Questions & Answers with community faces
At one point or another, it may be every tiny athlete’s dream to play professional sports when he or she grows up. But most kids eventually come to grips with reality and grow out of this phase—not Maria Blazejewski, 26, originally from Beulah, who now plays professional basketball abroad.
Blazejewski graduated from Benzie Central High School in 2009 as an all-state basketball player and soccer goalie, then went off to study exercise science at Lake Superior State University, where she was a four-year starter on the basketball team, a three-year All-Conference player, and named Lake State’s senior athlete of the year. This really should come as no surprise, given that she comes from a basketball family: her older sister, Meredith (BCHS class of 2003), was also all-state in basketball and played during all four years at Adrian College, while her dad, Mark, just retired from 30 years of teaching and coaching—both track and girls basketball—at BCHS, and he also played basketball for LSSU, from 1974-1978. (His 1975-1976 team was inducted into the LSSU Hall of Fame last fall.)
During her senior year in college, Maria Blazejewski was averaging 17.8 points and 6.5 rebounds per game. Since graduating in 2013, the 6-foot-1-inch forward has played basketball professionally for three and a half seasons—in the Czech Republic, Germany, Luxemburg, Puerto Rico, and Portugal, most recently.
Each team internationally is only allowed so many Americans or foreign players, which makes it very competitive; many European countries have multiple leagues at varying levels, which makes European teams a bit easier to get on. While waiting for the right offer to come along to play overseas, Blazejewski worked as an assistant strength and conditioning coach in the fall of 2013 at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. She began playing in the Czech Republic at the start of 2014, playing the second half of the season for Karlovy Vary, a team in the Czech Republic’s top league, then she returned for a full season in 2014-2015 (September-May). During the 2015-2016 season (September-May), she played for Bender Baskets Grünberg in the German DBBL North League, where she averaged 14.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game. After finishing the season in Germany, Blazejewski was contracted by Etzella Ettelbruck, a team in Luxembourg, for the playoffs of the Luxembourgish league. She averaged 15.5 points and 6.9 rebounds per game as they made it to the semi-finals of the League Championship.
Then, from August through October of 2016, she played on a Puerto Rican team, Lajas Lady Cardinals, in the BSNF league—notably Puerto Rico’s only professional women’s basketball league—for a condensed season of three games per week for 12 weeks, compared to the nine-month European seasons. There, she averaged 20.7 points, 9.4 rebounds, and 3.0 assists per game, earning selection to BSNF’s All-Star Game, where she had 12 points, six rebounds, four assists, and one steal. At the end of December 2016, she accepted an offer from CAB Madeira of the Portuguese FPB, the country’s first league, and played for the remainder of their season, until the beginning of May 2017. This past season, she averaged 18.5 points, six rebounds, and two assists per game, and her team made it to the Final Four of the league play-offs, resulting in a second place finish; she was also named to the All-Star Game, playing on the winning Team Sul (Team South).
Though Blazejewski spends about eight to nine months of the year living and playing abroad, she typically returns to Benzie County for our beautiful summers of June through August. While she is here, Blazejewski puts her experience and her degree to use—this is the third summer that she has taught classes for female athletes, and she helps out in the community by reffing high school tournaments and shoot-outs.
Continuing with our interview series on impactful Benzie County characters, The Betsie Current caught up with Blazejewski at the Benzonia basketball courts.
The Betsie Current: How old were you when you first started playing basketball? What got you hooked?
Maria Blazejewski: I was in the gym as young as I can remember, because my father was a basketball coach and my older siblings were on basketball teams. My mom even bought the “Little Tykes Hoop” for the house. My first organized team was in the 4th grade, playing for the Northwest Hoops AAU organization.
Current: We know that you had a growth spurt in high school—from 5’7’’ your freshman year to 6’0’’ your senior year. That must have helped your game quite a bit, right? Do you think there is hope for more young people in Benzie County to play sports professionally, or should they be holding out hope for a late growth spurt, too?
Blazejewski: I had a pretty major growth spurt between my freshman and sophomore years of high school. Having height in basketball is, of course, never a bad thing. However, what helped the most was the versatility that resulted—I was practicing the skills needed for all five positions on the court. My freshman year, at about 5’8”, was spent as the point guard for Benzie’s varsity squad. As a sophomore, I was all of a sudden close to 5’11’’ and, due to that and the positions that we needed to fill that year, I played a lot inside, as a post player. My advice for young people in the area would be: never hold out for a growth spurt or really anything that is out of your control. Use what you have as strengths, and then continue to work on your weaknesses. Prepare and take advantage of playing multiple positions and filling different roles on any team.
Current: What is it like having to negotiate a contract? Do you have an agent, like Jerry Maguire? Do you get free stuff, like shoes?
Blazejewski: My agent is the one who negotiates the contracts—she isn’t Tom Cruise but still is pretty awesome! We communicate often and always make sure to be on the same page when it comes down to what is negotiated and ultimately included in a contract. As far as free stuff goes, it kind of just depends on the team and league. It’s not as much as one would think, mostly sweats, t-shirts, practice gear. The main thing I always make sure to bring back is my uniform.
Current: What are the non-money/stuff-related perks to your job?
Blazejewski: This whole experience has really enriched my life and changed my view of the world. I never would have imagined all of the places that basketball would take me. Living in another country is extremely eye opening—you experience different cultures, traditions, holidays, food, drink, and just day-to-day life. We usually only get one day off a week, but if there is an off-weekend or time after the season, I make sure to explore new places and travel to other countries. I have met so many people and made wonderful friendships that I never would have had otherwise.
Current: How have you seen your work grow and change? How do you hope that it will continue to grow? What is next?
Blazejewski: I now have played many different styles of basketball, for all kinds of coaches; learned new drills and philosophies of the game. I try to use all of that—and the positive and negative experiences—to continue to grow as a player. I am continuing to work on my versatility, and outside game especially, to play for better teams and at a higher level. The mental/sports psychology aspect and needing to perform at a high level consistently is something that I have really worked on and need to continue to focus on.
Current: Is the WNBA in your future? How do you think that playing here would be different than playing abroad?
Blazejewski: It would be pretty amazing to reach that level, but, at the moment, I want to continue to move up abroad and really want to win a league championship. It would great to be so close to family and friends, however I would miss the travel and history of places outside of the United States.
Current: What do you miss most about this area while you are away?
Blazejewski: What’s great about the overseas basketball season is that I can come back to Benzie County in the summer, my favorite time of year here! I miss the beauty, familiar faces, and familiarity the most.
Current: What other things are you involved with in our local community? How did you get involved with them and why are you passionate about these causes?
Blazejewski: This is my third summer teaching a six-week-long, two-day-a-week, strength and conditioning clinic that is tailored to female athletes. The classes take place in Chum’s Corners at Elite Physical Therapy Sports Performance, where we work on agility, speed, strength, and power. We’ve had student-athletes from many neighboring schools attend: Benzie, Kingsley, Kalkaska, Glen Lake, TCAPS, and others. Also, I officiate high school basketball summer shootouts and scrimmages, and I provide individual/group basketball-skills training sessions. I’m also going to be helping to run the Elite Basketball Academy at Manton High School on Wednesday mornings later this month; it’ll be open to all middle school, high school, and college female basketball players of Northern Michigan through mid-August.
Current: We know that you studied exercise science in college. How does that influence your basketball game? How does it influence your non-basketball work?
Blazejewski: My degree and experience working as a strength and conditioning coach have been huge in helping me to prepare for the season and prevent injuries. It also gives me the opportunity to help develop other athletes and see their excitement in accomplishing new things. To our young female athletes, especially, I want them to know that it’s a good thing to be confident, strong, and healthy.
Current: What are the biggest challenges and rewards of working and living in Benzie County and in Northern Michigan, in general? What is the best or most rewarding part of your work here?
Blazejewski: It’s often challenging to train here in the off-season. My resources are more limited, compared to an urban area. I have to really search for open gyms, other people to work out with, and I need serious self-discipline to condition and work on individual skills by myself a lot of the time. However, it’s rewarding to then provide young athletes with the opportunities that I never had here—it’s rewarding to be an example of working hard to achieve goals and to be able to encourage youth to dream big!
Current: What kind of impact do you think you have been able to have, as a young person, on the community here?
Blazejewski: Giving kids the opportunities and knowledge I never had at their age, to grow and excel as an athlete. I think I have shown that being born and raised in a small town is not a limitation. I don’t use it as an excuse, but rather, it’s made me realize the importance of out-working others, being self-motivated, and not giving up. The community has also impacted me—I have always received so much support from teachers, coaches, friends, and others from Benzie County.
Current: What could Northern Michigan do to attract more talented young people back to this area?
Blazejewski: By doing exactly what you are doing [in The Betsie Current]—informing our community and others of the life stories of those from the area; covering the success stories and achievements of those who have gone through our schools and lived in this area.
Current: What are your favorite local events and activities? Any favorite dining, recreation, hiking spots?
Blazejewski: I love spending time at the beach, on the water, and just outdoors, in general. I never truly realized how amazing this area was until traveling to other places in the world. Our fresh water and the Great Lakes, in general, cannot be beat!
Current: How have you seen Benzie County change since you graduated high school? What are your hopes for the area in the future?
Blazejewski: My hope is that we continue to be more open minded to people, cultures, and languages that are different from our own. We need to encourage and provide opportunities for youth to learn about the world and all of the different people that inhabit it. There are many ways of living and viewing things—broaden your horizons and be more accepting and respectful of differences.
Current: What else does Northern Michigan/Benzie County need?
Blazejewski: We need to acknowledge and appreciate those who are already so giving of their time, knowledge, and talents, especially for our youth. If it hadn’t been for the people who positively influenced me and went out of their way to help me, I probably wouldn’t be here today.
Blazejewski’s strength and agility classes are Tuesdays and Thursdays at Elite Physical Therapy in Chum’s Corners. Classes began June 20 and will continue through August 3; 10-11 a.m. is for junior high athletes, while 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. is for high school athletes. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to see if you can still register for the remaining 2017 classes or to get on the email list for the 2018 classes. Meanwhile, Wednesday morning THBA Elite Basketball Academy workouts with Trevor Huffman and Maria Blazejewski will take place at Manton High School on July 19 & 26 and August 2 & 9. Female basketball players 7-9th grades will be from 9-10:40 a.m. ($15), while 10-12th graders and college players will be from 10 a.m.-12 p.m. ($20). For individual and/or group basketball-training requests and further info, contact via email. To follow Blazejewski’s basketball career and find out who she will play for this fall (negotiations are currently ongoing), stay tuned to ScorersFirst.com/Maria-Blazejewski.html or follow her at @mkblaze4 on Instagram, where she posts updates, pictures, live game stream info, and more.
Photo credit: Aubrey Ann Parker