Blaney Soper found some unexpected opportunities when he joined the West Windsor-Plainsboro American Legion baseball team.
It reunited him with some former Community Middle School teammates that he wasn’t sure he’d ever play with again after going to The Hun School for high school. And it allowed him the unique accomplishment of playing every position in the field.
“I’ll play wherever to help us win, that’s my mentality,” he said. “In college, I know versatility is one of my strengths. It was definitely fun to play all the positions.”
Soper played left field and pitched at Hun and expects to be in a similar role at the University of Chicago where he’ll be a freshman this fall, started playing his usual spots before branching out to positions he hadn’t played since as far back as West Windsor Little League.
“When I was younger, I did play a lot of positions,” Soper said. “As I got older, as I was thinking about college recruiting, I narrowed it down to pitching and outfield. It’s kind of funny that now for Legion I went back to playing anywhere. It’s come full circle.”
Soper proved capable of playing wherever he was put.
“I caught two or three times this year which was easily the hardest position,” Soper said. “I filled in at first base so I already had first, pitcher, left and catcher. I played third base because I played infield way back in the day, and then I played center field when our starting center fielder went to pitch. At that point, I was only missing right, shortstop and second base.
“Our coach, Ryan Strype, he was joking, ‘We’re going to get you at every position this season.’ It was kind of an ongoing joke, and then I only needed shortstop and right and we were playing against Trenton and we had a pretty solid lead so they tossed me in those positions. Nothing was hit to me unfortunately but I did get all nine.”
Soper was also a regular contributor at the top of the lineup, where he hit anywhere from second to fourth. Soper blasted a two-run double in WW-P’s five-run sixth inning to help take the lead on their way to a 10-9 win over North Hamilton in the last inning of their final game July 15. WW-P finished the final half of the season strong, but at 9-14 was the final team to miss the playoffs that went to the top eight Mercer County American Legion Legion teams.
“It’s been an up and down year,” said Bob DeLuca, who was WW-P co-manager with Andrew Schoenblum for the second straight summer. “We’re very pleased with the fact that we did so well when we lost so many kids to injury. Some of our best talent hasn’t played half the games. We pieced it together and we’re proud of the kids who have been there every day.”
WW-P in hindsight might have liked to replay a few of the games, including the precursor to their final game of the year in which they lost a one-run lead to North Hamilton in the final inning of a continuation game after a couple of errors. North Hamilton ended up earning the final playoff spot.
“At the beginning of the season, we asked them three things,” DeLuca said. “Come and show up and play hard. And leave everything on the field. And execute, and we explained that sometimes quality at bats are outs, but if it moves runners that’s a quality at bat.”
Soper was the epitome of versatility in the field. He had spent previous summers displaying his talents in travel baseball and at showcase events as he built a portfolio of strong play for college recruiters, but after graduating from high school was looking for something new this summer.
“I really enjoyed my experience with Legion,” he said. “I think it was perfect for me. I wasn’t trying to showcase at this point so I was just interested in trying to get my reps, and leagues like Legion aren’t that common. There are Sunday leagues scattered here and there, but this is a consistent league where you’re playing three or four games a week and it’s competitive and you’re playing against all your friends.
“At Hun I got to play against all my friends who just graduated. That was an interesting experience to play against my old teammates. It was fun and competitive. And I got a chance to play with some people from West Windsor that I hadn’t seen in a while so that was a great experience.”
Soper believes if the circumstances were just a little different WW-P would have finished July playing in the playoffs. At full strength, the team felt good about its chances to take on anyone.
“I think our chemistry towards the end of the year got a lot better,” Soper said. “Early on, it was kind of tough because we had kids graduating and going on vacation. There were a lot of conflicts in everyone’s schedule so it felt like we didn’t have our best team together early on the season.
“I felt like when we could put our best nine on the field we could compete with anybody. Towards the end we were definitely firing on all cylinders and we believed we could compete with whoever was on the field with us.”
WW-P won four straight down the stretch before critically dropping a pair of games in their final weekend and then splitting the final day of the season. Even when they were undermanned, WW-P put together good efforts.
“We had a couple sophomores that started,” DeLuca said. “Some teams had a lot of college kids. We’re competitive. I wish our record was better. We lost a couple one-run games that hurt. We competed with the talent we had. On Sunday, we competed with (Hamilton) 31 who’s one of the best teams and only lost 4-0.”
DeLuca is optimistic that if the core returns from this year’s team, WW-P can again be in the mix for a playoff spot next year.
“I think we’re going to be competitive again,” DeLuca said. “Hopefully we’ll retain most of the kids. It’s hard to say from one year to the next. We lost a kid that played in college and his coach wanted him to play at a higher level. Everyone else that was eligible came back.”
Soper enjoyed a new opportunity with WW-P, and he’s looking forward to the next step in his career and playing at Chicago, where he will major in neuroscience and complete pre-med courses.
He is a preferred walk-on for Chicago, but will have to earn his way onto the team. The Legion season extended his spring and allowed him to sharpen his skills in live action while also having some fun playing every position possible.
“I know the coach likes me a lot pitching wise and I think he likes me hitting and he likes me in the outfield,” Soper said. “If I do make the team, I think I’d be a two-way guy, pitching and playing the outfield. I don’t see myself catching or playing infield or anything like that.”