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Area Basketball: Blender ‘overwhelmed' by IBCA honor

By Barry McNamara / courtesy of The Register-Mail/Jan 11, 2020 

Raritan- Some of Jay Blender's earliest sports memories occurred in, of all places, the Raritan Opera House. Growing up, Blender was given the key to the building and its basketball court by Raritan's village board. He'd hoist shot after shot, not ending some sessions until he'd made 25 straight free throws.

At his home not far from that very same building, Blender reflected on the memory and many others from his 35-year coaching career – a career that was to be recognized May 2, 2020 at Redbird Arena in Normal last year, was finally done on August 28, 2021 last week when he was inducted into the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame.

"It's overwhelming," said a clearly emotional Blender. "I had no idea. My wife came down to my man cave and said ‘You've got to see this.' Someone had posted something about it on Facebook."

Blender was a varsity boys basketball coach at his high school alma mater, Southern, where he led the Rebels for 16 years, and for one year at West Central. He also coached Union High School's varsity girls for three years before leading the West Central girls team for eight seasons. He retired in 2016.

Including junior high teams, Blender coached 521 wins, with 401 coming as a varsity head coach, including his final win, a regional championship at West Central. Eighty-six of those high school wins – against just 25 losses – were posted by a talented group of Southern boys from 2001-04. Several other victories came from his 1999 Southern girls team, which took third place in the IESA's 8A state tournament. The achievement, marked by a large green and white metal road sign that hangs in his garage, was accomplished alongside his daughter, Brandy, who played on the team.

(See: Blender-Hall of Fame- pg. 12)

"Without sports, I probably wouldn't have made it through high school," said Blender, who received all-state recognition as an offensive tackle and linebacker for strong Southern football teams coached by Will Bavery and for Rebel basketball teams coached by Richard Clifton, who gave Blender even more valuable court time by regularly opening the gym. Both men influenced his coaching style, as did his Monmouth College football coach, Bill Reichow.

"You knew what he stood for and what you needed to do," said Blender of playing for Reichow.

The same could be said for Blender, who said he preached his five basketball principles so often that most of his players should still remember them today. For those who need a refresher, Blender stressed shot discipline, team defense, low turnovers and free throws. At the top of those principles, though, is this: "Have fun, and laugh."

Blender said the principles were needed in large part due to the variation in talent that small schools like Southern and Union would experience.

"There may be years that you don't have a lot of kids who can put the ball in the hoop," he said. "So playing team defense and valuing the basketball on offense were really important."

In fact, Blender named a team that went 4-19 as one of the favorites he's coached. It was his 1994 Southern boys squad, which had "a lot of sophomores and no seniors. They worked their butts off, and then they had a lot of success those next two years."

Blender enjoyed that era and the years immediately before it, when the Bi-County Conference was in its heyday.

"Back then, you thought having to go Avon was a far trip. So a lot of the players had friends and relatives at the other schools, and there were a lot of great rivalries. There were a lot of great coaches, too, like Mel Casper, Jeff Houston, Galen Noard and (fellow 2020 IBCA inductee) Jeff Parsons."

As he reflected on his career, Blender also saluted the contributions of his wife and a longtime friend, Monte Klossing, who kept the basketball scorebook for 24 years.

"She was fantastic as someone to always have your back," Blender said of his wife, Rhonda. "She never complained all those times I'd go to open the gym for my players."

Blender said the IBCA honor has "made me reflect on a lot of things I hadn't thought of for a while – not only the kids that I coached, but the good parents I had to work with and good administrations.

"For a small community, I think this shows what hard work can do."

Retired Coach Jay Blender, of Raritan, who coached in schools in Henderson County, was inducted into the Class of 2020 IBCA Hall of Fame at Bloomington Normal Red Bird Arena on Saturday night, August 28th.

The award was presented by Neil Alexander IBCA Coach of the Year.