BEULAH — This was not how the season was supposed to go.

Postponed because of weather.

You may think this refers to the seemingly never-ending Michigan winter.

Far from it.

Maria Blazejewski weathered the storm in the most literal way possible. The former Benzie Central star, 27, spent a chunk of last September hunkered down in Puerto Rico as a gigantic storm bearing her name battered the island. All the while, her parents were figuratively in the dark for days and Puerto Ricans were largely literally that way.

Over 1,000 people perished in the aftermath of high-end Category 4 Hurricane Maria. Mark and Kathleen Blazejewski had no idea of their daughter was part of that statistic.


Maria Blazejewski arrived in Puerto Rico on Aug. 31 for her seventh professional basketball stop in five years.

Montaneras in the northern city of Morovis was one of the league's best teams, finishing runner-up in 2016. The 2009 Benzie grad was one of only two Americans on the team, but the squad was also bolstered by two members of Puerto Rico's national team that had qualified for the World Championships.

Practice starts Sept. 1. The rains of Hurricane Irma begin Sept. 6 as it passed just north of Puerto Rico. Blazejewski goes to the southwest side of the island in Lajas — where she played the previous season — to wait out the storm as the league's opening games are postponed.

No big deal. The storm passes and the team returns to Morovis for practice Sept. 9, beating Yauco 68-59 to open the campaign Sept. 14.

Two days later, a 77-74 loss to Aguada dampens the team's spirits. Little do they know what is in store. After the contest, they first hear of Tropical Storm Maria.

Another two days, and the storm over the Atlantic Ocean is now a Category 3 hurricane, projecting to go straight through Puerto Rico, unlike Irma, which barely glanced the island country and still managed to leave three dead.

Mark and Kathleen call Maria and say they want her to leave.

"She said, 'No, we have practice tomorrow,'" Kathleen said.

The team still conducts a practice Sept. 18, but the team starts to realize just how serious the impending storm is becoming. Players disperse right afterward across the island.

By then, it's too late to get out of the country ahead of the storm. Flights out of the country were incredibly expensive.

Blazejewski drives the Toyota the team gave her to Lajas, the same city on the southwest side where she waited out Irma with her "Puerto Rico family."

"I think after experiencing the first, the people she was with didn't take the Maria one seriously," Kathleen said. "They thought it would be like Irma."

Staying with the Sosa family — Gladys and her three sons, Carlos, Isaac and Daniel — Hurricane Maria is upgraded to Category 4 and projected to reach 5. Most service stations are already sold out of gas.

"That was my first realization of how serious it was," Maria said.


Having played for seven different foreign teams since 2013, it was common for the Blazejewskis to say goodbye the the youngest of their two daughters.

Maria's first trip abroad to play professional basketball was in 2013, when she signed with Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic.

"The first time was the scariest," said Mark, who coached Maria in high school. "English isn't a common language in the Czech Republic."

There was a delay after her plane landed in meeting the team representative. Language was a barrier.

The Blazejewskis had to wait to hear she had made it safe. Little did they know the several-hour communication void would be nothing in comparison.

Maria returned to the Czech Republic for the 2014-15 season, then had stints in Germany, Luxembourg, her first go-round in Puerto Rico (where she averaged 20.7 points and 9.4 rebounds) and a stop in Portugal, where she put up 18.5 points and 6.0 boards a contest.


The Sosas prepare their home for the storm's fury. They had water stockpiled in their one-level concrete home with wood additions and a wooden roof.

Even prepared, they soon decide it's best to move farther southwest to Sabana Grande, where the Sosas have relatives. That night, Sept. 19., is Maria's last communication with her family.

"That was probably the hardest thing," Blazejewski said, "was knowing they'd be worried about me."

Hurricane Maria, now a full-fledged Category 5, slams into Puerto Rico with a force that would make it the worst natural disaster in Puerto Rican history. Total losses from the hurricane are estimated at $91.61 billion, mostly in Puerto Rico, ranking it the third-costliest tropical cyclone on record.

"I didn't know what to expect," Maria said. "You don't even know what 150-mile-per-hour winds means."

The next morning showed what it meant.

The storm lasts 12-16 hours, peaking in the afternoon.

The home of Andres and Elsa Acosta — the Sosa's relatives — suffered roof damage, and the neighbor's trees were strewn across the Acosta's yard.

"That was big for me," Maria said, "seeing telephone poles or big trees just snapped in half or pulled right out of the ground."

With the Acosta's home damaged, the group returns to Lajas to the Sosas.


The Blazejewskis tried to stay on top of things as much as they could from Beulah. Mark watches the weather channel incessantly. Kathleen can't bear to.

Kathleen still has to work as a social worker at Traverse City East Middle School, which helps pass some time. The rest, she uses three tools to keep worry at bay as best she could — prayer, yoga and St. Ambrose mead.

"It was really hard," Kathleen said. "We did not hear from her for five days."

She also found a Facebook page where people could post a picture of loved ones on the island, and people in Puerto Rico would post if they had seen the person alive since the storm.

Kathleen posted on the "Loved Ones in Puerto Rico - Check In" Facebook page on Sunday (Sept. 24).

"Waiting to hear from my daughter, Maria Blazejewski professional basketball player, staying with the family of Gladys Sosa," the post read, "... They also might be in Sabana Grande with relatives, the people right of my daughter in the picture. If you know them and can let me know how they are doing I will be most grateful!"

The Blazejewski's went to church at St. Francis that day, then stopped at Lucky's — of all places — for some groceries. Mark's cell phone rang from a strange number.

"Usually, I don't answer," Mark said. "But I thought this time I should answer. Sure enough, it was her basketball coach the first season she was in Puerto Rico."

Jorge Garcia, the general manager of the Lajas team Maria played for during the 2016 season, suddenly had a phone going crazy with notifications when it finally picked up some signal. His first call was to his daughter. The second was to Maria's parents to tell them she was OK.

Kathleen's Facebook post also received a positive response later that day, just after Garcia was able to get a call through that night.



What transpired in between was something out of a disaster film.

The wait in line as gas stations lasts 7-10 hours. Only one radio station on the entire island is working. Bank lines are almost two hours long to withdraw money.

Maria learned from Irma to stock up on non-perishables, bringing a supply of peanut butter and canned tuna. The police impose a 6 p.m. curfew.

It rains almost every afternoon in the southwest part of Puerto Rico, and they do outside tasks early to avoid the sun's peak with little way to cool down, aside from water bottles Gladys is able to freeze at work and bring home. They're lucky to have running water, even though it wasn't drinkable and there was no electricity to go with it. Their bottled water ran out, and Garcia brought them spring-fed water in jugs.

A charcoal grill prepares meals for the group, with a propped-up umbrella over it to cook in the rain. A simple meal of pork, carrots and rice elicits high-fives.

"You just have more appreciation for what you have," Blazejewski said. "I've stayed with them before and this was the first time we had a sit-down meal together and prayed."

Gladys, a nurse at the hospital in Lajas, takes cell phones to work with her to charge them, just in case signal returns. Instead, they're mostly used as flashlights.

They have to hand wash clothes.

"I have no desire to ever do that again," Maria joked. "I was fortunate to have people to stay with. I don't know what else I would have done."

Carlos Lopez-Sosa is a former UNLV and NBA G-League basketball player. The 6-foot-11 Puerto Rican national team forward and Maria Blazejewski met when she was an assistant strength and conditioning coach at UNLV in the fall of 2013. His family took Maria in as if she was one of their own.

"How do you feel about what you did to us?" Lopez-Sosa teases Maria over her shared name with the massive storm.

Daniel's backyard bonsai tree garden is smashed. They use a machete to clean up the back yard, as well as the neighbor's.

Fast food restaurants are somehow up and running several days after the storm tears through the country's fabric, even though credit card systems aren't functional until a week afterward.

Maria participates in some pick-up basketball games in the park across the street.

Getting lost in basketball brought a sense of normalcy.


It's not until Sept. 27 — a full week after the hurricane struck — that Maria is able to speak to her parents.

Garcia drives Maria out to a rural area of highway that's unusually crowded because people discover it has cell phone signal.

The call lasts 30 seconds before the signal fails. In that 30 seconds, her parents tell Maria the basketball season has been canceled.

It's not until Oct. 8 that Maria drives back to Morovis to gather belongings from her house.

Remarkably, the house is intact. The same can't be said for the city and its surroundings.

What once was a lush jungle is now skeleton-like trees, stripped of not only their leaves, but their bark from the storm's intensity.

"It's like there was a fire," Blazejewski said. "It was sad. It was like a wasteland."

Traffic lights face the wrong way, and the basketball stadium has a hole in the roof.

"It's hard for me to watch the news now," Blazejewski said. "I kind of think I should have stayed of tried to get a job with FEMA."

After returning to the United States, Blazejewski sent gift cards to the Sosas, Acostas and Garcia as a token of her gratitude.

Even in the storm's aftermath, Blazejewski said the people of Puerto Rico were resilient.

"They were so giving," she said. "They never expected anything. That's just how people are. I was happy to see that. We could be more giving here, and we're not."

Garcia won't even accept gas money after driving Maria to the airport.

Mark Blazejewski had a similar experience with a Delta Airlines representative from the Puerto Rico area who was able to bump Maria's flight to Detroit up three days without any extra charge.

"I was on the phone for an hour and a half with this person from Delta," Mark Blazejewski said. "She was a saint."


It wasn't long after she returned to the States that Blazejewski was back in the air to continue her basketball voyage, signing with a team in France.

She helped Reims Basket Féminin to the league's semifinals, and in French pronunciation, her name comes across more like "Maya," sounding less like a hurricane.

Still, her thoughts were still with Puerto Rico.

Before leaving for France, Maria and Kathleen organized a fundraiser with the Spanish club at Traverse City East Middle School, where students could have a hat day if they donated $1. The event raised $550, which was matched by TC West Middle School to send over $1,000 to Puerto Rico to provide water for a nursing home and help three families rebuild their homes.

Montaneras team owner Gustavo Albizu said he wants to bring the whole squad back next season to finish what they started in the hurricane-shortened campaign. The league, the Baloncesto Superior National Femenino, is discussing how to move forward, since the basketball season is also smack in the middle of hurricane season.

"It was sad our government wasn't helping more," Maria said. "The people are American citizens. ... But even after the storm, people are like, 'We'll rebuild and be better than ever.'"

Foreign exchange

Maria Blazejewski's professional statistics since graduating from Lake Superior State in 2013.

Year Team Country PPG RPG

2017-18 Reims France 9.8 6.7

2017 Montaneras Puerto Rico 13.5 6.5

2016-17 CAB Madeira Portugal 18.5 6.0

2016 Lajas Puerto Rico 20.7 9.4

2016 Etzella Ettelbruck Luxembourg 15.5 6.9

2015-16 Grünberg Germany 14.7 8.1

2014-15 Karlovy Vary Czech Republic 9.6 4.1

2013-14 Karlovy Vary Czech Republic 11.7 4.0

2012-13 Lake Superior USA 17.8 6.5

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