Nick Stachowiak thought there was a mistake that Sunday morning.
His mom had received an email from someone who read on Facebook that Rhonda Blanchard had died unexpectedly. She was Stachowiak’s Middle Creek High tennis coach – and his friend.
Teammate Grant McGrew woke up to the news in a text message, and the news hit hard.
“I probably just sat upstairs for about 30 minutes before I came down,” McGrew said. “I was just in disbelief. It was hard to imagine anything like that could ever happen.”
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Blanchard wasn’t ill, and she even had tweeted Friday morning about her excitement for the upcoming season. Tryouts were Monday.
Her team was expected to be among the area’s best. Stachowiak won the state 4A state championship as a freshman and had missed his sophomore season after fracturing vertebrae.
Stachowiak, now a junior, was looking forward to playing for the team again.
Blanchard, who was 50, had been at Middle Creek for five years and coached boys and girls tennis each year. Her husband of 21 years, Joe Blanchard, is the school’s assistant principal.
Blanchard was a woman with a sharp wit and was known for her sense of humor. She had a way of making everyone feel like part of the family, whether a player was one of the nation’s best, such as Stachowiak, or a seldom-used reserve. Playing for her was special.
“I’ve known her for some time, because she was my brother’s tennis coach for a couple years before I was even in high school,” Stachowiak said, recalling the confusion he felt that Sunday morning. “For her being so young, I just didn’t expect it at all.”
After Blanchard’s death, Stachowiak and the other Middle Creek boys tennis players didn’t think once about forgoing this season.
Instead, they dedicated it to her.
“There was never a second thought,” Stachowiak said. “To play the sport I love and represent the school I go to is an opportunity a lot of people don’t take advantage of. Every time we come out for a match we just try to make her proud.”
Helping all students
On Feb. 21, the day she died, Rhonda Blanchard sent a tweet at 7:15 p.m. and texted a fellow coach at 8:07 p.m. At 8:35 p.m. Joe Blanchard said he arrived home to find her lying down. She had passed away.
Joe Blanchard said the family opted not to do an autopsy to determine her cause of death. But he said a doctor told him it could have been a result of a blood clot.
“The doctor said he didn’t think she suffered, which is good, if there is anything good about it,” he said recently, about a month after her death.
Rhonda and Joe Blanchard met through students. When fast-pitch softball was still new to North Carolina, some of Joe’s Cary High softball players played on Rhonda’s travel team. The two started coaching together.
The Blanchards didn’t have children, but Rhonda treated her students like her own. She was passionate about them, and her passing deeply affected them.
“She loved life, loved her friends, loved her family, loved her kids,” Joe Blanchard said. “We didn’t have any of our own kids, so she kind of just adopted whoever she was working with at the time. As a teacher, she was having her best year ever as an educator.”
Rhonda had been a teacher’s assistant at Cary Elementary and Cary High before entering special education as a lateral-entry teacher. She worked with students with behavioral problems before transitioning this year to work with those with autism. She called them “Blanchard’s Boys.”
“She took it and ran with it,” Joe Blanchard said. “Just like she did with tennis, she jumped in with both feet.”
She took the students on field trips – including to the Governor’s Mansion and a Carolina Hurricanes game – and got them involved with the main student population, he said. Before they were in Rhonda’s class, he said, they didn’t have those kinds of opportunities.
With the tennis team, Joe watched his wife bring together two programs. She got the boys and girls teams to hold fundraisers and Christmas parties together. In the fall, one or two boys players would volunteer to be the team manager for the girls, and vice versa in the spring.
“It’s not just because she’s my wife,” he said. “If I was just an assistant principal, and she was a coach I’d be saying the same thing about her. She just tried to do everything the right way.”
‘Like they were the football team’
Rhonda Blanchard was quick to bring up her players in conversation with friends. She was most proud that every boys and girls tennis player received the conference’s all-academic honors, Joe Blanchard said.
“She just wanted tennis to be as important as football or basketball or anything else at the school,” Joe said. “She wanted to make sure people knew we had a tennis team. She sent out emails inviting the staff to come. She wanted them to be as well known as anybody at school.”
Several players attended their coach’s funeral. School was canceled that day because of winter weather.
The relationship Stachowiak had with his teammates and coach was one of the reasons he played high school tennis. It’s not unusual for players of his caliber to skip interscholastic play and concentrate on playing national tournaments.
He enjoys the team aspects of high school tennis and attended almost all of the team’s matches last year, despite being unable to play.
Other coaches knew this and have reached out to the players. Green Hope’s team wrote a card. Fuquay-Varina and Apex’s teams held moments of silence before their matches against the Mustangs.
“She was so caring, and I think that was a very special part of her,” McGrew said “We got to know her very well. It was kind of cool having someone at school who you could talk to like that.”
Scrambling a season together
The February winter storm canceled all but two of the 10 tryout days. On those days, former Middle Creek tennis coach Robert Arthur, who still teaches at the high school, helped decide who made the cut.
Their season was getting off to a rough start, but the players turned to one another to get through it.
“We just kind of got tossed into it very fast,” McGrew said. “I think we all came together, though, and that was really good. We kind of banded together at the start of the season and made our way through it.”
Kelly Thompson, whose daughter plays for Blanchard’s girls tennis team, started a sign-up sheet for people to take meals to Joe, and Rhonda’s parents, Ed and Mary Norris. Team parents and other Middle Creek staff members have pitched in.
Meanwhile, Middle Creek athletics director Jeremy Thompson had to find someone to step into a difficult situation. He said meeting with the boys and girls players the Monday morning after Blanchard’s death was one of the toughest things he’s ever had to do.
“They are probably as tight or close as any team we have,” Thompson said. “That’s how she wanted them to be.”
Rhonda Blanchard, like most 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 until junior varsity boys basketball coach Jeremy 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 both Rhonda and Joe, he wanted to help.
“It’s still kind of weird,” Cunningham 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.”
The matches also seem surreal at times to Stachowiak.
“For the tennis matches, whenever I get out there, I expect her to come walking down the sidewalk with the balls and get ready to play the match,” Stachowiak said. “And that doesn’t happen anymore. I do catch myself, wishing she was here.”
One of Rhonda Blanchard’s main goals as a coach was for everyone to support one other and to make an individual sport have a team feel. For example, players would stay after each match to cheer on their teammates, Stachowiak said.
Cunningham said the team will need to embrace that spirit more than ever.
The team has been open to talking with one another, but tennis has been their main catharsis.
“We just kind of talked to each other about it, just kind of picked people up if they need it,” McGrew said. “Everyone’s going through the same thing, so we can all understand each other’s feelings.”
McGrew said he has talked briefly with Joe Blanchard in the hallway. Joe gave McGrew access to the team’s Twitter account that Rhonda had used to promote matches and favorite any tweet about N.C. State sports. He wished McGrew luck.
Joe Blanchard said he hopes to watch a match soon. He took two weeks off work after Rhonda’s passing and has been too busy catching up on work.
“It’s a life-altering change for me,” Joe Blanchard said. “I’ve been with her for 22-something years, and all of a sudden, she’s not here anymore. It’s tough. But the Middle Creek people have been very supportive. Everybody’s been willing to do whatever they need to do to help out,”
And that includes his wife’s players.
Stachowiak said he will try even harder to reclaim the state title this season for his former coach.
McGrew said he would like to see his coach remembered past this year.
“I think it would be cool if we could name a court after her at Middle Creek or something,” McGrew said. “I think we could get a patch for our jerseys, just ways to keep her in our memories. Because she was a very important part of Middle Creek tennis, and we need to remember her and keep playing for her.”