BUCKHANNON -- Buckhannon native Leah Blend is the true "Hometown Hero" of the West Virginia Wesleyan volleyball team.
The 6'1" senior middle hitter is among the team leaders with 91 blocks, and also contributed 195 kills.
Blend is not only a force at the net, but also a team leader on Coach Nancy Wheeler's inaugural Bobcat squad. Through last weekend's games, the team is currently tied for seventh in the Mountain East Conference and still in contention for a playoff berth.
Blend has been a big reason for the team's resurgence. This is a fact not lost on Coach Wheeler.
"I would love to have five or six Leah Blends on my roster...it would make my life a lot easier," Wheeler said. "She is a hard worker, a respectful kid, and is a good 'team' player for our program."
Blend is a tried and true local...a "townie" as B-U grads are referred to at Wesleyan. She attended Academy Elementary which is on the same street as Wesleyan. At Buckhannon-Upshur Middle School, Blend was a standout in volleyball, basketball, and track. In high school, she narrowed her focus to the sports of volleyball and tennis...but it was the sport of volleyball where she found her niche.
Playing for Coach Sheena Westfall, Blend was twice named All-Big 10 Conference, and was twice named Class AAA First Team All-State. Her height and athleticism began to make her a force at the net, and was also drawing interest from recruiters.
Initially, she wanted to branch out and leave Buckhannon. Blend took recruiting trips to Shepherd, Fairmont, and Westminster. But after visiting Wesleyan, she narrowed her choices to two; Westminster and Wesleyan. In the end, the hometown won out as Blend signed with former head coach Jackie Hinton.
"There are some tremendous advantages to going to school in your hometown," Blend conceded. "You get to see your parents, get your laundry done, and get some home-cooked meals. I get to see people I know and I see high school friends when I am out in Buckhannon, but when I am on campus it is still like I am away at school. Wesleyan is like its own little world that is separate from Buckhannon."
As a freshman, Blend was not in the team's rotation, and only appeared in one game. Her sophomore year, she saw some spot action under new head coach Ashley Ziegle. By her junior year, she was a regular and began to produce.
During the 2016 season, Blend was third on the team with 58 blocks, and fourth with 83 kills. When Coach Ziegle departed for Salem International and Wesleyan hired Wheeler, Blend also ascended into the role of leader.
"It is not easy to push teammates sometimes, because you don't want to step on any toes, but at the same time, you have to let your teammates know...especially the younger players; you have to let them know what the coaching staff expects," Blend said. "It is funny...I had three different head coaches in high school, and now I have had three different head coaches in college. The one thing I know, is that successful teams always seem to have effective leaders."
Blend has produced 291 total kills for her career, and 160 blocks. She has developed into a major force at the net at the collegiate level.
Blend is closing her college career this year, and Exercise Science major is still wide open with her future options. While her career goals are in the fields of either Occupational Therapy or Physical Therapy, her route remains unclear.
"I am planning to take a gap year before Grad School so I can try to figure everything out," Blend said. "I love Buckhannon, but I think I need to step out and find out what somewhere else would feel like. I really like to idea of going to the Carolinas...in perhaps the Raleigh-Durham area."
With some key matches coming up in the coming weeks, Blend is hoping to close her volleyball career in grand fashion; by helping lead Coach Wheeler's squad into the MEC playoffs.
It would be a grand finish for the Hometown Girl.
( Photo Courtesy Sam Santilli )