A large yellow banner hung along the baseline wall of the Shoreham-Wading River High School gymnasium Friday. In the center, a large logo read: “Melissa Marchese … Fly High.”
Dozens of notes filled the banner as people wrote memories of Melissa, who died six months ago on the eve of her high school graduation. She was 18.
Each year, the girls and boys basketball teams at SWR participate in a Coaches vs. Cancer fundraiser event. This year, they opted to raise funds closer to home and turned the day into a fundraiser for the Marchese family.
Raffle baskets lined the entrance to the gymnasium during a quadruple-header that featured both the girls and boys JV and varsity teams. Prior to the start of the girls varsity game against Newfield — the second game of the day — head coach Adam Lievre delivered a brief speech about Marchese, who had been an integral player on last year’s playoff team.
He recalled walking into the locker room after the team’s crushing playoff loss last year and wondering what he would say as a postgame speech.
“When I walked in, Mel was sitting right in front of me, tears coming down her face, talking to her team about how proud she was of them and what a great game they had played,” he said.
Those leadership qualities defined Marchese’s play on the court. She was always the hardest-working player who fought relentlessly for every rebound, he said.
“Her teammates were inspired by her play,” Lievre said. “When you see a teammate working so hard, you follow and do the same. The best thing about Mel’s on-the-court effort was it was contagious.”
The Wildcats brought that spirit to the court with the Marchese family in attendance, fighting back from a nine-point fourth quarter deficit to force overtime in a wild back-and-forth second half that saw both teams heat up offensively. Newfield ultimately prevailed in the extra session, pulling out a 56-54 victory.
“We knew we had to come out and fight for [Mel], and what she did — rebound and play with energy all the time,” said senior Abby Korzekwinski, who led all scorers with 25 points.
Korzekwinski is in her third year on varsity and played the previous two seasons alongside Marchese.
She remembered Marchese as the teammate who could always make everyone laugh at practices. And whether it was practice or a game, she always played at 100 percent.
“She was always running up and down the court like her hair was on fire,” Korzekwinski said.
Lievre said he knew it would be tough for him to get through the pregame speech and it had been on his mind for several weeks. He fought back tears toward the end as he talked about the lives Marchese saved through organ donation.
After the game, he said: “I hope everybody who didn’t know her got a little glimpse of who she was and everybody who knows her got a reminder of what she was like.”
The fans in attendance were treated to an exciting game. Both teams came out sluggish for the early noon tip-off and Newfield led 17-16 at halftime. But in the second half, both teams got more comfortable and the offense soon picked up.
Newfield guards Chinelle Nelson and Raiyah Reid led the attack as the two quick players penetrated into the lane to either create shots or find open teammates. Nelson hit a floater in the lane with 1:50 left in overtime that put Newfield ahead for good. Reid sank a pair of free throws with 14 seconds left that effectively iced the game at 56-52.
That the game even reached overtime seemed unlikely when Newfield scored the first seven points of the fourth quarter to take a 42-33 lead, capping off an 11-0 run that started in the third quarter right after SWR had taken its first lead since the opening quarter.
The Wildcats fought back the teams traded baskets on several consecutive possessions and the Wildcats could never seem to get closer than two.
“It was frustrating,” Korzekwinski said. “To win a game, you got to get a stop once in a while and we weren’t really getting stops.”
Korzekwinski finally brought the team to within one when she was fouled after putting back an offensive rebound with 1:23 left. Nelson followed with a runner off glass to put the Wolverines back ahead by three.
The Wildcats answered again as Costello banked in a shot and was fouled. She sank the free throw to tie the game at 50.
Both teams had chances in the final 45 seconds for a go-ahead basket but couldn’t convert.
Korzekwinski got the ball in transition in the final seconds of regulation and drove toward the basket, crossing over between Nelson and Reid in the lane and going up with the right hand for a potential game-winning layup.
But it wasn’t meant to be as the ball bounced off the rim and Newfield corralled it with 5 seconds left.
“There are some things we have to get better at, but the point of the day is a little bigger than the outcome of the game,” Lievre said.
Korzekwinski echoed that message, saying she hopes the younger players on the team can learn about leadership from Marchese.
“If something happens, always be the one to pick everyone up and bring energy,” she said.