Photo: Blake Walters tossing his no-hitter as a junior.
Blake Walters’ busy high school career established broad options for a promising college future. He graduated at the top of his class and earned eight varsity letters as a quarterback and pitcher at Wake Forest (N.C.) Heritage.
The destination he chose is the U.S. Military Academy, although that includes a short summer and this is a time in American history when no can see the end to the threats posed by ISIS and Al Qaeda. The Army West Point baseball prospect reports with his new classmates Friday for Beast Barracks (read: boot camp).
Walters committed to that unknown future with a purpose beyond a free world-class education and chance to play NCAA Division I college sports. The former can be said said of all Cadets at West Point, Midshipmen at Annapolis and Cadets at the Air Force Academy.
“I think if you’re going to West Point for patriotism, you’ll make it through,” Walters said. “If you’re going for the free tuition and economic future, there will be plenty of times when you will think about leaving.
“For me, it’s a combination of the patriotism and everything else. I think about representing something bigger than myself. I’m very proud to be going to West Point as a future protector of our country. It may not be the only reason I’m going, but I’m not shying away from serving my country as an officer.”
His words bring to mind a quote from Stanford football coach David Shaw to his players before they faced Army at West Point’s Michie Stadium in 2013.
“I mentioned to my team we are playing against young men willing to do things down the road the rest of us are not willing to do,” Shaw said. “These are people who deserve our utmost respect. Our freedom is in their hands.”
Walters said he knew little about West Point until he accompanied Trey Ratliff on a football recruiting trip two years ago. Ratliff and Walters are close friends and were teammates in football and baseball. Ratliff, a year older, committed to Army football in 2014 as an offensive lineman and played a backup role as a freshman.
“They were inseparable,” said former Heritage football coach Jason McGeorge, who started the program but resigned following last season for a position at SAS. “Trey was his blind side; his left tackle. Blake was intrigued when he went up there with Trey. He did his research before he committed. He could have gone a lot of places with scholarship money.”
Ratliff’s father, William, was a research source. He’s a West Point graduate and retired Army officer that serves as a “Field Force.” That means he helps West Point candidates in his residential area with questions about the academy. Ratliff’s father and Walters’ father, James, accompanied their sons on the trip.
“Before then, I didn’t know much about it other than the Army-Navy Game,” Walters said. “I saw Trey’s dad walk around and talk to guys he hadn’t seen in a while. Seeing they still had a close relationship showed me you develop some special bonds at West Point.”
Although Walters was a four-year starting quarterback, baseball has long been his favorite sport and he has considered it his college future. He began a talking with Army baseball coach Matt Reid and sent him recruiting tapes. Walters also attended a baseball camp near West Point when Reid scouted him in person.
“It was the first time I played before him,” Walters said. “The camp went well, and when I talked to him he told me he’d be able to offer me a spot.”
McGeorge and Heritage baseball coach Tony Piercy weren’t surprised to learn Walters accepted the challenge of the West Point lifestyle. While he earned eight varsity letters in the two sports, he was considered a leader of older players as a freshman at a school with 1,800 students. He was the starting quarterback all four years and played baseball’s leadership positions of starting pitcher and shortstop.
“Blake is a genuine young man,” McGeorge said. “He had a unique leadership style. He had older players willing to follow him. He was going to be our JV quarterback (as a freshman), but I saw he made good decisions. When the varsity couldn’t move the ball in our first game, we played him in the second half of the first game. He was our quarterback from that point on.
Heritage was in its second year and first varsity season during Walters’ freshman year. That means the 2015 quarterback this fall will be the school’s second quarterback in its five years of varsity play.
Piercy, who recently took the baseball job at East Wake, also identified those same leadership qualities early on in Walters.
“You never had to worry about him being ready,” Piercy said. “He was ready to go to work. He also had the game knowledge; the things you can’t teach – instinct and savvy to know what to do. You knew you could count on him to do the right thing to give us the best chance.”
Walters’ baseball career includes a no-hitter as a junior. His senior year he was an All-Cap 8 pick, posting a record of 6-1 with one save. He was struck out 59 and walked 18 in 41 innings with a 2.39 ERA.
Piercy said Walters would have had more baseball recruiting options, but he focused early on Army. He joins a program that advanced to the NCAA Tournament in 2012 and 2013.
“I was proud of him,” said Piercy. “I knew that’s what he wanted and he had worked hard. As a coach you want to see your players get their dreams. When he puts his mind to something he usually succeeds.”
That challenge begins at the end of short summer.
“I’m a little nervous, mostly because I’m not from a military family and from that side of it have a lot to learn this summer,” Walters said. “But I’m excited to get up there. What’s most exciting is I know I’ll meet a lot of great people with similarities to me. It will be tough, but it will be good to have the camaraderie with them.”
--- Tom Shanahan has featured Army, Navy and Air Force athletes for nearly 30 years in the San Diego Union-Tribune, Voice of San Diego, Rivals.com and the Raleigh News and Observer. He attended his first Army-Navy Game after John Feinstein wrote in his book on the rivalry, “A Civil War,” everyone should attend the Army-Navy Game at least once. Air Force players will remind people their Army and Navy games are big, too.