Nothing about Middle Creek’s home tennis match Wednesday seemed out of the ordinary. But this season has been unusual for everyone.
Mustangs coach Rhonda Blanchard died unexpectedly on Feb. 21, just two days before tryouts began.
As the Mustangs have played all seven opponents in the Southwest Wake Athletic Conference, other coaches and players have offered their condolences. Green Hope wrote a card. Fuquay-Varina and Apex held moments of silence.
While the players are appreciative, they say they’ve turned to tennis as their means of coping.
“I know they miss her, and I know when we talk about her – especially the ones that have been playing a couple of years for her – (they say) ‘I really wish she was here.’” said Jeremy Cunningham, the school’s junior varsity basketball coach who is serving as interim tennis coach.
“But they’ve done a good job of keeping it in and staying strong,” Cunningham said. “I think for them, just playing and getting after it is the best thing.”
Rhonda Blanchard, who was 50, taught special education and also coached the girls’ tennis team. She graduated from Cary High School in 1982 and started working for Wake County public schools in 1992. She also worked 17 years with the Town of Cary, coaching traveling softball and basketball with the Parks and Recreation department, according to her obituary.
Blanchard was a coach who had her players’ backs. She nominated her tennis players for academic awards. She used Twitter to promote matches and performances.
“She always loved support,” said Nick Stachowiak, a junior on the team. “She was a big supporter of the tennis team. So after the match, (we were) always staying and cheering on your teammates – always play your best and just represent Middle Creek the right way.”
Blanchard, like almost all tennis coaches, had no assistants. She was a one-woman-band in charge of ordering uniforms, leading practice, deciding on the lineup and driving the bus. There was no one prepared to step in, so Cunningham volunteered.
Cunningham, who has coached the basketball team for 11 seasons, said his only tennis experience came in high school. But as a friend of Blanchard and Joe, her husband of 21 years, he wanted to help. Joe is an assistant principal at the school.
“I told (athletics director Jeremy) Thompson, ‘If you can’t find anyone better I’ll do it,’ because I wanted them to find the best person possible,” he said. “So that’s me for now.”
While he knows he’s helping the players, his friends and the school, the situation sometimes feels surreal to him, he said.
“It’s still kind of weird,” he said. “Sometimes I feel like it’s not real, that she’s coming back. I’ve honestly been trying to keep my mind off of it and on this.”
He’s not alone navigating the unusual situation as players, parents and other schools’ coaches have offered support.
“Teams have been really supportive,” he said. “Other coaches have emailed me to say if I have any questions about what’s going on with tennis to ask them.”
There were only two days for tryouts, due to the time off for snow and ice. Former Middle Creek tennis coach Robert Arthur, who still teaches at the school, helped with tryouts. The team didn’t schedule practice the day of Blanchard’s funeral.
Stachowiak, who was the NCHSAA 4A singles state champion as a freshman, has offered his insights.
“Nick is such an experienced player,” Cunningham said. “I don’t try to pretend like I have all the answers or anything. I just let them play and try to pass on whatever tidbits I can.”
Stachowiak has done his part to keep his coach’s philosophy at the forefront, especially for the two freshmen new to the team. That includes bringing a team atmosphere to an individual sport. Cunningham said they’ll need to embrace that more than ever.
“I kind of had to tell them about her and her philosophies and stuff because we want to keep that going,” Stachowiak said.
Stachowiak missed playing last season because of an injury. He said he will try even harder to win the title this year for his former coach.
“Mrs. Blanchard loved the tennis team,” he said. “Every time we come out for a match we just try to make her proud.”