Blake Stepp Ready to Step it Up

Meet the first GU freshman to start in years. Now a sophomore, 6'4" shooting guard Blake Stepp is healing up and is looking for bigger and better things for the Bulldogs in 2001-2002.

Born and raised in Eugene, OR, Blake Stepp's rise to stardom actually began in the Hoosier state Indiana, where basketball is king. His father grew up in the Midwest state and played high school ball under a legendary IU Hall of Fame coach who won upwards of 600 games: Bill Stearman. The groundwork was laid and the fact that Blake's father Dean brought his basketball wisdom to South Eugene High School (for a quarter century) where Blake would eventually play didn't hurt.

The Stepps had a cement floor in their home's family room and ever since Blake can remember he was dribbling and shooting basketballs. First, the little low "baby" hoops, then the standard size. He would hang out at practices at his Dad's school (playing in the corner while practice was going on) and became ballboy during games. Needless to say, he was watching and learning as he went. Some very good players (Blake Spengally, etc.) passed through South Eugene, but it was Blake's Dad and older brother (by ten years) who helped the future Gonzaga Bulldog the most.

Blake's brother was a "great shooter," and whenever the younger Stepp began to develop a bad habit with his shooting form, if his Dad didn't notice, big brother did. About his eighth-grade year, Blake began trying his luck from long range. He was naturally good but his shot took a lot of work, too. In a year, particularly his sophomore year, he became a proficient outside shooter for his school. He credits both natural ability and plenty of work for the laser shots Zag fans have become accustomed to seeing.

Stepp talked about playing for his Dad. He said it actually worked out better than some might think. Blake was pushed harder than his team mates and he and his father/coach would talk hoops over the dinner table and go over game films when other kids weren't even thinking about basketball. He felt it was the best experience for him. Blake feels he might not be where he's at today if it weren't for the father-son combination. "My dad is a great shooting coach, probably one of the best."

Blake says his all-around game is pretty strong, obviously shooting, but he prides himself on his rebounding and wants to further improve in that area. In high school, he would guard the opposition's big post man (Blake is 6'4") and unlike most shooting guards, he hauled in eight to nine rebounds a game. He's also working on his ball-handling skills and taking better care of the ball. He feels his height is a plus--he's bigger than most guards he faces--and he's working on quickness and defense.

His biggest highlight in high school? A huge, hyped-up showdown with undefeated 3A power Creswell High (starring Luke Jackson, now at Oregon). South Eugene was a 4A power and the gym was jammed; folks were being turned away at the door. Blake scored 36, Luke scored 30, and South Eugene came away with the win.

His biggest highlight(s) at Gonzaga? 1) The win over Virginia in Round 1 of the NCAA Tournament, because everyone was saying how UVa would beat the Zags, 2) winning the WCC Tournament Championship game over Santa Clara, 3) the win over Pepperdine in The Kennel ("I can watch that game all day.") that cinched the regular season WCC Championship, and 4) the win over Indiana State that placed Gonzaga in the Sweet Sixteen for three years running.

Blake says Santa Clara and Pepperdine were the toughest conference foes he played against. The Broncos are very physical and will foul you, he says, but they're the type of fouls that many refs don't see or don't call, so he said you need to adjust and play accordingly. Stepp said the Waves played a nonstop "crazy" pressuring defense that made things tough.

When asked about the Michigan State game and the air-balls that the announcers credited to tired legs, Blake set the record straight. His legs weren't tired at all. During warm-ups he couldn't miss a three-pointer. His confidence was brimming. He simply missed. He didn't lose the basket in the spacious Georgia Dome, his shot was just off-target. His legs were fine, he really didn't know what happened.

The conversation turned to his left knee, which had microfracture surgery performed on it last May when the problem was discovered. The problem: a hole the size of a quarter in the back of his knee (femur bone). The arthroscopic-type surgery was a success and new cartilage began to regenerate and heal. It was a slow process and it still is. Evidently, Blake had this since high school and was very lucky it was caught when it was, or it might have needed an implant to help fill the hole and that would take a year to recover from. But he is extremely upbeat about his progress and, while being careful, says he is a lot stronger this year than last. His left knee is doing great and the people who know say things look good for 100% by the time Gonzaga's season starts. He foresees no problems with conditioning, he has worked on everything possible except his left knee, and now it's feeling strong. Asked about overcoming a mental block about "babying" his knee for fear of injuring it and Stepp admitted that it won't be easy to not want to compensate with his right leg but sounded confident.

The highly-regarded guard was recruited seriously by Pac-10 schools like Stanford, Oregon, Oregon State, Washington and Washington State. Arizona was interested but Blake didn't feel he'd fit in well there. Many factors played into Stepp's decision to come to Gonzaga. The coaches were honest and forthright, and the staff made a solid impression. Also, his father and brother knew Mark Few and Bill Grier from their days at Oregon. "To me, they are great coaches, all of them." Playing time, as opposed to sitting on the bench, was a factor, but in no way did Blake expect to be a starter. Academics and the atmosphere at GU were bonuses, too.

Blake just chuckled about players saying they want more exposure by going to a Pac-10 school in the Northwest. "The exposure thing is way too drawn out. They get to watch us go to the Sweet Sixteen on their TV's."

With a 3.37 GPA and an eye on a degree in business (although nothing is set in stone), Blake Stepp likes to watch basketball when not playing basketball, but he also hits the links, goes to movies ("American Pie 2" being most recent) and listen to all kinds of music, from rap to rock to R&B to some Oldies. Oh, and speaking of music…

Room mate Cory Violette plays guitar and has convinced Blake to buy a guitar and start playing. Admittedly a "pretty bad" guitar player as of now, the two will likely be jamming during down time. Known to fans and team mates as "Elvis," could anything less be expected? Heaven help the neighbors.

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