Bleakney making impact for Champaign Central baseball -- even without playing

May 21—CHAMPAIGN — Carter Bleakney didn't think anything out of the ordinary happened when he rose from the outfield last summer during a travel baseball tournament in Kansas City, Mo.

The soon-to-be Champaign Central junior was just doing what he loved. Playing baseball and giving his best effort by diving for a ball.

He came up with the catch, but fell a bit awkwardly on his right wrist in the process.

"It started off as a bone bruise," Bleakney said recently, sitting in the third-base dugout at Spalding Park before a Champaign Central practice.

It didn't stay a bone bruise. Far from it. The pain never really went away, even with Bleakney continuing to play baseball last summer for his travel team, Rhino, based out of Shorewood in the Chicago suburbs.

Even when he went through fall workouts with the Maroons, prepping for a follow-up to a superb sophomore season in 2023 when Bleakney was Central's No. 2 hitter and a starter either at catcher or in the outfield for a team that made it all the way to a Class 3A super-sectional game.

Back to the injury, though.

"For four to five months, I didn't think anything of it," Bleakney said. "It bothered me, but after I warmed up, it went away."

A few days after Christmas, however, with the pain still not subsiding, Bleakney had his wrist examined by a doctor.

"They diagnosed it as a tendon injury, and I'd be out eight weeks," he said. "Then, they made me go get an MRI, and they found out that it was fractured, so they put me in a cast for 11 weeks. Now, I'm in a brace until I get fully cleared."

Bleakney relays the timeline of events that has not allowed him to grip a bat, line up in the outfield or squat behind the plate as Central's catcher this season in a matter-of-fact way. No outward disappointment. No mumbling or not clearly explaining what happened to have his junior season with the Maroons wiped out.

The way Bleakney has gone about the whole situation the past 10 months is what stands out to his coaches, teammates and family members. Even without him contributing in one aspect to the on-field product for the Maroons.

"I'm really proud of him in how he's handled it," said Adam Bleakney, Carter's father.

Of course, Carter doesn't have to look far outside of his own household for the right way in handling injuries. All he has to do is look at his dad.

Keeping it in perspectiveAdam Bleakney can point to his world-class accomplishments as an athlete. He can scroll through his phone and recite contacts of similarly minded athletes, who have won gold medals, silver medals and bronze medals for the United States.

It's just not the way he imagined his athletic career would pan out growing up. A severe back injury in college left Adam paralyzed, adjusting to life in a wheelchair and not as a college wrestler.

The head coach of the University of Illinois wheelchair track and road racing team since 2005, Adam has seen his Paralympic athletes win 55 medals at the Paralympic Games in his tenure, with athletes like Tatyana McFadden and Daniel Romanchuk winning the Boston Marathon, London Marathon, Chicago Marathon and New York City Marathon. Adam himself has a decorated past with the U.S. Paralympic track and field team, winning silver in the 800-meter race at the 2004 Summer Games in Athens after also competing in the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney.

"Carter has grown up around the lifestyle of being around high-level, elite wheelchair and Paralympic athletes," Adam said. "In many cases, they've have had life-changing injuries, but also by just being around athletes who are incredibly motivated and have had to take those detours, they see these as opportunities, too. I think he has an advanced and a mature perspective of these types of challenges."

Adam said those words a few days after his own son rather succinctly summed up their situations.

"He can't do stuff permanently, and I'm just out for a couple months," Carter said. "I'm in a good position because he knows so many people, and he can help me out in so many different ways."

The type of injury Carter sustained is referred to as a fractured nondisplaced scaphoid injury, with the injury happening right along the wrist and the thumb.

"It's still aligned, but the bone is split across," Carter said. "The bone has to go back together."

So, no chance to play baseball with Central this spring for Carter. Disappointing for many reasons, but especially considering how the postseason unfolded for Carter and the Maroons last season.

'He's staying engaged'

A constant in the Maroons' starting lineup last season, both at catcher and in the outfield, Carter came through in the clutch when Central needed it the most.

With Central and Rochester tied at 2 in the top of the seventh inning in a Class 3A sectional championship game last June, Bleakney drove a triple into the gap to plate the eventual game-winning run, helping the Maroons earn a 4-2 win for the program's first sectional title since 2017.

"He was pretty darn good at the end of last year," veteran Central baseball coach John Staab said. "He was one of our better hitters."

Fellow Central junior Luke McClure can still picture in his mind what that moment was like nearly a year later.

"That was easily the most hyped I'd ever been," McClure said with a laugh. "I knew that if anyone was going to make something happen, it would be him. He smoked that ball, probably 100 mph off the bat, to the fence for a triple. It was huge."

Thinking back on the moment, a slight smile spreads across Carter's face.

"Even with the hit in the sectional championship, I was looking to build off that this year," he said. "I wanted to help my team out, but obviously, that's not the case."

Although Carter can't come to the plate with a chance for a big hit or the chance to make a defensive play in the outfield or at catcher, he has stayed active with the Maroons all season. Just in a different way than he initially envisioned.

"It's been a big loss not having him out there, but to his credit, he's stayed engaged," Staab said. "He's doing a lot behind the scenes to help us out."

Carter compiles a hitting chart during each Central game, where he tracks the pitches and sees if he can spot any tendencies from the opposing team. Insight he then shares with his teammates in the dugout.

Knowing he still has another season left at Central is a boost, too.

"It's a big motivation," Carter said. "I'm also figuring out who I am as a person because not many people get to go through this and how I've been able to handle it so I can hopefully come back and do big things next year. You can't get upset. That's not going to help it heal faster. You've got to show up every day and see what you can do to make yourself better and your teammates better."

A constant presence

Central opens its postseason on Thursday afternoon, traveling to Lincoln for a 3A regional semifinal game against rival Centennial. First pitch is 4:30 p.m. as the fourth-seeded Maroons (22-13) look to continue their recent strong play — Central won its own eight-team Charlie Due Tournament this past Saturday — into the postseason.

A time on the calendar that creates fond memories for Carter, who was instrumental in helping Central earn its sixth regional title since 2013 last spring.

Central will likely have to upset top-seeded Lincoln on its home field this Saturday in a regional championship game if the Maroons want to get back to the sectional stage for the fourth straight season.

Bleakney can't help the Maroons with his bat, glove or throwing arm this week. But his attitude and effort, his constant presence, are intangibles that don't go unnoticed by those closest to the Central program.

"He shows up every day," McClure said. "He hasn't missed practices and hasn't missed games. If you're hurt and know you can make an impact, I'd have a tough time doing that, but he never complains. He never talks about it. He's always focused."

It's a life lesson he'll undoubtedly take him with, too, once his days playing baseball are finished.

"Just wake up every day and get after it. You could get injured at any point. Lots of people get injured and just waste their time," Carter said. "If you get after it those first couple months that you're injured, you'll be better. It could be worse, but I still have the opportunity to get better over these next couple months and hopefully carry that into the summer and into the next school season."