C. Milton Wright coach Janice Rhodes prepares for season that might not have been

C. Milton Wright field hockey coach Janice Rhodes gathered her state championship team two days before the end of classes in June, hoping to squelch some of the rumors about her diagnosis.

"I have a brain tumor," she told them, voice trembling. Then the tears began to flow.

As the 49-year-old embarks on her final season as the Mustangs head coach — something that already had been planned — she never will forget the series of events that nearly forced a premature end.

"My daughters started crying, and the next thing I know I have a whole room of weeping high-schoolers," Rhodes recalled. "But I kept talking and told them that we met with the doctor and were filled with optimism. I gave them all the good news … put a positive spin on it."

It was a Tuesday in early June when Rhodes found out, after two weeks of strange headaches that would come and go, and some memory problems she had chalked up to stress and age.

Her daughters, All-Metro first-team players Sabrina and Sydney Rhodes, were understandably devastated. Making matters worse, the news hit just six weeks after Sabrina, one of the metro area's top midfielders, suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament while playing in a regional club tournament.

Sabrina is expected to miss the entire 2014 season, though she holds out hope of returning for the playoffs.

Those were dark days for the Mustangs, who just months before had basked in their first Class 3A state title, finishing the season as the metro area's top-ranked team. For Sabrina, the injured knee suddenly seemed secondary.

"I just definitely wanted to be strong for [my mother], because I knew that she was being strong," Sabrina Rhodes said. "It kind of took my mind off my injury. I just focused on helping her. She kept saying that she knew we'd both get through it, and it would be OK."

Doctors told her the tumor most likely was benign, but there was no way of knowing for sure until after surgery.

"Mostly what was going through my mind and my husband's was, 'What if it's not good news? What are we going to do? What about the kids?'" said Rhodes, who hadn't taken a sick day since her maternity leave 17 years before.

She left her team with a vow, and a challenge.

"I'm promising you now, I'm going to beat this thing. I'm going to be back, and I'm going to work hard to recover," she told players. "And I want you to commit to me at the same time that you're going to work hard, as well, so that when you come back for preseason you're going to be ready to go."

The coach underwent surgery by Dr. Alessandro Olivi, the chief of neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, to remove a large mass on the left side of her brain. The tumor was, indeed, benign.

Even so, her recovery was difficult. She was bedridden and devoid of energy for the first two weeks, while her daughters, who recently had earned their driver's licenses, helped pick up the slack.

Rhodes' spirits, however, never dwindled, thanks to an outpouring of support from the community, including cards, emails, texts and even 45 straight days of meals made for the family.

"I'm telling you, it was truly overwhelming," said Rhodes, whose sister, Joyce Gill-Milaszewski, flew in from Michigan to help with her care. "I think [my sister] put it best when she said, 'I sit here and watch all these meals come in and all these cards, and I think to myself, if anything ever happened to me, how many people would send me a card or cook me a meal?'"

C. Milton Wright's players, meanwhile, were intent on doing their part.

"I knew as one of the captains that … it was us that needed to be helping out," senior co-captain Emilee Halley said. "We had some captains' practices over the summer, and it was our job to make sure that everyone was prepared and ready to go by the time tryouts started. Just make sure everything was a little bit easier on Coach Janice."

It took five weeks for Rhodes to return to her job at Battelle, where she's worked for the past 24 years. In the weeks since, her focus has turned to how to fill the void left by Sabrina Rhodes' injury.

Whatever happens on the field, however, Janice Rhodes is thankful she'll have the chance to be a part of it. At times, she can't help but reflect on a season that almost never was.

"It definitely stops you in your tracks. It causes you to reflect and appreciate what you have," said Rhodes, thinking back to that June day when she broke the news. "It's very hard to stand in front of a group of 30 young girls and say that. I had practiced. I had prepared. 'I know you've heard a lot of rumors, but I wanted you to hear it from me.'"

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad