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Amid brain tumor diagnosis, James River boys volleyball playing for 'Coach B' during state title run

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A common refrain in the sports world: Control the controllables.

James River boys volleyball coach Michael Blankenbecler can’t control that he has a brain tumor.

But the five-time state champion Rapids coach, who on Saturday will go for his sixth state crown in his last game leading the program he loves, can still control how he goes about coaching his players, even toward the end of the most trying year of his life.

“I just decided that they deserve to know everything that’s going on, because we’re a team,” said Blankenbecler, who after tryouts in August informed his team of the ailment that caused him to miss more days of school this past spring than he had his entire teaching and coaching career combined.

“I’m their coach, and we’re going to do this all together. ... It was the scariest conversation I’ve ever had to have. I tried to be strong through everything else. But when teenagers are looking back at you and make the faces that they did when we’re having those conversations, it’s something that I’ll never forget.”

Thinking about what he can control on a day-to-day basis has been the mantra for Blankenbecler, who began coaching at James River in 2014 and has since led the Rapids to five (2015, ’16, ’18, ’19 and ’20) of the program’s seven state championships.

A standout and state champion at Thomas Dale in his own playing days, Blankenbecler played club volleyball at Virginia Tech for three years before transferring to Radford, where he got his first coaching gig as a student-assistant under then-Highlanders and current Virginia Tech women’s volleyball coach Marci Jenkins Byers.

“That kind of ignited what coaching could be,” Blankenbecler said of his time at Radford. “She [Jenkins Byers] is really what started coaching for me.”

Fast-forward to November and December of 2021, and Blankenbecler began experiencing moderate migraines every few weeks. As the months went on, the headaches intensified and became more frequent. He couldn’t get an appointment with a neurologist until May, by which time his migraines were constant and debilitating.

He tried to continue teaching. But medicine didn’t help much.

So Blankenbecler, 32, asked for a CT scan. Doctors told him the scan showed something in his brain, but they weren’t sure what. So they took an MRI, which revealed a brain tumor.

“I can’t control that I have a tumor, but I can control how I react to it,” he said.

Blankenbecler said he’s heard doctors use the word cancer, but the tumor itself is benign. The exact word for the diagnosis is long and complex, and Blankenbecler doesn’t want people looking it up in order to search for an exact prognosis. He doesn’t even do that himself, because people diagnosed with the condition are typically much older than he is. Suffice to say, it is something he will have to monitor closely for the rest of his life.

His appointment with his surgeon was on the last day of tryouts prior to this season. That’s when he told his final roster about the medical journey he’d undergone this year.

“Bonding for this team is more than any team I’ve had in nine seasons,” Blankenbecler said. “It would have been anyways; this team is full of friends. It couldn’t have happened with a better team. That’s why I felt comfortable sharing with them what was going on.”

Blankenbecler’s surgery was Aug. 31. He was sidelined from then until Oct. 17, his first day back teaching and coaching. The surgery went well, he said, in part because the tumor is very high up in his frontal lobe, an accessible location from a surgical perspective.

He had no setbacks, and was walking on his own after a few days, and preparing his own food after nearly a week. Physical exertion was off limits, but he otherwise progressed well.

Returning was hard because Blankenbecler wasn’t medically cleared to be on the sideline, but he was able to participate in practice to a degree. Assistant coaches Ned Flemming and Jay Wu led the program in his stead.

Saturday will be Blankenbecler’s last game at James River not because of the tumor, but because he and his wife have for years been hoping to move to Colorado. The stars aligned this past summer to set up the move, and his wife is already there while Blankenbecler stays with a colleague to finish out the season.

“This whole year we were doing a move, a brain tumor, brain surgery and everything,” Blankenbecler said. “It has been, ‘How many things can Coach B and his wife handle in one year?’ It has been a huge journey.”

Blankenbecler recently had “a bit of a setback” when he learned he will have to have a follow-up surgery because the first operation did not remove all of the tumor. After the second surgery, he hopes to move into the “monitoring phase” of the condition, though the particular rare form of tumor can grow back in a more aggressive form.

Fatigue is the main physical manifestation. He’s been back in practice playing volleyball for the past three weeks. Not as much as he’d like to, but more than he could immediately after the first operation.

Blankenbecler is not sure what Saturday’s state championship at the Siegel Center against Glen Allen will feel like. He’s tried to stay zoned in the day-to-day tasks. His Rapids have a big, “special” senior class that includes Parker Forrest, Tyler Alexander, Conor Gibbons, Graham Fearrington, Parker Landergan, Sean Gould, Turner Landrum and William Bickett.

So the collective focus has been winning, not necessarily for the achievement, but for the opportunity to continue practicing together, as a team.

“We’ve done it. We’ve made it all the way to the end,” said Blankenbecler, adding that all of this starters are seniors.

“Not only is it my last game, everybody that’s playing, it’s their last game, too. Once we get to the Siegel Center and we get in the locker room, we’ll have that conversation of ‘This is our last opportunity for this whole collective.’”

Blankenbecler said having him back on the sideline has been a boost for his Rapids. The Jaguars have beaten them twice this year, 3-1 and 3-2.

“But neither of those games I got to be the coach,” he said.

“So this gets to be the first game where we’re at our full strength as a team. One chance for the state finals, let’s just see who it is. Why can’t it be us? ... If we do win, what an amazing season and story it would be. ... It’s such a great group of kids, and I’m just very happy and proud that my last year gets to be their last year, and that our last game gets to be in the Siegel Center together.”

Blankenbecler tells his kids how proud he’s been of them this season as often as possible, and said some have told him they’re already planning trips to Colorado to visit him. The coach, referred to as “Mr. B” or “Coach B” by his students, will complete the move out west for his “second life” at season’s end.

He ended an interview Wednesday with a poignant word of caution and awareness.

“I’ve been very open with my players, my students, my staff here at school. And I think one of the reasons why I’ve been as open and transparent is to try to encourage people to take their health very seriously,” he said.

“I’m 32 years old. I’m very active, I’m a P.E. teacher. And you need to make sure that you take your health very seriously. If you ever have anything that is bothering you, please go get it checked out. Your health is too important, and your loved ones count on you every single day.

“Life is way too short to be in pain.”

(804) 649-6555

Twitter: @ZachJoachim


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