Amid a spike in adversity, this Chesterfield team found strength in their coach

Posted at 10:39 PM, Dec 01, 2022
and last updated 2022-12-01 22:39:35-05

CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. -- Even though they were practicing to play for a state championship, the net still has to be set up before James River volleyball can get started.

All the players, be they seniors or freshmen, all pitch in to help. It's not what you might expect from a team that has more than their share of state title banners plastered on the gym walls. But this team has a different attitude than even last year's group.

"Last year, we definitely lost a little bit of focus going into the playoffs, but this year, everybody is locked in, everybody is ready to work," William Bickett, one player, said.

"Last year, we sort of went into every game like, we're James River, we're gonna win. This year it's, we're James River and we're gonna fight to win. We have the fighting mentality this year that I don't think we had last year," Tyler Alexander, another player, said.

This mentality comes straight from their coach.

Michael Blankenbecler has been guiding the Rapid's boys program for the past nine years and five of the title banners hanging on the walls belong to him and the teams he has coached. Last year's team came up short and fueled this year's group.

"Whenever you have a team that doesn't win a championship like last year, it kind of put a little fire under them for the next season. When you start the season having lost, they don't think it's just given to you because you're James River," Blankenbecler said.

Coach B, as he is known, has been around the sport most of his life and was a student assignment coach in college. His respect has been earned through knowledge and success. But this year, his fight and his team's fight have had a different inspiration.

"I think we really have pulled a lot of motivation from him, sort of doing it for Coach B," Alexander said.

Blankenbecler started having migraines about a year ago and eventually saw a neurologist for a problem that aspirin couldn't cure.

"I will never forget the phone call from my neurologist saying the CT scan shows something in your brain," Blankenbecler said.

An MRI revealed that Blankenbecler had a rare form of brain cancer. The news hit the team like nothing else.

"I was devastated. I didn't immediately think about the team and think about the outcome that would have on our season. I was primarily thinking about my coach and making sure that everything was okay," Bickett said.

"I was very lucky for where my tumor location is. That surgery went well. It didn't affect much of me physically. I was moving around pretty well after just a few days," Blankenbecler said.

Still, during his treatment, Coach B wasn't allowed to work with the team. For about six weeks, he had to watch from the stands as his team dealt with two opponents each night.

"All he wanted to do was coach us. He would show up to the games in the stands. He wasn't allowed to be on the sidelines but he would still yell stuff ou to us," Graham Fearrington, a player, said.

"It was hard. To watch your own team play from the stands when you can't really do anything is tough," Blankenbecler said.

But perhaps not as tough as clocking in for every practice and every match once he was able while still going through treatment. His players could tell he was struggling despite his every effort to hide his struggle as much as possible.

"Because they are very important to me and they have been through this journey with me. I had to tell them about my brain tumor at tryouts because that's when it was found and when my doctor's appointment was. They've been with me through this whole thing as my team," Blankenbecler said.

As it turns out, it will be Coach B's last team at James River. Coach B's wife has already moved to Colorado and he will be joining her when he's medically cleared to travel. Before then, they had one last piece of business to handle.

"We're fighting as hard as we can for this state championship," Alexander said.

"I know this team has worked harder than any team in nine years and I am more proud of this team, win or lose than any team I've ever coached," Blankenbecler said.

As close as they came, the James River team was beaten in the final in five sets by Glen Allen and they finished as state runners-up.

Coach B had his second brain surgery at Duke Medical Center. His prognosis is still very good and he will be moving to Colorado as soon as he's cleared by his doctors.