Upper St. Clair's Garrett Blake turning heads with his throw-ins
Upper St. Clair junior Garrett Blake glanced down to see his fingertips touch the back of his knee and realized what he should probably tell parents who beg him to teach his throw-in to their kids.
“Grow longer arms,” Blake said. “I have really long arms compared to my body.”
Six-foot tall but with a wingspan more befitting of a basketball player, Blake has long been known for his throw-in, one practically imported from England and one unlike anything the WPIAL may have ever seen.
Blake's throw-in is a circus-like heave that he says he's hit the crossbar with from midfield, and it gives Upper St. Clair the unique ability to score off a set piece whenever the ball goes out of bounds — even if that's 30 or 40 yards away from the goal.
How influential is the throw-in? Ask Peters Township coach Bob Dyer, who played college soccer at Pitt and called it “the best throw-in I've seen. Ever. Anywhere.”
“We purposely practice not kicking the ball out of bounds (against Upper St. Clair),” said Dyer, whose team suffered a 6-1 loss to Upper St. Clair Thursday. “Forty yards and in against Upper St. Clair, we don't want that ball to go out of bounds. It is an absolute weapon. We practiced it for a half-hour (Wednesday).
“As far as I could throw that ball with my right arm like a baseball pitcher, that's what I was doing.”
Could he match Blake's distance?
“No way,” Dyer said. “And I feel like my arm's about to fall off.”
Blake began perfecting the throw-in about five years ago when he picked up tips from an English-born soccer player who stayed at the family's house through a Major League Soccer exchange program.
On a typical throw-in, Blake will first make sure the ball's dry, then take three or four steps, plant and lead with his left foot, his right dragging behind.
He'll rock his shoulders back and push his stomach out, then whip his shoulders, arms and torso forward, a snapping motion that might make a chiropractor cry. The long arms provide whipping action.
“Talk about the combination of coordination, flexibility — because you have to be flexible to do that — and strength,” Dyer said.
Upper St. Clair designs several set pieces specifically off Blake's throws, akin to corner kicks.
Panthers coach Uwe Schneider said his team doesn't play specifically for the throw-in, but they do tend to happen more because Upper St. Clair, the defending PIAA Class AAA champion and the Tribune-Review's top-ranked team, pushes play and puts the defense under pressure.
Blake estimates he has four variations: a high, lofted throw-in that's best for hitting the far post; an on-the-line throw for the near post; a shorter, faster throw that he can bounce to set up a one-timer; and the changeup: a plan Blake and teammate Robbie Mertz hatched where Blake throws it short in front of defenders who are expecting a bomb.
In preparing for Upper St. Clair, Canon-McMillan coach Larry Fingers actually studied Rory Delap, a professional soccer player in England known specifically for his long throw-in, and how opposing teams tried to defend him.
“What (Blake) is able to do is arguably the best weapon in high school soccer,” Fingers said. “It's actually better than a direct kick or a corner kick. Anything, really, besides a penalty kick, because he puts it where he wants at pace.
“Most long throw-ins that you see are looped in; his is a missile. He really has a specific ability to put the ball where he wants.”
There have been a few comical and scary moments.
First, the funny. During a game with his club team, Century United, Blake said an opposing coach had one of his players stand directly in front of Blake — not to block anything, but to serve as more of an awkward distraction.
“It kind of screwed me up mentally because I was like, ‘Dude, what are you doing standing right in front of me?' ” Blake said. “I wasn't sure whether it was illegal or not to throw it at his face.”
The scary comes when Blake has to navigate the out-of-bounds areas at some fields, trying to find secure footing around drainage ditches and rubber tracks. At Chartiers Valley, Blake said that to avoid a ditch he wound up taking one step and strained an abdominal muscle.
Not that it's affected the results or anything.
“The thing is, most kids lob the ball so there's one point where people can win it,” Dyer said. “His is a bullet. It's honest to God the single-greatest weapon in the WPIAL this year.”