Blanche still filling it up

Ashland High basketball fans who recall watching Rory Blanche slither past defenders, rise up and drain jump shots from all over the court during the 2006-07 season would hardly recognize him today.

Now a muscle-bound 6-foot-6, 205-pound power forward for NCAA Division II Western Washington, Blanche leads the Vikings in both points (16.0 per game) and rebounds (7.3), and scored 16 points in Wednesday's key win over rival Central Washington to reach the 1,000-point milestone for his career. With the victory, the 22nd-ranked Vikings grabbed sole possession of first place in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference standings with 10 games left in the regular season.

Blanche has been a key contributor for Western Washington since earning a spot in the starting lineup as a junior. A slashing perimeter player at Ashland, Blanche has evolved since arriving in Bellingham, Wash., adding bulk to a frame that had room to grow and developing post-up skills he never needed in high school.

The extreme makeover may surprise some, but not those who have taken a look at the Blanche family tree. Blanche's father, Robert, played offensive line and tight end for the Stanford football team, and Blanche also has two uncles who played football for Southern Cal.

"That was another factor for us (when recruiting), because it was a pretty good bet that he was going to put on some weight," Western Washington head coach Brad Jackson said. "I think it was just a combination of him being very, very competitive and a great student, and his work ethic. Those were the things that we saw and it seemed to be a good fit."

For a while, Blanche didn't look like the type of player who could lead a recreational team in rebounding, let alone a Division II college team, but that changed in a hurry.

As a scrawny 5-foot-10 guard, Blanche did not exactly strike fear in the hearts of Ashland High opponents. It was his sophomore season, and Blanche was a shooting specialist for the Grizzlies' 2004-05 junior varsity team.

Then he grew. And grew. And grew.

Blanche shot up to 6-foot-2 his junior year, and 6-foot-5 as a senior. By then, his silky smooth shooting stroke was deadly, hard to block and best used coming off screens on the perimeter. Blanche, listed at 185-pounds as a senior ("That was pushing it," he now admits), was a gunslinger, not a banger, who delivered bombs in buckets for a Grizzlies' team that advanced all the way to the state quarterfinals.

That spectacular senior season — he was voted Southern Sky Conference player of the year — helped Blanche land a scholarship at Western Washington, but it wasn't enough to earn him playing time right out of the gate. He had to work for that, and much of that work was done away from the court.

"Let's just say I spent a lot of time in the weight room," he said.

"We were really honest with him and his folks," Jackson said. "At the time, we had some guys who were ahead of him and we told him that he would probably not play much as a redshirt freshman, and probably about the same as a sophomore. Then, by the time he was a junior, hopefully the growth and his work would have kind of kicked in. That's kind of the way it has played out."

After seeing action in 15 games as a freshman, Blanche played in all 32 games his sophomore year, averaging 8.5 points and 2.9 rebounds in 18 minutes a game. Those numbers took another huge jump after he cracked the starting lineup last season: 14.3 points, and team highs in both rebounds (6.8) and minutes (32).

This season, Blanche has taken another big step, leading a team that is starting to look like a national title contender.

Though he's always been able to score, it's the way Blanche is producing for the Vikings that may surprise those who watched him lead the Grizzlies to McArthur Court five years ago.

"I had some of the fundamentals down, but I definitely had to spend time becoming more of a back-to-the-basket player and utilize some of my strengths," Blanche said. "My game changed definitely, and it's for the better."

"Most of his shots are from 15 feet and in," Jackson said, "but we give him latitude. He doesn't shoot a lot of 3s because we have several other guys who are excellent 3-point shooters, but he's really good with his back to the basket. We'll post him up if we feel we have an advantage. He's also very good at flashing, coming low to high, but also really good at facing defenders up and putting it on the floor because he stays under control so well and has a good first step."

Blanche is hoping to go out with a bang and help the Vikings make some noise in the postseason, which begins with the GNAC tournament Feb. 29 through March 3.

Even if the Vikings flame out, Blanche's future looks bright. Professional basketball is on his radar, but right now he's leaning toward accepting a job offer to work as a design engineer for Nike.

But first, he says, there's work to be done.

"Really," he said, "I think that we can beat just about any team in the nation at the D2 level. When we come to play we're a force to be reckoned with."

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