The 2021 Thomas MacLaren boys' soccer team. (Photo submitted by David Blankinship)

Five years ago, David Blankinship started the soccer program at Thomas MacLaren from scratch. The small, not-yet Colorado High School Activities Association-sanctioned charter school played just six games in its first two years of existence before jumping onto the CHSAA scene.

Flash forward three years, and the Highlanders surprised the state with a historic run to the Class 2A state championship. The team’s meteoric rise, led by Blankinship and the passionate Highlander community, inspired Blankinship’s selection as the 2021 Gazette Preps boys’ soccer Coach of the Year.

Q: How many years have you been coaching, any level?

DB: “I’ve been coaching for about five years with Thomas MacLaren, and officially three years of coaching in CHSAA. (Thomas MacLaren) was my first coaching job, I was a parent and I’ve been a big soccer person for forever, and my babies were there and I figured it was a good way to spend time with them.”

Q: What inspired you to become a coach?

DB: “It sounds corny, but I believe in Thomas MacLaren and what they are doing in terms of public charter schools. The best education is the best education for everybody. And between having my kids at the school and wanting to spend time with them, and to be able to do it at a place I believed in what they were doing, it was a no-brainer.”

Q: What is the biggest lesson you learned in your five years of coaching?

DB: “There’s a lot more involved in coaching than just being a fan or former player. So the dynamics and organization and thinking of the group of young people we are investing time into, I learned it takes a group of us to do it. I had a group of coaches who have been together for a while. Laura Shorey was one; we have kids of similar ages and we had to do it together. We think of it as, these are kids we love and we are invested in, and we want to see them flourish and soccer is the way to do that.”

Q: What was the most memorable moment from the 2021 season?

DB: “I think the most memorable moment for me was one day early in the season, we were talking about how grateful we were to be able to play in a COVID shortened season, and wanted to make the most of the time we had. My point of that talk was just to enjoy the time with them and take every practice and enjoy it, because everything on the schedule was tight and tough compared to normal years. But the senior leadership on the team stood up and said, ‘With all due respect, I think we could do something great, so let’s not focus on being good when we can be better than that.’ That was the moment the team started coaching themselves and took control of their destiny. I don’t know if they knew they would go to the state final, but they determined in their own hearts to make the most of every minute and they became great. And I knew they would be a force to be reckoned with in our game against Manitou Springs. We made a silly mistake and ended up losing 1-0, but at the time Manitou was ranked No. 6 in 3A, and that’s when I realized we could play with anybody.”

Q: What is a piece of advice you would give to underclassmen coming through your program?

DB: “I would say trust the process. We do sort of a brothers or sisters program where we make sure the upperclassmen are very deliberate in terms of mentoring and caring for the younger players. So if the players trust the upperclassmen and the coaching staff, it will make them better if they work hard and are coachable, and they will become very important contributors as the years go on.”

Q: What is your coaching cliché?

DB: “There are sort of two things I find myself saying. The first is, whether it is personnel or a soccer tactical issue, we want the players to learn how to coach themselves on the field, and not wait for me to do it. We want them to actively look to solve problems. And the second is, ‘We can do hard things.’ That sounds funny and silly, but when players are frustrated or in oxygen debt, we don’t get mad, we say, ‘It’s OK, we can do hard things here,’ and that really gives them a tool that says, 'I’m uncomfortable, and this is hard, but I can make this work.'”