle-distance events during the track season. Blankenship is still focusing on the present, which is the cross country season, and is looking forward to his next race in Maroon and Gold.
Blankenship was quick to point out the differences of his freshman year of college at Mississippi State to now. The major distinction between Mississippi State and the University of Minnesota, he noted, was the size of the college. Mississippi State, located in Starkville, is just a fraction of the size of the “U” and possesses more of a “small town” vibe on campus. Currently undecided on his major of study, Blankenship is excited about all the different opportunities that he could potentially pursue at a university the size of Minnesota. With a passion for traveling, he is exploring the possibility of majoring in geography. “I grew up as an only child, taking family vacations every summer,” said Blankenship. “I think traveling is in my blood.”
Blankenship is hoping his travels continue in the near future as the Gophers begin a journey to capture success at the Big Ten and NCAA level. But then, it’s back to Minnesota. It’s back home. Ben is happy to call Minnesota home and the Gophers too are happy he has returned.
-- Written by Laura Wallenta, University of Minnesota Athletic Communications Student Assistant