FARMINGTON — Farmington’s Caleb Blakely’s reputation as an impact player increases every time he steps on the basketball court even as his creativity off the court opens up new opportunities.
Customizing Coach Neighbors
Blakely’s reference testifying to the high school sophomore’s creativity came through a youth pastor familiar with his talent which led to University of Arkansas head women’s basketball coach Mike Neighbors’ request for Blakely to design a new set of basketball shoes on the eve of a Jan. 28 game against 11-time NCAA women’s basketball national champion Connecticut. That nonconference contest came about to fill a hole in the schedule when Vanderbilt opted out of the season.
On game day Neighbors sported those shoes customized by Blakely’s use of coptic markers and the Lady Razorbacks knocked off the then third-ranked Lady Huskies, 90-87, behind Chelsea Dungee’s 37-point barrage in a landmark moment for the Arkansas women’s program.
Wreaking Havoc On Defense
As for Blakely’s tenacity playing high school boys basketball as a member of Farmington’s 4A-1 Conference and District tournament champions, just ask Huntsville, who got a firsthand taste of his prowess in an 84-50 district semifinal loss at Cardinal Arena on Tuesday, Feb. 23.
Blakely blocked several shots, highlighted by spectacular blasts where he simply smothered the ball and ripped away the rebound in addition to making several steals and wreaking havoc in the Cardinal full-court press. The 6-1 sophomore sparked a 13-0 Cardinal run over a 1:01 span of the first quarter that began the rout.
Following Roman Carlson’s 3-pointer, Blakely turned a steal into a layup then was involved in causing another turnover that led to Adam Simmons finding Carlson spotted up in the left corner, his favorite place to launch threes.
“I like being on a team and setting up my teammates. I like defense, getting blocks and steals and being an athlete on the court,” Blakely said.
Sensational Field Goal
Huntsville took time-out, but couldn’t solve the riddle Blakely presented pressuring the basketball. Blakely forced another turnover and he drove hard to the basket, switching the ball from his right to left hand as a defender challenged him. For an instant Blakely resembled Spiderman gliding through the air with the greatest of ease and, for a finishing touch, kissed the ball off the backboard.
He was fouled and converted the “and one,” then capped the run with one more takeaway and lay-in. In about as long as it takes to say, “Boom-shaka-boom,” Blakely’s defensive activity and offensive finishes stretched Farmington’s advantage from a six-point lead to 29-10 with 56.1 seconds left in the first.
It was like a boxer wading into his opponent, trapping him on the ropes and opening up a flurry of punches. Only the end of the quarter kept Huntsville from taking a “standing 8 count” and Farmington’s lead never dipped below 14 points the rest of the way.
Several coaches in the 4A-1 have told Farmington coach Johnny Taylor that Blakely represents an X-factor that gives the Cardinals separation from other Arkansas high school boys basketball teams.
“He doesn’t know how good he can be,” Johnny Taylor said. “What’s going to be scary [for opponents] is when he has another off-season and preseason to get better.”
Native Of Liberia
A native of Liberia, Blakely came to America as a 2-year-old when he was adopted. The first sport he took up was soccer, which enjoys popularity in his home country. He joined FC Arkansas and has played travel tournaments in places such as Dallas, and got to compete for the state championship in soccer for the 14 and under age division.
His role model is his dad, David Blakely.
“He’s humble. He loves God. He teaches me what it means to be a man of God and serve the Lord,” Blakely said.
Johnny Taylor describes Blakely as carrying a wonderful blend of humility and tenacity — characteristics that the veteran basketball coach rarely witnesses existing in harmony within a player.
“Caleb has never had a bad day. He’s never had a bad attitude,” Johnny Taylor said. “You can’t say that about every kid.”
Blakely adapted to playing with the coach’s oldest son, freshman point-guard Layne Taylor, who frequently throws bullet passes through the teeth of a defense when he spots a teammate breaking open.
“At first I wouldn’t have my hands ready, but I pretty quickly learned to look at his eyes because before he passes it, he’ll always look, make direct eye contact with you and you have to have your hands ready,” Blakely said. “You can basically read what he’s going to do by how he sets up the defenders to get you an open shot.”
Celebrating His Faith
Blakely goes full-bore on the basketball court, believing every time he makes a play that celebrates his Creator.
“I feel like if you use your success to honor God and honor Jesus, he will allow you to do great things in a game,” Blakely said.
His relentless pursuit of rebounds inspires his teammates while demoralizing opponents. He crashes the boards like a born-again mini version of Dennis Rodman, who helped the Detroit Pistons hold off Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and the Chicago Bulls coached by Phil Jackson three straight years in the Eastern Conference playoffs with Detroit going on to win back-to-back NBA championships in 1989-1990.
“I just think that it’s my ball. I need to go get that rebound and no one is going to stop me and the ball’s mine,” Blakely said.
Farmington enters the 4A North Regional at Ozark this week as one of the favorites and Blakely cites his favorite Bible verse, Romans 8:37, as motivation to excel.
“The verse is, ‘I am more than a conqueror through Christ that strengthens me,’ and basically what that means to me is I’m more than just an athlete, more than [just] another player; I am God’s child and he loves me and that’s what pushes me to try my best in all my sports.”