While the Sun Valley boys basketball team’s continued stance atop the Southern Carolina 3A/4A standings this season hardly seems surprising, the fact is there aren’t many similarities between the squads responsible for the last two regular-season league titles and this year’s Spartans.
But the one constant has been senior forward Isaiah Blanchett, who started all of the Spartans’ games last season – when they went 22-5 for their second consecutive league title – and has emerged as an even more vital cog on this year’s club that finished the regular season 15-8 and tied with Marvin Ridge as league co-champs.
And while Blanchett’s invaluable experience has provided the perfect link between Sun Valley’s past successes and what it hopes to accomplish in next week’s state playoffs, ironically, he might be the least experienced player on the team.
Sun Valley coach Keith Mason likes to say that this is just Blanchett’s second year of organized basketball. And though it’s a bit off, the assertion isn’t far from accurate. Aside from a year of rec league as a youngster, “I mostly played outside with friends like everybody else does,” Blanchett said.
He played a year as an eighth-grader at Sun Valley Middle School, a stretch in which his team went 0-10. The following year, after moving to Gastonia with his father, Blanchett, who’s parents are divorced, was on the East Gaston High roster but didn’t play a single minute as a 6-foot forward.
“(The East Gaston coaches) didn’t really know what to do with me,” Blanchett said.
Looking back, Blanchett said the experience extinguished his love for the game and dented his confidence, so much so that he didn’t even try out for the team after he and his father moved again, this time to the Hopewell High School district in Huntersville. But he felt a void in his new surroundings and struggled to fit in with his Hopewell classmates.
“I didn’t have any friends,” Blanchett said. “After school, I would just sit at my house all day. Weekends, I’d sit in my house all day. I was in a bad spot, mentally and physically.”
Which, he said, is probably why he ended up knocking on Jalen Witherspoon’s door that winter.
The two had been close as classmates at Sun Valley Middle but lost touch after Blanchett moved to Gastonia. When he left, he was pushing 6 feet. But as he stood in Witherspoon’s doorway a few years later, he’d sprouted to 6-4.
“He didn’t really even recognize me because I’d hit my growth spurt,” Blanchett said.
After reuniting, the two did what they always had done – played basketball.
“(Witherspoon) was like, ‘You need to come back to Sun Valley,’” Blanchett said with a chuckle.
But a shootaround with a friend hardly was enough to convince Blanchett, especially after his past experiences.
“I came out my sophomore year and watched the (Spartans) play,” said Blanchett, who said he had a few more friends, such as Tevin Graham, on the Spartans’ roster.
“I saw how good they were, and I was just like, ‘I don’t know if I’m that good.’ I figured, ‘East Gaston wasn’t as good as Sun Valley, and I figured I couldn’t get playing time there. How would I get playing time here?’”
But Graham joined Witherspoon in recruiting Blanchett back to Sun Valley, and the duo was convincing, enough to bring Blanchett to some open-gym sessions during the spring of that year, where he joined them and standout Shaun Stewart on the floor.
Shortly thereafter, Blanchett decided to return to Union County and soon moved in with his mother.
“Just to see the passion (Graham, Witherspoon and Stewart) had for it, it was contagious,” Blanchett said. “It made me have that same passion and want to do anything I can for this basketball team.”
Given his past failures, it wasn’t all that surprising that Blanchett played like a guy possessed when he traveled with the Spartans to a summer team camp entering his junior year. After all, he was making up for lost time and aiming to prove a point.
Mason said Blanchett was “relentless” at the camp. But in the title game, he took a hard shot to the nose, and the team left early to drive him to the hospital. It took a while for Blanchett to recover, and Mason said the teen initially returned a bit timid. Mason said it was a pivotal point in Blanchett’s progression, but he eventually resumed his spirited play of diving for loose balls and contesting shots.
“I think that really motivated him, knowing he could play tough,” Mason said.
Besides, Blanchett didn’t really have a choice. As strong as Sun Valley’s backcourt was last season with Witherspoon and Stewart, who combined for more than 3,300 career points, there was a hole down low after the transfer of 6-8 center Kyle Buffkin to Union Academy.
“I threw him in the fire, and Jalen and Shaun kind of put their arms around him and said, ‘Look, there’s no time for you not to be getting it. You have to get it. You have no other choice,’” said Mason. “He took it as a challenge and really ran with it.”
But again, with Stewart, Witherspoon and Graham playing such big roles, Blanchett hardly had to be a difference-maker. He was among the county’s leading shot blockers at 1.4 per game but didn’t register among the team leaders in any other statistical category.
With Stewart, Witherspoon, Graham and forward Josh Pierre graduated, Blanchett said he knew he’d have to elevate his game again this season. But he struggled with that early. It wasn’t that he didn’t want the increased responsibility; he had a hard time coping with it.
“I’m pretty sure (Mason) was frustrated with me, and I was frustrated with myself, also,” Blanchett said. “I knew what I could do, but I wasn’t doing it. I was thinking too much. I didn’t have the confidence.”
Mason said that confidence has improved with time. The coach explained that Blanchett’s increased role, which included newfound stature as a team leader, was a lot to handle. But Blanchett hasn’t shied from asking questions when necessary, which has made him more comfortable as a leader.
“We can see it coming out,” Mason said. “I think that’s why we’ve steadily gotten better as the season went on, because he’s learned how to play and not think so much while still learning to be that leader as well.”
That also has meant allowing the other players to fill their roles. Kendall Ratliff, at more than 15 points per game, has emerged as the team’s leading scorer, while point guard Kevin Saxton has grown adept at distributing the ball with more than five assists per contest.
And with that, said Mason, Blanchett, now a 6-6 senior forward with surprising quickness and long arms, has a role that’s been clearly defined.
“He’s the anchor,” Mason said. “He’s so versatile on defense. He plays the other team’s best players. When we play now, he can control the paint and then he can turn around and rebound. He’s so long and quick that if he’s got a smaller guy on him, he can give them that space that when they get a shot up, he can still contest it.”
For the season, Blanchett has averaged roughly seven rebounds, 1.5 steals and one block per game. But he’s played his best ball during league games, averaging 10 rebounds, three steals and two blocks per game while adding 11 points each contest.
The college recruiters have noticed Blanchett’s emergence. After a recent win over Anson, a coach from Catawba Valley Community College in Hickory made a point to talk to him, and Mason said programs such as Sandhills Community College are interested in seeing what he can do on the next level.
Simply being on the recruiting radar is a dream come true for Blanchett.
“I’d kind of given up on the college thing,” he said. “I hadn’t gotten any looks and I’m almost done with my senior year. Just to hear (about recruiters), I can’t even explain (how happy I am). I’m so happy there’s a college looking at me to come play for them.”
And now, as the Spartans prepare for the state tournament as the Southern Carolina 3A/4A’s top Class 4A seed, Blanchett said he’s grown comfortable and, more important, confident, with his role on the team.
“In my mind, I think I’m one of the best defenders in Union County,” said Blanchett. “I’m not trying to be cocky or anything like that, but that’s how I feel because I love playing defense. That’s what I grew up loving. I just love to stop somebody from scoring, just to help my team out.”