Former Shoreham-Wading River High School wrestler Kevin Meloni didn’t realize he had won his 100th career match last year until he pointed to the crowd. There among the SWR contingent was eighth-grader Nick Donnelly, a call-up to the varsity team who had placed third that day, Mr. Meloni recalled.
“I see this kid, cheering, screaming,” Meloni recalled Wednesday. “I see this big smile, him laughing, like so happy.”
Mr. Meloni, then a senior, watched as Nick charged down the stands and embraced him.
“He just jumped on me and gave me a big hug,” he said. “I’ll never forget that moment.”
Mr. Meloni, who graduated last year, became close with the young wrestler and often coached him. He and Nick were supposed to wrestle again Wednesday, but they never got the chance. Earlier that morning, Nick’s body was found in a wooden area in Shoreham nearly a day after he was reported missing.
“I really miss him, man,” Mr. Meloni said in a wavering voice at a vigil to remember the teen Wednesday night. “It’s so hard.”
Hundreds of classmates, parents and community members gathered at a candlelight vigil in Shoreham to remember Nick, a 14-year-old Shoreham-Wading River High School freshman and member of the varsity wrestling team.
Nick had left his house to go for a run around 10 a.m. Tuesday without bringing his cell phone, police said.
He didn’t return home, police said. As news of Nick’s disappearance spread, search parties of neighbors and classmates scoured trails, nearby streets and as far away as Rocky Point looking for him.
The searches continued Wednesday morning until about 8 a.m., when police located Nick’s body a short distance from his home on Chambord Court, police and a family member confirmed. Police said the cause of death appears to be non-criminal, declining to discuss specifics.
Nick’s uncle Donald Donnelly said Wednesday that Nick’s parents are awaiting results from the medical examiner’s office.
The sudden passing of a high school student shocked the tight-knit community, which poured out support to the Donnelly family online and in person.
Wednesday night’s vigil began at 7 p.m. with a prayer service at St. Mark’s R.C. Church in Shoreham, not far from the Donnelly house.
After prayers led by the pastor, a church band played the hymn “You Are Mine.” The song concluded and the church filled with silence broken only by the sniffs of parents and the sobs of Nick’s classmates sitting in the front rows.
One woman stood up and walked to an area near the altar to light a votive candle. After silently dropping to her knees and praying, the woman walked back to the mourners, dabbing tears away from her eyes with a napkin.
Nick’s classmates walked to the nearby sod farm and stood in a circle as a cool fog rolled in. One by one they lit candles in the shape of a heart with Nick’s initials spelled out inside. After a moment of silence, students and their parents took sky lanterns and lit them. Some took out their phones to take pictures as the lanterns drifted away.
Nick is the second Shoreham-Wading River student to die suddenly in as many years. In 2014, SWR football player Tom Cutinella died after he sustained a head injury on the field. At the vigil Wednesday, held in the same location where students mourned Tom the evening after his death, some students who had weathered the previous loss comforted their peers and promised to support them.
“I’m not going to sugarcoat this,” one student said to his classmates in the center of the vigil. “It’s going to be hard.”
Several of Nick’s teammates from the school’s varsity wrestling squad led the crowd in sharing stories about Nick as a way to remember their friend. There was the time Nick walked his pet tortoise, they recalled, laughing. One teammate remembered when Nick faced off against an opponent at a wrestling camp who was much bigger than him — and still managed to take him down.
“He was a good kid,” said Brendan Frances, another teammate. “He put his heart into wrestling. He was a great friend, a great teammate.”
Brendan also urged his classmates to talk to friends, parents, a trusted adult or counselor if they’re going through troubles.
“A lot of people are willing to listen,” he said.
After news of Nick’s death spread, the entire wrestling team went to an assistant coach’s house to support each other, said varsity wrestling coach Joe Condon. Mr. Condon said Nick was a “quality kid” who was intelligent, kind and polite — as well as a dedicated wrestler.
“It’s just a shame,” Mr. Condon said. “It shocked everybody… I’m as shocked as anyone. We were all holding out hope.”
A second memorial has been planned for Thursday night. The community will gather at Brookhaven Town’s Shoreham Beach off North Country Road at 5:30 p.m.