If junior year is regarded for high school students as one that's most pivotal to their future, then that year and the summer that follows it meet that same level of import for young baseball players with aspirations to continue their careers in college or professionally.
For North East's Cameron Blankenship, one of just 64 prep players from across the country invited to MLB's inaugural Dream Series clinic in Arizona, the year that will define his baseball future is off to quite a start.
The Cecil County native's inclusion in the Dream Series will put him in front of MLB scouts on a major stage, and provide an opportunity for someone from outside the game's traditional youth hotbeds to show what he can do on a major stage.
"A lot of the better catchers and pitchers in the country are going to be there," Blankenship, 16, said. "It's awesome. You look at the list of all the catchers… there's no one from even close to the East Coast. There's not Pennsylvania, there's not Delaware, there's not Virginia, there's nothing over here. It's all the South. It really is an honor."
To Blankenship's coach for the Maryland Legends, Ed Lynch, the invitation out West is quite deserved.
"He has the physical size and he's very smart," Lynch said. "He's been playing for me for five years. I used to catch, so the catcher criteria to be good at catcher is way high. He's been pushed for five years to meet a mark, and every time we give him a new goal, he surpasses it and keeps on going."
This week's Dream Series in Arizona is one of a host of camps and clinics that MLB and its partners are putting on in 2017 as part of its efforts to foster growth of the game for young players from all backgrounds.
While it's a dead period for college recruiting off-campus, the clinic will get some of the nation's top pitchers and catchers — 60 in all — in front of big league scouts who won't have to scramble from field to field at a big tournament to see the top talent.
Held at the Tempe Diablo Major League Complex, home of the Los Angeles Angels during spring training, the Dream Series is for a diverse group of high school-aged pitchers and catchers.
Former major league catchers Bob Didier, Charles Johnson and Lenny Webster will run the defensive portion for Blankenship and the 15 other catchers in attendance, while Marquis Grissom and Homer Bush will be the hitting coaches. While there, the catchers will handle some of the nation's top prep arms, including Hunter Greene, the top prospect for the 2017 MLB Draft according to MLB.com's rankings.
Over the course of this year, over 700 players will benefit from camps like this, many of which are aimed at growing the game's diversity and talent base in the youth ranks. According to MLB, participants in this weekend's event were chosen by MLB, USA Baseball, MLB Youth Academies, the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program, the MLB Scouting Bureau, MLB Clubs, and the MLB Players Association.
Blankenship's inclusion is owed mostly to his own doing. Lynch recommended him to a fellow as a fill-in catcher for a Perfect Game tournament in Florida late last year, and an opposing coach approached him after the game. The entire other team's coaching staff was ex-major league players, and they asked him if he'd be interested in going to the January clinic for top catchers in Arizona. Before long, Blankenship was on the list.
"There's only 64 invitations — 48 pitchers, and 16 catchers," Cameron's father, Kenny Blankenship, said. "He's one of 16 that got it. He was just at the right place at the right time."
Blankenship cited his coach, Lynch, as the reason he's both progressed as far as he has and ended up included in this clinic.
"First, you have to find the right coach, the right team, and you have to play in big tournaments," he said. "There's not a lot of big tournaments around here. You've got to play in Florida to be seen. That's where the big coaches go, and that's where you get noticed. There's not a whole lot around here."
That a player from Maryland is on the list for such a prestigious event can only help both Blankenship and the entire local baseball community, Lynch said.
"I think it'll help Cameron, help the program, help the area," Lynch said. "Sometimes people in Cecil County, they're afraid to dream. They're afraid to dream and think that somehow they can achieve that. We tell kids there's nothing impossible if you have ability and are willing to do the hard work, anything is possible."