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West Orange Times & Observer Thursday, Feb. 1, 2018 2 years ago

West Orange softball standout Lexie Blair comes full circle | Observer Preps

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A four-year starter for the West Orange softball team, Lexie Blair has grown from a wide-eyed freshman on the varsity squad to a senior leader for the Warriors.
by: Steven Ryzewski Senior Sports Editor

WINTER GARDEN One would never know it by watching her on the field, but Lexie Blair does get nervous.

In fact, the way the senior outfielder for the West Orange softball team tells it, she gets a certain degree of nerves before almost every game.

But if one were to judge only by Blair’s performance — a varsity career that has seen her deliver, time and again, in big spots — it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think nothing can rattle the local teen.

As a freshman, she hit a solo home run in the regional championship against Hagerty. A year later in the regional championship — this time on the road at Spruce Creek — her two-run single drove in the only runs of a win that would send the Warriors back to the Final Four for the first time since 2013. Two games later, West Orange had won a state title.

Seemingly like clockwork, Blair again delivered in the 2017 regional championship — again against Spruce Creek, but in Winter Garden. The then-junior doubled in the only runs of the game.

Two games later, in the 2017 FHSAA Class 9A State Championship, Blair led off the sixth inning of a scoreless game with a triple. Morgan Arcia drove her in on a sacrifice fly, scoring the only run in a game that made the Warriors back-to-back champs.

Given all of that, Blair’s own admission that she was so nervous she was shaking in left field during the final half-inning of that state final might come as a surprise. But then, Lexie Blair isn’t impervious to high-pressure moments, so much as she is really good at taking them in stride.

“I’m always nervous,” Blair says, laughing. “I’m nervous before games — it’s just how I am. But I don’t let the nerves get into my head. Whenever I tend to overthink, that’s when I do bad. … I’ve always had the tendency to be really humble and calm. That’s what’s made me successful in those kinds of situations.”

Now, on the eve of her senior season, the standout outfielder and University of Michigan signee is excited for one last go-round in West Orange blue-and-orange.

 

Early omen

Perhaps the person who is most surprised by the success of Lexie Blair, the softball player, would be Lexie Blair — or, at least, the 9-year-old version of herself. 

That’s because when her mother, Krissy Strong, signed Blair up for softball at age 10, it was a complete surprise.

The real surprise came two years later, though, when Blair was part of the Windermere Little League Softball team that went to the 2012 Little League Softball World Series. That remarkable run would prove to be a fitting entry point for a career that has now seen two appearances in state championship games — with hopes for a third and a Big 10 college career on the horizon.

“As a 12-year-old, you’re on TV, so you’re excited and you don’t really know what the environment is like,” Blair said. “I think I was way more nervous with high school, because it was just a different level of competition. I knew I was ready for it, but being with girls that were three or four years older than me, I think that was the slightly nerve-wracking part.”

“I sprinkled in her opportunities. Every time she got an opportunity — especially at the plate — she came up with a hit. … She always seemed to excel.”

Blair’s coach throughout her career at West Orange, Todd LaNeave, likely sensed as much from his quiet freshman with bunches of talent. So, during the 2015 season, he and his staff slowly integrated her into games — a pinch-hitting opportunity here, an inning out on the field there.

Thing is, every time they did that, Blair did something impressive.

“I sprinkled in her opportunities,” LaNeave said. “Every time she got an opportunity — especially at the plate — she came up with a hit. … She always seemed to excel.”

Roughly 15 games into that season, which ended with the regional final loss to Hagerty, Blair had become a freshman starter for one of the best softball teams in the country.

 

Role model in center

Luckily for Blair, she didn’t have to look far for a role model — she only had to glance to centerfield.

Jade Caraway, a 2016 West Orange alumna who is now a sophomore standout at North Carolina State, was also a starter for the Warriors as a freshman. 

Although the two don’t necessarily look alike — Caraway is a tad taller — their playing styles have some eerie similarities: range and athleticism roaming the outfield, speed on the basepaths, dynamic hitters who have high batting averages.

“There’s a size difference, as far as height, but the way they both play the game — you can’t ask for anything more than that,” LaNeave said.

The two outfielders won a state championship together in 2016, and Blair says she gravitated toward the enthusiasm and work ethic Caraway brought to the game.

“(Caraway) taught me everything … I really looked up to her,” Blair said. “Her work ethic — everyday at practice she’d always give 100%. You’d see her diving all around the place.”

Blair and Caraway shared a chemistry in the outfield that was present elsewhere on the roster, also. In fact, as a two-time state champion, chemistry is something Blair highlights about those 2016 and 2017 squads.

“My thing is, when I join a team, I get a feel for how I’m going to be with each girl,” Blair said. “I’m really big on team-chemistry. I’ve grown up with these girls a majority of my life and I’m comfortable being around them.”

 

Final round

Last fall, Blair signed a National Letter of Intent to play her college softball for the University of Michigan. She chose the Wolverines from a long line of suitors, in part because of her family’s ties to the area.

“I have a ton of family from there — my mom’s side of the family is from there,” Blair said. “Touring the campus, I’m really into big schools and the atmosphere is just amazing. The feeling I got was just like ‘OK, this could be my next home.’”

Family, of course, has been a big part of Blair’s success — dating back to her unexpected entry into the game.

“My mom has been my biggest supporter since the start,” Blair said. “She kind of just threw me in (softball) and ever since she’s been the biggest supporter. My family didn’t understand softball, but they took the time to learn it and understand it.”

“My mom has been my biggest supporter since the start. ... My family didn’t understand softball, but they took the time to learn it and understand it.”

Blair’s senior season will begin with a damper, though. During the offseason, she had surgery on her right foot, and Blair likely will be out until around spring break.

“I honestly think it’s bittersweet being in your senior year and being injured,” Blair said. “I’m not going to let it me hold me back, still — I’m going to keep a positive mindset for when I do heal.”

When Blair comes back, and how quickly she can get back up to speed, remains to be seen — as does whether this year’s Warriors can surprise observers by again being competitive on the state level after the graduation of some key seniors from the 2017 team.

What is a good bet, though, is that whenever Blair does return to the field this spring, it’ll be for the conclusion of a remarkable varsity career.

“(Blair) has led the team in (batting) average every year that she’s played here — even as a freshman,” LaNeave said. “She’s always been in the top two or three in RBIs, hits, stolen bases. … I don’t know if somebody will come along like that again.”

Steven Ryzewski was the Senior Sports Editor for the West Orange Times & Observer and Southwest Orange Observer....

See All Articles by Steven

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