Lexie Blair and a turnaround hinged on confidence

Tuesday, March 10, 2020 - 7:41pm

Sophomore outfielder Lexie Blair has had to learn what it takes to handle a slump.

Sophomore outfielder Lexie Blair has had to learn what it takes to handle a slump. Buy this photo
Alec Cohen/Daily

Todd LaNeave had a question. 

It was the 2017 FHSAA Class 9A Florida softball state championship game and LaNeave’s West Orange team was locked in a scoreless pitchers duel with Palm Harbor. With one out in the bottom of the sixth inning, West Orange’s most prolific hitter, outfielder Lexie Blair, was due up.

LaNeave trusted his pitchers to keep Palm Harbor’s offense at bay through the next few frames. All his team needed to take home the title, he believed, was a run of its own. 

Starved for a baserunner to put the offense into motion, LaNeave pulled Blair aside and posed the question: Want to bunt? 

Asking a .500 hitter like Blair to drop down a bunt defies convention. In her first two at-bats, though, Blair looked far from her usual self. Each time she rolled over the top of the ball, weakly grounding out to first. Her tremendous speed, meanwhile, made bunting an appealing option — not only could she beat the bunt out, but also steal second to get into scoring position. 

Bunting, in that sense, presented itself as the easy choice for a scuffling player. 

But Blair never considered it. 

“I was kinda laughing on the inside,” Blair recalled. “I was like, ‘No, I’ll get it done.’ I was confident.”

Steady and self-assured amid the stakes of the moment, Blair stepped to the plate to make good on her word. She stroked the pitch into the right-center field gap for a triple. On the next play, she tagged up on a fly ball, bringing home what would prove to be the game-winning run.

“I’ll always remember that brief conversation I had with her,” LaNeave said. “She goes, ‘Coach, I can do this. I’ll extend through one.’ And then she does.”

Blair has long possessed a steadfast belief in her own ability, the confidence she showed in this moment being an attribute she has rarely lacked. 

This season, though, has marked a trying junction. The challenging first month to Blair’s sophomore season at Michigan has revealed her inner confidence to be truly indispensable. 

***

At the beginning of the season, Michigan softball coach Carol Hutchins spoke candidly about how Blair would handle expectations in her second go-around as a Wolverine. 

“Sometimes, it’s just like, ‘I was really good last year and now I’m supposed to be good,’ ” Hutchins said. “They put a lot of pressure on themselves. They get caught up and they’re not in the moment. You know, she’s not going to be a secret when we face other teams now.”

As a freshman, Blair wasn’t necessarily a secret either — it’s hard to hide when you’re batting at a .406 clip. But, by batting in the three-spot, she had the luxury of hitting behind two potent seniors in Faith Canfield and Natalie Peters. Last year, the opposition’s gameplan centered around containing Canfield and Peters. This year, it was bound to revolve around Blair. 

The transition, 13 games into the 2020 season, wasn’t going swimmingly. Blair was struggling, her batting average having dipped to a sluggish .175 following an 0-for-10 stretch. She lost her claim to the leadoff spot, tumbling down to eighth in the batting order for Michigan’s game against Liberty on Feb. 23. 

“She’s having a cold spell,” Hutchins said two days later. “It’s a hard thing. I think she’s struggled with that, trying to find her way out of it. It’s really common for a kid who has only known success when, at some point, the expectations become greater than the actual performance. Basically, for lack of a better term, it gets in her head. And she’ll tell ya, ‘I’m in my head.’ So she’s got to get her mind cleared out.”

In Blair’s case, as someone who found unprecedented success as a freshman and hit north of the .500 mark all four years of high school, prolonged cold spells are foreign. But she knew that emerging from this slump first required repairing her confidence — which has been “a little up and down this year.”

She’s not shy about admitting this, in part because she knows the importance of its maintenance. Confidence has always been intertwined with her performance. 

***

When Blair was a freshman at West Orange, the school had an oversized student population, making tryouts for any varsity sport uber-competitive. First-years going out for the softball team found the coveted spots even harder to come by; LaNeave, based on prior experiences, believed freshmen were better suited for the junior varsity squad.

Blair knew she belonged at the varsity level and quickly proved so, LaNeave describing her as “like a rockstar.” Bypassing JV, though, meant Blair again found herself in an unfavorable situation. The first five years of her softball career were played out alongside lifelong friends. Now she would be the youngest on a team of predominantly unknown upperclassmen, seasoned veterans in the circuit, who were two, three years older than she. 

Blair set out once more to prove her worth to teammates and coaches alike, jostling for playing time. She went about her work modestly and patiently, but not without her backbone. 

“I didn’t really learn what her personality was like yet, to realize that she was just a quiet person,” LaNeave said. “I later learned it wasn’t because she was nervous or because she didn’t think she could hang. That wasn’t it at all.”

As a bench player, in-game opportunities were scarce. Yet whether it be a call to pinch hit or pinch run, Blair attacked every assignment with an unwavering confidence that she could deliver. She made the most of every chance she was given and, by the seasons 13th game, had cemented a spot in the starting lineup. 

With the premium of a starter’s designation, so too came a greater spotlight and high-pressure situations. 

None of it fazed Blair. 

“There were times where I would ask her after the fact, ‘Were you nervous?’ ” LaNeave said. “And she’d say, ‘Oh yeah, definitely.’ Well, she didn’t show it. She just has a certain level of confidence about her. Whenever she had an opportunity or the team needed her to come through, she always seemed to come through.

“She never looked like she didn’t want to be in that situation. She just carried herself with this confidence that, ‘OK, my team needs me here and I can get this done.’ There’s not many of those like her.”

Saying that Blair is immune to nerves would be naive. All athletes, at any level, fight bouts of nervous energy, and she is no exception. What separates the most successful ones from the rest of the pack is an ability to subdue any unease, not allowing it to impact performance. Blair has worked that serenity into her routine seamlessly. 

“Personally, I feel like if I’m not nervous, then something’s wrong with me,” Blair said. “I feel like nerves are a good thing to have, just sort of normal. Typically, when I’m not in my head, I just kinda push the nerves aside and try to be present, try to come through in the moment.”

During her four-year stint at West Orange, Blair amassed a reputation as a clutch player. In the regional championship as a freshman, she homered to snap a scoreless tie. A year later, she drove in the only two runs of the game on a single. A year after that, she doubled in the only runs of the game. Then two games later in the state championship, she hit the triple. 

“I don’t know what it is about me, I just feel like if I’m getting too high then that makes me anxious,” Blair said. I just feel like staying calm is what helps me do well under pressure. And I enjoy being under pressure, because I like producing for my team.”

In high school, while a decorated player, Blair hadnt faced adversity brought about by situations like prolonged slumps. College, though knocked on the doorstep. The next step in her softball career eventually figured to include roadblocks that would test her confidence in the process. 

***

When she enrolled at Michigan, Blair left behind her high school eminence and again readied to start anew, the same worries resurfacing to stare her in the face. How would she fit in as a newcomer on a veteran-laden team? How would she acclimate to the higher-level competition? Beyond softball, she had other adjustments to fret about — transitioning from high school to college is a beast in its own right.

Thrust into a cauldron of apprehension, Blair relied on what got her this far in the first place. 

“I just didn’t want to make it bigger than what it was,” she said. “That was just my mindset. I didn’t want to be so anxious about things like overpowering pitchers. I’ve swung a bat for 10 years now. Eventually I’ll catch up.”

It didn’t take long. 

Blair got into Michigan’s batting order for the season opener and never left it, becoming an All-Big Ten First Team selection. She was the first Michigan freshman in over two decades to hit .400. She led the Wolverines in hits, doubles and RBI. All the while, her confidence not once fluctuated drastically, largely remaining steady from the beginnings of nonconference play into the NCAA regional. 

Success, though, can be a double-edged sword. The bar would be raised for the encore, Blair’s sophomore season, which is where the most admirable aspect of Blair’s confidence comes into play.

Her confidence is just that — nothing more. It’s genuine and not cocky, unaccompanied by brashness or arrogance, which lends itself to a certain self-awareness. When Blair needs help, she recognizes it, and isn’t hesitant to seek it out. 

Immersed in her slump, Blair did just that. In mid-February, she picked up the phone and sought the advice of a former teammate and mentor. 

“I thought that just showed great initiative,” Hutchins said. “She just understands what she needs to do to manage this. You can talk to her and she doesn’t go, ‘Ugh, somebody’s telling me what to do.’ She works hard. She’s a positive kid. She’s grateful for her opportunity and boy, I’ll take a kid like that anyday.”

Blair didn’t stop at the phone call. She worked tirelessly with the coaching staff to tweak her swing. She consulted teammates and mentors alike for tips on the mental side of slumps, absorbing advice like a sponge. On her own, she took extra cuts in the batting cage. 

Slowly, she began to see tangible results. At the Judi Garman Classic the weekend of Feb. 28, she registered nine hits and four doubles across the five game slate, finding her footing in the two-hole. It was a performance punctuated by a four-hit game against No. 25 Texas Tech. Last weekend, she continued her turnaround with six hits in five games, raising her average up to .293. 

The extra efforts seemed to be paying dividends. At the end of the day, getting her season back on track depended on a resurrection of her confidence. Everyone knew it. 

“You don’t have to hit well to believe in yourself,” Hutchins said. “You just have to believe in yourself.”

For Blair, the yourself is especially important. Amid her struggles, she never pressed to rediscover her freshman-year self. Nor did she try to replicate the lost production of Canfield and Peters. 

“That was all last year,” Blair said. “If you’re trying to fill someone’s shoes, you’re just putting extra pressure on yourself. You just need to be yourself and make a name for your own.

“You just kinda focus back, tell yourself who you are.”

Who is Lexie Blair? At her best, she is the high school junior who chuckled when LaNeave raised the possibility of bunting. She’s the hitter who strode to the dish assured and composed, who erased any doubt aroused by prior struggles and smacked a triple.

Because when Blair is herself, she is confident. For her, confidence has always been, and will continue to be, the key to everything.