Seventh inning. Bases loaded. Two outs. A national championship on the line.
Tera Blanco and the Firecrackers — a travel team coached by her dad, Jeff — were playing for the U-16 national title. Blanco, then a high school freshman, had pitched a nine-inning complete game the day before to send her team to the finals.
Blanco was the best pitcher on the team, but it was another girl’s turn to start. Instead, she was the designated player. But Jeff told his daughter to be ready. If trouble struck, they would need her.
“She’d come in from the bullpen,” Jeff said. “She’d be in the other end of the dugout and she’d just be throwing the ball into her glove, popping the glove really hard, just kind of staying loose.
“But it also kind of looked like letting me know, ‘Hey, I’m ready. Anytime you need me, I’m ready to go in.’ ”
And indeed, he needed her. The bases were juiced in the bottom of the seventh and suddenly, the game — and the glory — hung in the balance.
The time had come. Blanco stood in the circle, fired and got the final out like there was nothing to it.
The Firecrackers were national champions.
It was par for the course for a player seemingly born ready for the moment. And when that moment came, one thing was certain — she would savor every bit of it.
You won’t find a lot of Michigan fans in Huntington Beach, Calif., but the Blancos were an exception. Jeff’s grandfather was from Michigan and raised him a die-hard fan, so it was only natural that his daughters also grew up cheering for the Wolverines. Blanco would wake up early Saturday mornings and turn on the football games — that is, when she didn’t have softball.
The Blancos caught the softball bug early. Kayla — born in 1993 — began playing first, and Tera — born in 1996 — decided she wanted to play too. By the age of four, she was playing t-ball and by five she had started softball. By six, she was taking pitching lessons.
“She was always trying to stay on pace with her older sister,” Jeff said. “ … She was always very competitive.”
And for Jeff — who got into coaching because he wanted to be involved with his daughters’ softball careers — the natural next step was to introduce his girls to Michigan softball. Luckily, the Wolverines played annually in the Judi Garman Classic, a tournament in nearby Fullerton, Calif. Jeff took them to watch every year.
In 2005, when Blanco was nine, she watched as the team she had started to love became the first from a cold-weather climate to ever win the Women’s College World Series.
It wasn’t long before Blanco had the opportunity to keep pace with her sister. Sometimes, Kayla’s travel team would be missing a player, so Jeff turned to his other daughter to fill in. It didn’t matter that she was three years younger.
After all, competition had always fueled Blanco, and this was no exception. Had she not been so tiny, no one would have known anything was out of the ordinary. But that’s the thing. She was small, so everyone knew. And that made her all the more impressive.
During one game, Blanco stood in left field as a high fly ball carried towards the corner. She tracked the ball, laid out and made the diving catch like there was nothing to it.
The umpire took off his mask and applauded.
It wasn’t a surprise that the teams Blanco played on had so much success — not just because of her talent at both pitching and hitting, but because she was a natural leader, even then.
The accolades racked up. The national championship with the Firecrackers. A national runner-up the following year. Back-to-back league championships at Marina High School.
“The kids looked up to her from minute one,” said Michelle Spencer, a former assistant coach at Marina. “She really was the person that everyone on the field looked up to. And that’s hard sometimes, as a kid, to deal with that. But she handled it so well.”
Lots of colleges would have clamored for a player like Blanco, as she was one of the top two-way players in the country.
But she was set on Michigan.
That’s the irony of it. This was California, a state home to several powerhouse programs — in fact, at least one school from the state has advanced to the Women’s College World Series all but four years that Blanco has been alive. But those schools couldn’t have her.
“She walked into us as a freshman and said, ‘I’m going to Michigan,’ ” Spencer said. “ … She was dead set on Michigan from the moment I met her.”
The adamancy makes sense. Blanco, after all, had seen the team ascend to the highest levels. She had autographs from her favorite Wolverines and a picture with Michigan coach Carol Hutchins and former star right-hander Jordan Taylor hanging at home. One of her coaches had even alerted Hutchins to her existence.
“He contacted us and said, ‘We’ve got this kid and she always wears Michigan stuff, and you should look at her because she’s pretty good,’” Hutchins said.
Hutchins’ own evaluation confirmed the recommendation. She wanted Blanco primarily as a pitcher, albeit one that would also hit. Blanco insisted she wanted to play shortstop when she wasn’t in the circle.
Eventually, she relented — first base would be her position when she wasn’t pitching — but it only further proved what Hutchins already knew: Blanco was a competitor, exactly the kind of player she was looking for.
Blanco got her offer freshman year. She remains one of the youngest players Hutchins has ever recruited. But before she committed, Jeff insisted that Blanco visit campus in the winter, when freezing temperatures and swirling snow would be in full force.
“My dad wanted to know if I could handle the cold and everything,” Blanco said. “ … I was able to handle it.”
She never had a doubt.
That was Blanco, attacking every challenge handed to her — whether it was playing against girls three years older, securing a national championship or surviving the frozen tundra of a Michigan January. She joined the Wolverines knowing she wouldn’t necessarily be the main attraction. This was, after all, a team with three All-Americans in outfielder Sierra Lawrence, right-hander Megan Betsa and second baseman Sierra Romero. But that didn’t deter her. Instead, she fed off the competition.
“The environment was super competitive, and I think that’s what made our team really great,” Blanco said. “And we had great leaders that pushed — I don’t even think they knew if they were leading or not — but just pushing the team with their athletic ability. … Just coming to the field and (thinking) ‘Oh, I gotta reach this standard that they’re at.’ ”
In part, she did just that. She immediately earned the starting first base job and ran with it, starting 64 of the Wolverines’ 68 games there. But she wasn’t the two-way star who had dazzled coaches, parents and umpires alike, as an arm injury limited her to just five appearances in the circle.
“She really had taken some steps back,” Hutchins said. “We had to let her heal and then build her back. … And it took a couple years to get her back.”
It was frustrating for an athlete accustomed to being one of the best. But it added fuel to her fire.
Blanco’s sophomore year, she exploded as one of the top first basemen in the country. She finished the season in the top 25 nationally in on-base percentage and garnered an All-America First Team nod, helping lead Michigan to a 52-7 record. On the mound, she still wasn’t quite the player she had been, but she began getting starts and putting it together.
She had always been a player who injected her personality into the game, and it shined through on the field and off it.
Blanco and then-catcher Lauren Connell both loved SpongeBob. So they gave her changeup a name: the leedle, after a scene where Patrick continuously yells the phrase “leedle leedle leedle lee.” It stuck, becoming a joke among the rest of the team.
“It’s kind of a weird changeup, so they call it a leedle,” said junior catcher Katie Alexander. “ … We actually got (pitching coach) Jen (Brundage) Patrick glasses one year for a coach’s gift.”
That’s Blanco, a player who finds success by letting loose. This is an athlete as fierce as she is fun-loving, as confident as she is relaxed. It’s a lethal combination.
“She’s more of like, the goofy first baseman,” said senior utility player Aidan Falk, who plays first base when Blanco is on the mound. “She brings a lot of personality to the field. And then, I love playing first base when she’s pitching because I just talk to her the whole time … she definitely has a more spunky (attitude).”
That attitude was the key to her breakout. She approached every at-bat with a swagger that struck fear into the hearts and minds of pitchers everywhere, and for good reason, given how often she practically launched the ball into orbit.
Sometimes, that swagger even intimidated her teammates.
“There’s a … couple of us on the team (who) when we were first freshmen (thought) ‘Wow, Tera, I didn’t think you liked me when I met you,’ ” Alexander said. “ … You were just so scared because you thought she hated you.”
But they were wrong. Blanco is the player who brings the team into a huddle and checks to make sure everyone is having fun. She’s the player who jokes around with her teammates mid-game. She’s the player who named her changeup after a cartoon.
“A lot of our team is just, we get so caught up in the outcome,” said senior designated player Amanda Vargas. “ … She can help us dial it back.”
In Michigan’s first game of the 2016 Women’s College World Series, the game was scoreless through five innings. Blanco stepped to the plate with the bases loaded. Do or die time.
She smacked a double to right field. The Wolverines wound up winning, 2-0.
Perhaps she was already the player she had looked up to just the year before: leading not through conscious effort, but through her athletic feats and infectious enthusiasm for the game alike.
But the very competitiveness that makes Blanco great can also be her biggest downfall. She holds herself to such a high standard that sometimes even she can forget her fun-loving philosophy.
“Like any player, she can second-guess herself, and it’s hard,” Jeff said. “ … Sometimes if things aren’t going perfect, she can get a little bit frustrated.”
And that was the story of her junior year.
In her first season as a full two-way player, Blanco had a .460 on-base percentage and a 2.30 earned-run average. She was named to the All-Big Ten First Team and the All-Great Lakes Region First Team. It sounds like a success, but for Blanco, it was a slump.
She slugged just .475, nearly a 300-point drop from the year before. Her batting average and on-base percentage also plummeted. And her pitching stats, while good, belied her status as a can’t-miss prospect.
“I think that maybe why my stats and everything went down last year is I just probably wasn’t in the right mindset,” Blanco said at the beginning of the season. “ … I think that I was just thinking too much at the plate.”
But her dad knew her better than anyone. He knew she had bigger things in her. He knew her swagger was contagious. And he knew he had just the right medicine.
So he sent her video of the majestic home runs and ringing doubles of her sophomore year. It reminded her that she was still that girl.
Technically speaking, Jeff stopped being Blanco’s coach after her freshman year of high school, but in reality, he never stopped coaching her.
He made his way to as many games as he could. Not just the Judi Garman Classic, but games all over the country, from Ann Arbor to Boca Raton. Now that she’s a senior, he has plans to attend all but 10.
Jeff sends his daughter a text before every game letting her know he loves her, wishing her luck and offering motivation. He’ll be the first to acknowledge that he’s her number one fan.
And now, he coaches a new crop of young softball players, but he constantly thinks of Blanco. He peruses video of professional ballplayers and motivational speakers. He wonders if it might help one of his players. Then he wonders if it might help his daughter.
“If I see something in her game that maybe she’s not having success with or she might be struggling with or trying to get better at, and I see some video or piece of information, I’ll send that to her,” Jeff said. “ … Just, ‘Hey, take a look at this, see what you think, you know, might be enough to put you in the right frame of mind.’ ”
After her games, Blanco and Jeff often hang out and relax in the hotel. They talk about — what else? — softball. Then, they go out to dinner. Blanco loves sushi. Jeff’s not a fan of it, but he takes her anyway.
Blanco’s magnetic personality coupled with her unparalleled work ethic and her dad’s influence always created the perfect recipe for a leader. But now she has the final ingredient: Experience.
“She’s always been really confident in her game, but her confidence continually grows,” Falk said. “She’s definitely taken the role of kind of like, the caretaker for the younger girls. … She really is like, ‘Hey, this is what you’re doing, this is what you’ve gotta do,’ and it’s good to have, like, another perspective as well as the coach’s.”
In the circle, the spotlight is off Blanco. Instead, it’s focused directly on freshman left-hander Meghan Beaubien, the young phenom heralded as the one to fill Betsa’s shoes. Blanco’s role is subtler.
With Betsa graduated, the role as the leader of the pitching staff is Blanco’s. Now more than ever, it’s a vital responsibility, since the other two pitchers — Beaubien and right-hander Sarah Schaefer — are freshmen. Blanco knows what it’s like to come to college and struggle before finding your place. She, herself, is evidence that it’s a lesson even the best of freshmen need to learn.
“She definitely gave (the freshmen) a perspective of what it was like freshman year,” Vargas said, “because you can either come in and you play scared and afraid because you don’t know what it’s gonna be like as a freshman, or, I’m positive she gave them the outlook of just come, give your best, and really just … go full force. There’s really nothing to lose at this point.”
Of course, Blanco is no slouch herself in the circle, sporting a 1.36 ERA. And her experience playing both ways informs the advice she gives her teammates. She talks softball with the coaches, and sometimes they even go to her to help develop a game plan.
“Tera has some of the best softball IQ that I’ve ever had on my team,” Hutchins said. “Her softball savvy is up there with anybody’s. She just understands the game.”
And Blanco’s been through it all — the highs and the lows. She was always well-versed in the physical aspects of softball. Now she knows the mental ones, too.
“They go from being girls with potential to women with no limits,” Hutchins said. “And that’s her.”
On March 1, Blanco was back at the tournament she grew up attending. It was her last Judi Garman Classic as a player, the end of an era. Her family, of course, was there too.
Because it was spring break, the team had spent nine days together on the road, traveling from Texas to California. Before the tournament, many of the local players had gone home. Not Blanco. Instead, she took the rest of the team to Huntington Beach and served as their unofficial tour guide. After all, her teammates had become a second family.
In the first game against Loyola Marymount, the offensive woes that had plagued Michigan the whole season — and really, going back to last year — had returned in full force. Beaubien allowed a two-run home run in the second inning. The Wolverines responded with a whimper.
But Blanco single-handedly changed the trajectory of the game and, with it, the tournament.
In the bottom of the fifth inning with a runner on third and Michigan trailing, 2-1, she dug in at the plate and ripped a single down the left field line. The game was tied.
Then, in the bottom of the seventh, she stepped up again with runners on first and second and the prospect of extra innings looming. She lofted a line drive into the right center gap to walk off the Wolverines.
Perhaps it was no coincidence that after the tournament, several players noted a difference that weekend: they were looser, freer, having more fun.
It was just one of many finite moments Blanco will now experience as her collegiate career comes to a close.
There comes a point in a college athlete’s career when everything turns into a last. Her last year becomes her last game becomes her last hurrah.
And for Blanco, it’s her last season of living her dream. Ever since she was the little left fielder making acrobatic catches, her dream was to play softball for Michigan. And now, with the clock running down, there’s no better time to put last year behind her and show the world who Tera Blanco really is.
“I wanna win everything that we can this year,” Blanco said. “ … I wanna be a Big Ten champ, Big Ten Tournament champ, and just keep winning.”
But the fact that Blanco’s dream has already come true doesn’t mean it’s all over. Just as most people dream multiple times per night before waking up and snapping back to reality, this season won’t be the end for Blanco and the game she loves.
“I definitely wanna stay within softball,” she said. “Maybe give lessons, coach, that kinda stuff.”
Because that’s Blanco, who’s always led with her knowledge, her confidence, her personality. It seems only natural that coaching is the next step.
After all, for Blanco, it doesn’t matter what the question is. Softball is the answer.