Good Sports: Blankenship presides over winning hoops tradition at Risco
Dustin Ward, Delta Dunklin Democrat
Good Sports is a column featured weekly in the Southeast Missourian and on semoball.com. It is primarily designed to showcase people who have impacted the sporting life of Southeast Missouri, so that readers may get to know them more fully. Responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Today: Brandon Blankenship, 40, athletic director, Risco Schools and head boys basketball coach, Risco High. He is the winningest coach in school history (268-205/.567), and this fall will begin his seventh year as Risco's elementary principal. The Tigers hoops coach since the 2002-03 season, Blankenshipís teams have won five district championships in Class 1 and have been champs of the eight-team Tri-County Conference four times. He is also a four-time conference coach of the year. Four times in the past decade, his teams have won at least 20 games. Six Risco players have gone on to play either college basketball or baseball. Risco boasts one of the smaller high schools in Missouri, with only 86 students in grades 9-12 during the 2019-20 academic year.
You're not a Risco alum, are you?
Technically, no. I grew up in Parma, four miles away. I went to Risco for several years starting in sixth grade, but I graduated from New Madrid County Central.
You played Naismithís game in high school.
I was a 5-foot-9 point guard and Risco won a district championship while I was there in 1994. I went on to play hoops and baseball at Hannibal-LaGrange College. Legendary NMCC coach Lennies McFerrin (a 2016 Missouri Sports HOF inductee) was instrumental in getting me ready for the next level.
Youíve had repeated success at a very small school.
The best mark Iíve had here was 25-3 in 2016-17 and we had 19 boys that year in the entire high school. Eleven of them were on the team.
What is it that makes a good team: is it good players, good coaching, a combination of both?
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My college coach, Kent Thomas, used to say, ďItís not the Xs and Os, itís the Johnnys and the Joes.Ē I do think coaches get too much blame for defeats and too much credit for wins. You must have players who can ball, yes, but itís a good marriage, if you get my meaning. Coaches count. A coach should be able to get players to max out their abilities and get them to play together. People tell me Risco can utilize players other schools might never let see the floor. Itís a two-edged sword here because you donít have a lot of boys come out for the team in a small environment like Risco, but those who do get a lot of reps.
Deltaís Chris Hahn believes in run-and-gun basketball, play as fast as you can, up and down the court all the time. You?
It depends on your personnel. In a perfect world, Iíd prefer to play fastbreak basketball with pressure defense and in our 2011-12 year (24-4), we did run and gun. But when the best player I ever coached, Nathan Burnett, who led us to two 20-win campaigns, was here Ė we ran more half-court sets with him. I adapt to who I have.
Say more about Burnett.
He was a four-year 5-foot-10 starter with over 2,000 career points and is Riscoís all-time leading scorer. He graduated in 2019 and now plays for College of the Ozarks.
Is there a single game that crystallizes Burnettís time at Risco?
In Nateís senior year, 2018-19, we were playing Scott County Central, who year-in and year-out, have awesome squads. We hadnít beaten SCC since 1976 and it was the í19 district championship game, it looked like we wouldnít beat them again. We were down 11 at halftime and Nate just takes over in the 4th quarter. He puts up 20 points in the final frame, 36 points on the night, and we win on Nateís buzzer beating jump shot. Huge relief to get the W because SCC had ended our season seven times previously.
With your success at your age, do you have ambitions at coaching in a larger setting?
I wonít deny it is tempting at times and Iíve had other opportunities, like an overture to go to Dexter one year. But I enjoy the community and Risco feels like home. Until I became a principal, I coached K-12 physical education and I got to see kids literally grow up before my eyes, many of whom end up playing for me. Risco gives me a lot of leeway to make decisions, especially about athletics, and Iím happy here. Also, Iíve had the blessing of seeing former players become my assistants.
Letís hear about the Blankenship coaching tree.
I suppose at the top would be Kennettís Andrew Halford, who graduated from Risco in í06 and went on to become SEMO Conference coach of the year. (Halford announced earlier this month he is moving to Florida.) Dillon Hill, í09, is still one of my assistants. Luke Bixler, í12, was with me two years at courtside and is headed to Bell City. Brittany Crane, Nate Burnettís sister, just stepped down at Malden as volleyball coach for family reasons, and I coached Brittanyís girls basketball team in Risco back in the day.
In a small town, Iím sure you get a lot of coaching advice. Iím thinking of Gene Hackman coaching Hickory in the movie ďHoosiers.Ē
Parents expect their kids to play, yes. Your assessment of a player may well be different than that of the parent. I recall one year we wound up with three sophomores in the starting lineup (when we won our first district title in 2010) and that meant three seniors had to be contributors off the bench. Iím honest with players and parents and in the end, itís about trusting me to make the right call for the team.
No girls basketball in Risco?
We donít have a girls basketball program and havenít since the 2007-08 year. Not enough interest.
You had a chance to coach girls basketball straight out of college.
Yes, I could have become head coach at my alma mater, NMCC, but I wanted to be on the boys side.
Say a word about your family.
My wife, Staci, and I live in Malden. We been married 18 years. Staci teaches high school science at Risco. Because Iím the elementary principal, we're in separate buildings. My 14-year old son, C.J., is a rising freshman at Risco and Iím looking forward to coaching him. We also have an eight-year old daughter, Mabry. Staci and I have a partnership and I couldnít do my coaching without her, my parents and my grandma. By the way, quite often my Mom will have supper waiting for us after a game, even if we canít get there to eat it until 10 oíclock at night.