ARGYLE — Trips to In-N-Out Burger following softball games are among Maya Bland’s favorite memories of the time she spent with her father.
Martell Bland was his daughter’s biggest fan, a partner to play catch with in the backyard, a batting practice pitcher and someone to talk with about ups and downs on the field.
“Even after tough games, he would never yell at me,” Bland said. “He would tell me everything was going to be all right and that I knew what I needed to do to get better. He would want to go hit or get In-N-Out.”
That support helped Bland develop into one of the top high school players in the country and guide Argyle to the Region I-4A final.
Martell Bland will be on his daughter’s mind this week as she tries to help guide the Eagles to the state tournament nearly a year after his death.
The father of four died of lung cancer on July 16, 2021. He was 49.
Maya Bland and her family were in the process of moving from California to Argyle at the time and have since settled into the North Texas town. The community has helped Bland through the grieving process as she continues to thrive in the game her father taught her.
Bland, a junior who has committed to national power Oklahoma, will lead the Eagles in a three-game series against Iowa Park this week at Bowie High School. The teams will face off at 7 p.m. on Wednesday and Thursday. A third game will follow at 3 p.m. on Saturday, if necessary.
Bland has hit a program record 14 home runs and made a host of highlight reel plays in the outfield.
“She’s been a pleasure and a blessing to have,” Argyle coach Kevin Cook said. “What sets her apart aside from her talent level is the way she focuses, which is where she has helped the rest of our team.
“She is constantly telling everyone to move on to the next pitch or the next play and not dwell on something we didn’t do before.”
Bland learned those lessons from her father, who started games in all four seasons when he played for the St. Mary’s basketball team from 1990-94.
Martell Bland passed his love of sports on to his four children.
“He was a sports guy,” Maya Bland said. “We would watch football, basketball and softball games together, go hit for hours and play catch.”
Maya Bland started out as a gymnast before finding her calling in sports when her father signed her up for softball when she was 4.
Maya was a natural and benefited from her father’s guidance. Martell taught his daughter to hit left-handed even though she is right-handed. Maya throws and writes with her right hand.
“They really did have a special bond,” Katina Bland, Maya’s mother, said. “He coached her teams when she was young. It was a genius decision by him to have her bat left-handed so she could slap the ball and also hit for power.”
Bland grew up in California and developed into an elite national prospect while playing for Crean Lutheran in Irvine. She committed to five-time national champion Oklahoma early in her softball career.
The Bland family began to consider moving to North Texas a short time later so that Martell and Katina could be closer to their children while they were in college. Mitchell Bland, Maya’s older brother, ran track at Southern Illinois.
The family researched towns and schools in the area and picked Argyle because of its reputation for solid academic and athletic programs.
“We purchased a home in June of 2020 and were so excited when we jumped back on the plane,” Katina said. “We couldn’t wait to start life here.”
Those plans quickly changed. Martell Bland had been experiencing lower back pain. Doctors initially thought lesions were the issue but later diagnosed him with lung cancer.
Martell Bland never smoked.
“That was devastating for our family,” Katina said. “We were preparing for our move and a new adventure with our family here in Texas.”
The family put its move on hold so that Martell Bland could focus on his cancer battle. Bland’s condition improved to the point the family felt comfortable with relocating a few months later.
The course of Bland’s cancer battle shifted in the spring of last year. His back pain returned on May 28, 2021.
Doctors determined that the cancer had spread to Bland’s spinal cavity. His health deteriorated before he died on July 16.
Katina stayed with her husband in the hospital for the last few weeks of his life. The entire family was with him when he died.
The Blands completed their move last summer as they mourned Martell’s death and have found comfort in the Argyle community.
“The girls have been really welcoming,” Maya Bland said. “They have been super sweet. It was hectic when we moved here from California. I went through a lot. They were really warm.”
Bland joined a veteran team with high expectations heading into the season. Argyle lost to Iowa Park in the regional final last season, just one step short of the state tournament.
Bland’s unique ability to help her teammates focus, which Cook talked about, is just one way she has helped Argyle earn a rematch with the Hawks.
“Maya is hyped up and positive all the time,” teammate Keira Inman said. “She is fun to be around and has so much energy. She is always thinking about the positive.”
Katina Bland pointed to the comfort level her daughter has found with the Argyle softball team as one of a few reasons the family quickly made a home in Texas after her husband’s death. She also credited her family for helping the family make the transition.
Loraine Carr and Katie Koch moved to Texas with the rest of the family. Carr is Maya Bland’s grandmother. Koch is her aunt and godmother.
“We have formed some of the most incredible friendships and met compassionate people who have loved us here,” Katina Bland said. “God has used them to help heal our broken hearts.”
Playing the game she loves without those frequent trips to In-N-Out to discuss how each game unfolded with her father has been tough for Maya Bland.
The way the Argyle community and the Eagles softball team has accepted Bland and her family has made those hard times easier.
“Just having fun has been the best part,” Maya Bland said. “We have so much fun playing, there is no drama, and we have confidence in each other. We are really good. It’s fun to play on a team that’s as good as we are.”