If you don’t look twice, you’d think coach Michael Blankenbecler is a player on James River’s boys volleyball team. At 25 years years of age, he blends in, but he’s had a successful coaching career including a trip to the state championship game last season. The Rapids are looking to do that one better this year by winning a state title.
“It’s nice because I get to play in practice,” Blankenbecler said. “I have experience playing, I know what they have been through, and I can show them what it means to be a top level team.”
Blankenbecler would know a thing or two about being a top tier player on a top tier team. In 2005, he led the Thomas Dale Knights to the state semis, then Thomas Dale won it all in 2007. A senior setter and outside hitter, Blankenbecler won state player of the year honors.
“He can get in there and be the best player on the floor,” said team captain and middle David Forrest. “We pretend he’s the best player on the other team all the time.”
Having a former state player of the year in practice certainly is a help, and while young, Blankenbecler was a student coach for Radford Women’s Volleyball when they made the NCAA tournament.
“It’s my job to show them how to be a top tier team,” said the former Knight. “I’ve been lucky enough to have seen it first hand.”
The loss of outside hitter Henry Archer from last year’s team that fell 3-0 to 757 powerhouse Frank Cox may seem alarming to some, especially when you consider he attempted about 600 kills and put down over 300 of them by Blankenbecler’s estimation. Towards the end of last season, and especially this season, it’s a more of a joint effort.
Forrest is joined by fellow captains and outside hitters Chris Ward and John Holahan on the front lines. Both are seniors and capable of generating offense. Adding to his versatility, Holahan also set for a portion of last year. Often overlooked, junior Kyle Brumbaugh is perhaps the area’s best setter. Hampton McClellan (middle/hitter) and Carter Watson (libero) round out the starting line-up.
“He’s a small guy, but he’s got the best hands you’ve ever seen,” Forrest said. “Plus, he’s like another leader on the floor, the quarterback of the team.”
To date, the Rapids have posted a 6-0 record in the regular season and won the silver bracket at the Richmond Volleyball Club’s showcase tournament, good for seventh place overall. Following their state tournament appearance- that’s a solid run.
The Rapids have accomplished all of this success with a guy who’s about eight years removed from being the best player in the state. If you talk to his team, he still is.