During the winter months, you can find McAuley Catholic girls basketball coach Mike Howard and College Heights Christian girls basketball coach John Blankenship coaching opposite sides of the sideline in what has developed into quite a heated rivalry on the court between the Warriors and Cougars.
Coaching against each other for the last seven years, Howard and Blankenship, who have become good friends away from the court, added a new dynamic to their relationship this spring. Howard, who is also the head coach of the CHC softball team that partners with McAuley in the spring season, had an opening on his staff heading into the season and figured he would ask his friend to join him on the diamond.
“We have always hinted around at wanting to coach together,” Howard said. “We’ve talked about getting a travel team together for basketball in the summer but it’s never come to fruition. When the spot on my staff came together this year, I reached out to him and asked if he would be interested in helping out with softball because it would be a way that we could coach together. … It was just a perfect fit and I couldn’t be more happy.”
The transition of adding Coach Blankenship to the softball staff has been seamless to say the least. Much like the players on the field, Howard and Blankenship have thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company this season in the dugout and have meshed well coaching together on the diamond.
“It’s been great,” Howard said about the addition of Coach Blankenship to the team. “It’s essentially like having a co-head coach. He is always here helping out and lightening the load for me, asking if there is anything more he can do to help out. … I always give my coaches a chance to talk at the end of the day after I give my talk to the team, and he is always teaching them things. It’s not always about softball necessarily, sometimes it’s about life. It’s all about building these girls up to prepare them for the world they are heading into. He has been around doing this for a long time and he understands that. That’s what makes him special.”
“Mike and I have become really good friends over the last few years,” Blankenship said when asked what made him want to join the softball coaching staff. “We’ve competed against each other in basketball and have developed a really strong relationship. It was also another chance for me to extend my time with my own players from basketball to softball. So, it was a combination of them needing to fill a position, my friendship with Mike and working with my kids.”
For Howard, one of the most rewarding experiences of getting to coach with his friend instead of against him is getting to see how Coach Blankenship has built relationships with the McAuley girls he coaches against during basketball season. Howard was in a similar position not too long ago when he took on the position of being the softball coach.
“He gelled with the McAuley girls so well and so quickly,” Howard said. “To be able to coach against them in basketball and then turn around in the next season and have them on your team in the spring is a special opportunity to experience. And Coach Blankenship has done an awesome job at that. For him to be able to bond with our girls so quickly, and for them to welcome him with open arms has been wonderful.”
And while Coach Blankenship has taken to the McAuley players quickly, he has also given another familiar outlet for the College Heights girls as well. In a sense, it almost balances out the scales between both schools as they compete together for a common goal.
“(Coach Howard and Coach Blankenship) have always had a good relationship and they really even each other out,” added College Heights second baseman Kloee Williamson, who attends McAuley and is also a guard on the basketball team. “It has been fun. I think it is great (for the College Heights girls) because most of them know him already as their basketball coach. They know how he works and he knows them. I think it’s great.”
“It is nice to have his input in the dugout,” said College Heights catcher Jayli Johnson, who attends CHC and is a point guard under Blankenship during basketball season. “It is really fun just to have that familiar face around. And the joking around is a big part of it because we always like to give him a hard time. … (Coach Howard and Coach Blankenship) work well together. They help each other see what the other doesn’t and that really helps us a lot to make sure we are getting better.”
Coach Blankenship—who actually helped start the College Heights softball program with his wife, Leah, in 2005 and they both coached the team for three years—has also helped deepen the roster since he accepted the assistant coaching role, which was another reason Coach Howard wanted to bring him on.
“When we were doing this, I was hoping and anticipating that he would be able to retain girls and recruit girls at (College Heights) to play softball,” Howard said. “After we had a great year last year, we graduated four or five seniors and were left with only eight girls. He went in and recruited some girls who wouldn’t necessarily play and got them to try. I think we have four or five first-year girls who are giving it their all and getting better and learning every day. Bringing him on has been extremely beneficial in several ways.”
Of course, for Coach Blankenship, stepping into a dynamic of two schools that share a natural rivalry, particularly during the winter season, only to team up in the spring in hopes of winning a state title together has been a fun experience for him.
“It is a lot of fun,” Blankenship said about his experiences this season. “It has been interesting seeing that dynamic come together between College Heights kids and McAuley kids and the friendships that have developed. They compete hard against each other during basketball season and it seems like they are great friends when softball season starts.”
One thing is clear, Coach Blankenship and the additional first-year players on the team this year have made an impact. The Cougars are currently the eighth-ranked team in the state at the Class 2 level according to the Missouri High School Fastpitch Coaches Association and hold an 18-4 record fresh off another Ozark 7 Conference title. College Heights is the second seed in its Class 2 District 6 tournament matchup against seventh-seeded Southwest at 5 p.m. on Friday at the Neosho Athletic Complex.
“It is amazing to see two schools that just go at it several times during the year during basketball season, doing whatever it takes to help their school win, be able to turn around and be best friends with each other the very next season,” Howard said. “That is a God thing, you know? It shows a lot of character and leadership in the way they were raised. … It is a special thing to see and I couldn’t be more proud of the way they carry themselves. They represent both schools tremendously.”