Baby on Board
MA softball coach Lindsay Bliznik's journey through a season as a soon-to-be mom
|MA softball coach Lindsay Bliznik hits ground balls during a practice earlier this season. Jeff Lajoie. (click for larger version)|
June 13, 2011MOULTONBORO — The town of Moultonboro is characteristically quiet at midnight on March 21.
While most of the Lakes Region heads for bed as the clock clicks over to the start of a new day and week, things are just getting started in the Moultonboro Academy gymnasium.
It's not exactly a typical high school slumber party, but a pack of MA girls are officially becoming the first team in the state of New Hampshire to kick off spring practice as darkness overtakes the Blake Road campus.
"Just a little tradition we started," says Lindsay Bliznik, who knows just a little bit about how tradition works along Route 25.
It wasn't long ago that Bliznik, known in her high school days as Lindsay Bryar, patrolled the fields in Moultonboro as a player. The Panthers were a juggernaut before and during her years in a uniform, as the squad captured four consecutive state titles from 1999 to 2002. Bliznik pitched her team to the state semifinals during her senior season in 2003, with a 1-0 shutout of Groveton in the quarterfinals going down as arguably the best performance of her career.
But the shoe is on the other foot these days, as now head coach Bliznik leads her MA softball team through drills and activities in a fun hour of practice that has become a rite of spring on the first day of practice. It hardly feels like the season has turned a corner in March, with snow still gracing the lakes and mountains, but Bliznik and company begin a journey that will include all sorts of twists and turns along the way.
Before it all starts however, there is one tiny (though also growing – literally) factor that isn't surprising to the Panthers squad at this point. Bliznik, who teaches Spanish at her alma mater and also coaches volleyball in the fall, is expecting her own future star athlete as the season sets to kick off. With softball just getting under way, the young coach enters her second season at the helm about six months pregnant, and ready for whatever the next three months has in store – on and off the diamond.
The ride begins
Bliznik knew there was bound to be questions and concerns as word of her pregnancy became public knowledge over the winter, so the softball season began with a meeting for parents in March before practice got under way.
"We had the meeting with parents, let them know the situation," Bliznik recalled. "I knew I wanted to start the season in March, knowing the more active I was, the better it could be for the baby's health. But at that point, I still wasn't sure how much I was going to be able to do physically."
The Panthers weren't able to do much physically themselves during the first couple weeks of practice, as Moultonboro ended up being one of the last schools in the state to get outside and practice due to poor weather. Once outside though, Bliznik found she felt relatively comfortable being an active participant in practices.
"My number one priority was the health of my baby, but I wanted to also show the girls that you can still be active even though you're pregnant," she said. "I expect them to be committed to the game, so I also wanted to be dedicated as well. Some of the moms and dads maybe thought I was a little crazy but I really didn't change anything from how I had conducted practices in the past."
Season in full swing
The regular season saw MA get off to a hot start, as the Panthers went 4-2 in their first six games. With Bliznik teaching a full day of classes then hustling over to the softball diamond, life was hectic. But luckily for the coach, she had a group of girls committed to making things as stress-free as possible.
"The girls were so excited from the get go," Bliznik said. "It's a great group, they had no issues with it and they would chip in with the little things. Carly Ryan would be the first to grab a ball that was on the ground and hand it to me so I didn't have to bend over to grab it, Kayla Kinmond would run and grab a bat for me. Just things like that were really thoughtful and proved the kind of girls they were."
With the help of long-time volunteer assistant coach Jerry Hopkins, Bliznik and the Panthers pushed full speed ahead. But as she would find out, the one big limitation she would face during games would prove to be a nuisance all season, especially on the road.
"The only restriction I really had was that I couldn't go out and coach third base," Bliznik revealed. "It was tough, but we always found a way. I was giving signs but I had to make sure I was always behind a fence in case of foul balls."
What would seem like a minor problem did get to Bliznik at times, especially at away games. While batters had a clear view of her in the Moultonboro dugout for home games, that wasn't always the case on the road, as she would have to find the best possible spot to be seen and heard by her players.
"It did kind of kill me at times," she joked. "Having a fence between me and my players when I'm trying to get them to go through the plays or bunt or steal is tough. Having Jerry on the base paths was a big help though, he coached third for a lot of away games."
And familiar face Marty Zarli was also there to lend a helping hand for some home games, as Bliznik was more than comfortable having her former coach barking commands on the bases.
"I'm a very independent thinker and I kind of want it my way, but I know those two guys kind of think the way I do," she said.
Zarli, who coached Bliznik during her time at MA and on several summer teams, was willing to do whatever he could to help his former pupil.
"You can't mess with the health of you or your unborn (child)," Zarli said of the situation. "I know how much she puts into her coaching and she really wanted to be on third. So I just became an extension of her. We had our own signals and it worked out pretty well. I thank her and the team for letting me be a part of their season."
Bliznik's transformation into a head coach wasn't the least bit surprising to Zarli, as he could tell early on she would one day lead her own squad of players.
"She had the characteristics of a coach back (in her playing days) as she was great with the younger players," Zarli said. "She was always on time and not afraid of hard work so now she expects a great deal from her players and she believes in the commitment and team philosophy."
MA senior pitcher Jenna Calzada has been around Bliznik enough to know what she's looking for, but she also admits the transition of having her coach behind a fence took a bit of an adjustment period.
"At first it was hard to get used to because last year we knew where she was gonna be and where to look," Calzada explained. "But this year, every field is different so she had to find a different place to be. It was hard to find her sometimes at first but we got used to it."
The road games also brought another element into play, as the thought of potentially going into labor during a long bus ride definitely crept into Bliznik's mind once or twice.
"I did have those thoughts, especially on the longer rides, like, where's the nearest hospital when we play in Wilton?" she said with a laugh. "You get some of those bumpier rides on the bus, you never know what can trigger something."
Once she arrived at games, the coach admits there were more than a few inquiries about her pregnancy from opposing coaches.
"I know the coaches and umpires probably thought I was a little crazy," she said. "Some would ask me when I was due and kind of give me that look like, 'what are you doing?' But I think for the most part, everyone was supportive and I knew I was in control of what I was doing."
From the Director's chair
For his part, MA athletic director Harry Blood had full confidence in his young coach. With her due date of June 25 creeping closer as the season went along, he knew he had to be ready at any moment if Bliznik's time came during softball.
"We all knew going in that we would need to be on call as the season wore on, just in case baby Bliznik decided to come early," Blood said. "For me, it was a matter of knowing where Lindsay was each day, in school or out of school. She really made it work. I just worked behind the scenes with her to make sure all the bases were covered, so to speak."
Bliznik felt nothing but support from the school and athletic department, and she knew over the winter that she still wanted to lead her squad despite the pregnancy.
"I think people know softball is a huge passion of mine," she explained. "And Harry was always supportive. No one ever really questioned what I was doing, which was kind of nice. I want to be able to take care of myself and I think they knew that about me. Yeah, I was tired and our season got crazy, but it was nothing I couldn't handle."
Blood was impressed with everything he saw from his softball coach.
"Lindsay was incredible with all the stress of motherhood and pregnancy…she held it all together," he said. "She's very organized and that's what helped a lot."
Field trip to practice
Visiting practice in late May, it was easy to see that Bliznik was in full control, hitting ground balls to her infield while working on situational defense. Being a former athlete, she likes to be right in the thick of things, and while she was able to do that on this day, there were a couple times she admits she had to hold back a bit.
"I saw sometimes the look on her face that she wants to be out there so bad," said Calzada while Bliznik gave instructions in the background. "But she's done a good job this season with knowing her limits and doing what's best for her. It's definitely hard for her though, just because the type of coach she is, she's so interactive with us. But she's done a good job."
The returning members of last year's MA team knew what type of coach they were to expect, and not much changed from the pre-pregnant Bliznik in their minds.
"There's not much of a difference, I think she keeps her composure pretty well with the baby," explains catcher Rachel Blake during a quick break. "I think she brings a lot to the team and she has a lot to offer as a coach. She was a good player so she's trying to help us get there too."
Calzada remembers Bliznik as a player, and the ability to learn from her is something she looked forward to every day.
"As a pitcher, I remember her pitching so I've always looked up to her," the senior hurler said. "It's fun to be able to have her as my coach, someone who was and still is one of my role models. It's a lot of fun."
Bliznik points out that her team still has the same practice routine as last year, with her role relatively unchanged.
"I still run a practice the same way I did before, I just don't throw live to them…whereas before I would pitch to them and they would hit off me," she stated. "Early in the year when I wasn't so pregnant, I was pitching to them with a screen in front of me."
It was interesting for Calzada to see her coach still active as ever, despite the fast-approaching due date.
"It hasn't slowed her down at all," she said. "Coming into it I was like, 'Oh gosh, Coach is gonna be pregnant.' But it's the same exact thing as last year, she's still the same coach. She doesn't let it slow her down at all so it's been pretty interesting."
Baby Bliznik and beyond
Bliznik points out she only had to leave practice early once all season – for a doctor's appointment in Plymouth. That dedication to the team lasted all the way through to the end of the season, as MA was eliminated in the preliminary round of the Division IV tournament by Lin-Wood on June 1.
With school winding down, Bliznik won't have the same crazy days she did the past few months, but her commitments will grow forever when she and husband Steve become first-time parents.
"We're prepared, excited, ready, all of the above," she admitted. "During the season, we were balancing the importance of preparing ourselves as parents and then I was also preparing the team and school and everything else. Now it's a matter of getting to the day when the baby comes and starting the next part of our lives."
A year to remember for all involved in Moultonboro. And one for which Bliznik will soon have a permanent souvenir.