The Tonawanda High School girls volleyball team knew that Jason Zdrojewski wasn't going to be their coach next year but figured he would still be a presence on the team.
Now they are dealing with the realization that he won't be back at all.
Zdrojewski's death Wednesday stunned his players and the community.
Zdrojewski, 32, the City of Tonawanda's engineer, was performing routine maintenance on a flow meter at the Wales Avenue landfill when the meter -- which measures the quantity of flow within a manhole -- fell to the bottom of the manhole. Zdrojewski, who had worked for the city for almost eight years, apparently entered the manhole to retrieve the meter and lost consciousness, said Mayor Jack E. Gallagher.
The cause of his death has not been pinpointed, pending an autopsy report from the Erie County medical examiner's office. Initial reports, however, indicate Zdrojewski was overcome by fumes.
Zdrojewski was a "consummate professional," Gallagher said.
"His community involvement in sports, combined with his spirit and pride of Tonawanda, made him many friends," the mayor said in a statement. "He was a friend to all who knew him, and our community is very saddened by this tragic loss."
Girls junior varsity coach Jill Summerville broke the news to his team.
"The first game is going to be hard," she said.
When he wasn't handling his coaching or engineering responsibilities, Zdrojewski -- a 1988 Tonawanda High School graduate -- announced all the home football and basketball games and was known as the "voice of the Warriors." Athletic Director Joseph Penvose said Zdrojewski had submitted his resignation as coach, because he and Jennifer, his wife, wanted to start a family.
"He would have still been involved with the program, coming to the games, running the tournaments, filling in when we needed his support, but he wanted to be more dedicated to his family," said Summerville, adding that Zdrojewski and his wife had just bought a house.
Players who gathered in the high school cafeteria Wednesday said Zdrojewski never gave up on a game or on them.
"He always had hope," said Danielle Pullo, a junior, who was sidelined all last season because of shoulder surgery.
"He told me not to stop playing, that I would play again. He even encouraged me to try to get a scholarship in volleyball."
When Kortney Womer, also a senior, had to warm the bench much of last season, Zdrojewski offered the encouragement his players had come to expect.
"He told me: 'Don't quit. You can do it,' " Womer remembered. "It was my first year playing here, and he showed me my strengths and weaknesses."
Zdrojewski also made a lasting impression on Katie Bunce, a senior.
"If I had a bad game, he would call me at home to make me feel better," she said. "I will definitely miss him."
Zdrojewski was a 1993 graduate of the University at Buffalo School of Engineering and worked with R&D Engineering in Buffalo until 1995, when he was hired as an engineering aide by the City of Tonawanda. He was appointed city engineer in 2001.
Among his major projects were Gateway Harbor, the closing of the Wales Avenue landfill, rehabilitation of the city's infrastructure and the Veterans Memorial Project.
In 2001 he received the Charles W. Nichols Award from the Western New York Branch of American Public Works Association for dedicated work in the environmental field.
Zdrojewski also coached boys varsity volleyball at Cardinal O'Hara High School, served as president of the Tonawanda High School Football Booster Club and was a Western New York volleyball official. He also organized Tonawanda High School alumni football games.
He also enjoyed hockey and golf.
Survivors include his wife of four years, the former Jennifer L. Kolbe; his parents, Dale and Cheryl Zdrojewski of the City of Tonawanda; two sisters, Karin of Hopewell Junction and Megan M. of the City of Tonawanda; and grandparents Henry and Elnora Zdrojewski of the City of Tonawanda.
Services will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday in St. Mark's Lutheran Church, 1135 Oliver St., North Tonawanda. Burial will be in Elmlawn Cemetery, Town of Tonawanda.