Travis Blankenhorn sat and recollected about the past year.

He talked about his high school seasons in basketball and baseball and being selected in the third round (No. 80 overall) of the Major League Baseball Amateur Player Draft by the Minnesota Twins.

“It seems like so long ago,” the 19-year-old Pottsville resident joked.

Blankenhorn had a year to remember in 2015, from leading the Pottsville High basketball and baseball teams to Schuylkill League and District 11 championships to becoming the first baseball player from Schuylkill County to be drafted out of high school in 20 years.

His exploits — which include two Republican-Herald Player of the Year awards, two All-State selections, an All-America honor in baseball and national recognition — are The Republican-Herald’s 2015 Sports Story of the Year.

While there were a bevy of great individual and team stories in 2015 (see chronology, Page 16), Blankenhorn’s year in general was by far the No. 1 story on the Schuylkill County sports scene.

In fact, the 2015 Pottsville graduate was a part of arguably the top three sports stories of the year.

He was a major contributor to two of the best male sports seasons in Pottsville school history, then became the focus of sports fans across the county as MLB scouts flocked to see him play and watch his post-game batting practice sessions under the lights at Steidle Field.

For a look at Blankenhorn’s stellar year, let’s start at the beginning:

Crimson Tide return

to top in basketball

Pottsville entered the 2014-15 high school boys’ basketball season as the team to beat in the Schuylkill League, and the Crimson Tide didn’t disappoint.

Pottsville rolled through the regular season undefeated for the first time in program history, notching key non-league victories over Wilson West Lawn, Governor Mifflin, Salisbury, Williamsport, Shamokin and Berks Catholic while going 14-0 in Schuylkill League Division I play.

The Tide defeated Mahanoy Area 59-31 and Tamaqua 33-28 in overtime to win their fifth Schuylkill League crown in six years, then topped Blue Mountain 60-35, Tamaqua 50-35 and Allentown Central Catholic 57-47 to capture their first District 11 Class AAA crown since 2010.

Pottsville’s win streak reached 28 straight with a 63-37 rout of District 2 qualifier Valley View in the opening round of states before Susquehanna Township ended the Tide’s season with a 44-37 victory in the second round of the PIAA Class AAA Tournament.

Blankenhorn led the Tide in scoring with 482 points (16.6 ppg), 6.7 rebounds per game and 2.4 assists per game and finished second all-time in school history behind Nick Schlitzer (1,884) with 1,588 career points.

The 6-foot-2 forward was selected as The Republican-Herald Player of the Year for the second straight season and was named to the Associated Press All-State Class AAA third team.

“It was a special year for us,” Blankenhorn said of the basketball run. “It was the team we had. We were very good friends, we were close, we had good chemistry.

“It was very fun to go out and play every day. Coach (Dave) Mullaney coached us up very well and had us prepared for very game.”

Pottsville falls just

shy of baseball final

A University of Kentucky recruit and a preseason All-American, Blankenhorn entered the 2015 baseball season as one of five Schuylkill League Division I players who had already signed NCAA Division I letters of intent. Pottsville teammates Eli Nabholz (Penn State) and Connor Hinchliffe (LaSalle), Tamaqua’s Brett Kosciolek (Rider) and Blue Mountain’s Dean Stramara (Towson) were the others, while North Schuylkill’s Tevin Murray (Rutgers) signed this past fall.

Despite facing that bevy of talent and the superb quality of competition on a daily basis, Pottsville compiled an 11-1 league record, then downed Marian 8-2 and Blue Mountain 9-5 to capture its second straight Schuylkill League crown.

In the District 11 Class AAA playoffs, Pottsville rode the strong pitching of J.J. Spehrley and Nabholz to defeat Palmerton 8-0, Tamaqua 4-1 and Blue Mountain 6-1 to win the program’s first District 11 Class AAA title since 1998.

“Definitely winning a district championship was big. We wanted one of those billboards on the side of our field,” Blankenhorn said. “It was definitely our goal to start the year. Winning another Schuylkill League championship was also one, and we’re happy we did it.”

Blankenhorn was a big reason why. The shortstop/pitcher hit .441 (41-for-93) with 40 runs scored, six doubles, six triples, six home runs, 27 RBIs and 13 stolen bases. He was also hit by a pitch nine times, and had an on-base percentage of .544. He led the area in runs scored, hits, triples and homers, was sixth in batting averaged and third in RBIs behind Pottsville teammates Darion Jacoby and Nabholz.

He would later earn Republican-Herald All-Area Player of the Year and Pennsylvania Baseball Coaches’ Association All-State Class AAA honors.

Blankenhorn was already on the radar of MLB scouts before the season began, and as the season progressed those scouts came to see Blankenhorn for further evaluation.

What materialized were post-game batting practice sessions with a wooden bat for the scouts, both at Steidle Field and after the Schuylkill League playoffs in Pine Grove. Pottsville coach Mike Welsh would do the pitching, and Blankenhorn’s teammates would shag the balls in the outfield.

The sessions became must-see events for fans and players of other teams in Schuylkill County, with as many as 12 MLB scouts in attendance at one time.

During one session at Steidle Field, Blankenhorn crushed a pitch off a car parked on 16th Street. The car belonged to the Minnesota Twins scout that would eventually sign him.

“It was very fun, just having the whole county watch me hit after the games for these scouts,” Blankenhorn said. “My teammates were great to me during the whole process. They were definitely a big part.”

One door closes,

another one opens

Pottsville reached the PIAA Class AAA semifinals for the first time in school history with a 1-0 win over Spring Grove and a 2-1 victory over Twin Valley.

The Crimson Tide’s season ended at 23-5 with a heartbreaking, 4-3 loss to District 2 champion Abington Heights at Easton High School on June 8, the same day the Major League Baseball Amateur Player Draft began.

Blankenhorn wasn’t selected in the first two rounds of the draft, which were televised live that evening.

Moments after the third round began the next day, Blankenhorn saw and heard his name stream across the computer screen that he was selected by the Minnesota Twins with the 80th overall selection.

“It was a tough loss for us in the semifinals of states. I’m still upset a little bit about that,” Blankenhorn said. “At the end, I had to go home early, and I watched the draft that night. I didn’t get drafted, so I was just hoping that something would happen the next day.

“I was fortunate enough that I got picked pretty early the next day. It was overwhelming.”

Blankenhorn was the first area player to be selected out of high school since Dave Shinskie was taken in the fourth round (118th) by the Twins in 2003.

In the history of the draft, which dates back to 1965, the only Schuylkill County area players taken higher than Blankenhorn were Pottsville’s Chris Nabholz (No. 49, 1988, by Montreal) and Jeff Yoder (No. 63, 1995, by the Chicago Cubs) and Blue Mountain’s Lance Rautzhan (No. 57, 1970, by the Los Angeles Dodgers). All three of them were pitchers.

After consulting with his parents, Brian and Ann, and his advisor-now-agent Ryan Royster, Blankenhorn signed a rookie contract with a bonus of $650,000 with the Twins on June 18.

On to the pros

Blankenhorn reported directly to Fort Myers, Florida, where he played with the GCL Twins of the Gulf Coast League.

Primarily a third baseman, Blankenhorn hit .245 (12-for-49) with four doubles, two triples and three RBIs in 14 games with the GCL Twins before being promoted to short-season Elizabethton in the Appalachian League.

At Elizabethton, Blankenhorn hit .243 (35-for-144) with 14 runs scored, three doubles, three homers and 20 RBIs in 39 games.

“It was definitely an adjustment from high school, going from seeing high school pitching right down to Florida and seeing that kind of pitching,” Blankenhorn said. “That was one of the biggest adjustments.

“And living with different kids ... I lived with kids from all over the world. It was fun. They’re some of my greatest friends right now. I’ve lived with kids from Venezuela, the Dominican (Republic), Australia. It was a good learning experience.”

He said making the move from shortstop, which he played exclusively in high school, to third base, wasn’t a difficult one.

“Luckily, in the travel ball days I had some experience playing third,” Blankenhorn said. “It was a little adjustment. The balls come at you a lot faster. I got used to it.”

Blankenhorn’s season ended in September, and he returned to Pottsville for roughly two weeks. He went back to the Twins’ spring training complex in Fort Myers and participated in their Instructional League from Sept. 16 through Oct. 13. After another short stint at home, Blankenhorn participated in a three-week strength camp in Florida from Nov. 2-21.

“We worked out in the mornings, had a break for lunch, then played games in the afternoon,” Blankenhorn said of the Instructional League. “It was an invite-only thing for the top prospects from GCL through High-A. There were no major league guys there. The strength camp was all lifting, no baseball.”

Blankenhorn’s next step is to report to the Twins’ spring training complex Feb. 28. He’ll compete in the minor league camp, with a hopeful destination of Low-A Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in the Midwest League.

Williams Valley’s Tyler Herb, a 2014 draft pick of the Seattle Mariners, pitched for Beloit in the Midwest League this past summer.

“I won’t know (where I’m going) until camp,” Blankenhorn said. “Hopefully, it’s Cedar Rapids, Iowa. That’s full-season Low-A.”