Getting Chance as Walk-On for UChicago Baseball, Hun Alum Soper Produces Solid Freshman Season
CHICAGO FIRE: Blane Soper keeps his eye on the ball in a 2019 game during his senior season with the Hun School baseball team. This spring, Soper got his college career off to a promising start, hitting .217 with five runs and four RBIs in six games for the University of Chicago before the season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)
By Justin Feil
Although Blane Soper wasn’t sure what to expect when he tried out for the University of Chicago baseball team, he rose rapidly to a promising start for the squad.
The 2019 Hun School graduate was recruited as a preferred walk-on as pitcher, and Soper not only made the team, but shifted fully to playing outfield, and earned a starting spot and had a five-game hitting streak to start his collegiate career this spring.
“It was super surreal, a great experience,” said Soper. “I was ecstatic. It was always trying not to be complacent and better myself and contribute to the team in the best way I can.”
During his Hun career, Soper did a little bit of everything but mostly pitched and played left field. UChicago first took interest in him at a showcase event after his junior season in high school, and Soper further impressed them at their camp.
He was admitted to the highly ranked academic school on his own, and came to their fall baseball tryouts as a preferred walk-on, looking to earn his way onto a team past a win over last year’s top-ranked team in Division III (4-3 over Trinity University (Texas) in March, 2019).
“Being a student-athlete in college definitely transforms your college experience,” said Soper.
“I really wanted to play in college and I really wanted to go to a really competitive academic school. UChicago is really exciting for me. Being D-3 and having a good rapport with the coach and him seeing me in the past, I felt good about having that ability to go to a really great school and also be a student-athlete. I felt pretty good about myself approaching the tryouts because over the summer I played Legion and I put on a lot of good weight in the weight room.”
Having been a starter for a strong Hun program that regularly produces college players, Soper thought he was well prepared to succeed at the next level.
“The culture at Hun was amazing,” said the 6’0, 170-pound Soper. “We had great coaches and a great senior class. We had a big weight room philosophy and that was huge for me. As a freshman, I definitely lacked physicality to bring my game to the next level and compete against better players. That culture was huge for work ethic and pushing each other.”
Initially, Soper came to Hun as a catcher before moving around and finding he could contribute best as a pitcher and outfielder. The growth over his previous four years helped him when he went to UChicago.
“Our Hun pitching coach Steve Garrison really helped me out with a lot of outfield drills, he was great,” said Soper.
“That helped with running routes and things like that and getting lots of fly ball exposure. Getting more comfortable in the outfield was huge for me. I’ve always been a pretty solid hitter. Defensively, where to slot me in has always been the question. The outfield has been a really good fit for me because I used to pitch a lot so my arm is a big part of how I can contribute defensively. Every year, our coach would try to find the best programs in the state to play against. We had four D-1 commits in my class. We were always playing against great competition and playing at the best level we possibly could and that definitely helped me get better over the years.”
After graduating from Hun, Soper continued to work hard in preparation for college ball. He played American Legion baseball for West Windsor-Plainsboro and he focused on strengthening the weak points of his game.
“The big thing for me has been my speed that I’ve had to work on,” said Soper. “Last summer, I put in a lot of work on that. Also in my hitting, I made some pretty solid leaps and bounds as a contact hitter and getting used to better competition and harder throwers.”
Those steps helped Soper feel better prepared for the fall tryout with UChicago. In many ways, it was like starting over as he had when coming to Hun.
“Coming in a freshman and you have to face guys who are 21-22 years old, that’s definitely a big adjustment just in terms of the physical size,” said Soper.
“There’s a big discrepancy. I caught on pretty quick. I got a lot of at bats over the summer and my high school was really competitive and we played some really competitive teams with some great pitching. It definitely was an adjustment for sure, but I think I adjusted pretty quickly.”
Soper made a strong impression in his first fall on campus. He switched to playing almost exclusively outfield, worked on his hitting, and started to see that he could contribute quickly to the team.
“My self-confidence really sky rocketed,” said Soper. “After that good fall ball and making the team, that was a really great experience. Also the coaches showing confidence in me once I started getting the idea that I would have a shot at starting as a freshman after not knowing if I was going to be on the team at all, my confidence shot up. In high school, I was overwhelmed academically a lot. Baseball was super important to me and being in the weight room was too. In college, it was a much more regimented structure. I was hitting every single day of the week. That extra practice definitely helped me get out to that early hitting streak. It’s really unfortunate the season got canceled because it was a great time.”
Thriving in that regimented environment, Soper was in the starting lineup when the season began on February 29 with a game in Imperial, Mo., against Loras College. In Soper’s second at bat, he singled for his first collegiate hit and ended up coming home for his first run in a 5-1 win.
“I was extremely appreciative for the opportunity in the first place,” said Soper.
“In some ways, I was in tryout mode the whole way through. It felt so great to make the team. Trying not to be complacent with that and trying to know that the work isn’t done and still trying to find my way into the lineup helped. I was really hoping to get some at bats here and there. It was crazy when I got the start on Opening Day. Once I got there, it was trying to keep my position, perform and contribute to the team in any way I possibly could.”
Continuing his solid start, Soper had hits in the next four games as well before finally going hitless in his sixth game. He started all six games, five in left field and one at designated hitter.
“It worked out really nicely because in high school I pretty much exclusively played left field when I played outfield,” said Soper. “They had a vacancy so I got to fill in pretty well.”
His early success made the sudden end of the season sting a little more. Soper had made it through fall tryouts, stayed sharp indoors during the harsh Chicago winter conditions, and he and the team came out strong when the spring blossomed. UChicago was 5-1 when the season was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“It was this big buildup,” said Soper. “Right when things started to get pretty and you started to go outside, everything got canceled. That was really tough. Luckily I’ve got three years ahead of me. I’m trying to stay prepared for next season and beyond.”
After the season’s cancellation, Soper returned home and continued his classes online. It’s been an adjustment as well for Soper, who takes three lab courses on his pre-med path. Coursework has kept him busy, and he’s finding ways to work out while following social distancing guidelines, which is important to him given his planned medical future.
“I just think it’s important to listen to the medical professionals who have been studying this their entire life,” said Soper.
“As someone who is interacting with great faculty who have committed themselves to a life of studying science to better other people’s lives, I think it’s pretty ridiculous to assume there’s some greater conspiracy or anything like that. I think it’s important to listen to those professionals. Social distancing is tough on all us, but understanding we’re all in this together and trying to get through it and look out for fellow citizens is really important. It’s really a crazy situation. It’s tragic.”
Soper is glad to have gotten a chance to play even a few games to start his college career. His 23 at-bats, five hits, five runs, and four RBIs are highlights that he hopes to build on as he prepares for next season. He will play Legion or a collegiate league this summer, and return as part of a class that gives UChicago strong hopes for its future.
“The first games were huge; getting used to traveling on the road and balancing your coursework and being on the field at the college level is really big,” said Soper.
“Knowing I was able to contribute at the college level was a huge confidence boost for me. It definitely gives me a lot of motivation to continue to better myself for next season, knowing what to expect. Those six games were huge. Building camaraderie around the players was big. Even in those two weekends, those six games, I think as a group we got so much better. We started adjusting to some of our weaknesses and strengths. That was a huge experience. That definitely was important for my class in particular for building toward our larger goal of winning a conference title.”