Featured Story

Girls Lacrosse: It’s a new-look Riverhead in 2021

One of the cruelties of this COVID-19 pandemic is that what might have been the greatest Riverhead girls lacrosse team ever never had a chance to prove itself. The 2020 Blue Waves, with so much to win, saw their season lost to the coronavirus, and with that sank so many hopes and dreams.

Riverhead had reached the Suffolk County Class A semifinals both in 2018 and 2019. In 2019, the Blue Waves came agonizingly close to what would have been their first county final before being edged by Middle Country, 9-8, in the semifinals.

After that tough defeat, the Blue Waves immediately looked forward to the promise 2020 offered. Little did they know at the time. After two days of tryouts and another two days of preseason practices, schools were closed because of the pandemic. The season was later canceled before it even started.

“It was very upsetting,” said junior midfielder Ava Malanga.

Last year’s team was built to win, loaded with 10 returning starters and 14 seniors on the 22-player roster. All of those players have since moved on, with one exception, Ava Lily Sumwalt. The junior midfielder is the sole remaining link to the 2019 team.

Much has changed since 2019, especially for a remade Riverhead team and its new coach, Lindsay Rella. One thing that hasn’t changed, though, is Northport is still good. Quite good.

That point wasn’t in question when Northport, which won its second state championship in 2019, faced the Blue Waves in their home opener Monday at Pulaski Sports Complex. Riverhead took an encouraging 2-0 lead, saw speedy Northport run off six straight goals, and then pulled to within 7-5 of Northport before the Tigers wrapped up the Suffolk County Division I win, 10-5.

Riverhead (0-3, 0-3) gave a plucky effort, but is short on experience with only two seniors, goalie Mackenzie Dorr and midfielder Sophie Ruschin. Four eighth-graders — that’s right, four! — are starters for Riverhead: Annalise Olsen, Logan Pilon, Natalie Psaltis and Sadie Schultz.

Riverhead’s Sophie Ruschin moves the ball in front of the goal. (Credit: Robert O’Rourk)

“We never had this young of a team,” said Malanga.

Goals by Sumwalt (off a free-position shot) and Pilon spotted Riverhead a 2-0 lead, but it didn’t last long.

Northport (4-0, 4-0) has firepower. Coach Carol Rainson-Rose has some fine talent to draw from. The Tigers entered the game with some of Suffolk’s most dangerous offensive players like Kaylie Mackiewicz (15 goals, one assist, according to Newsday), Shannon Smith (seven goals, four assists) and Emma DeMarco (five goals, five assists).

The Blue Waves knew what to expect.

“Northport is definitely a powerhouse team,” said Sumwalt, who scored three goals, won 11 of 17 draws and gathered three ground balls. “They have great coaches, great players. I think that we just came in thinking that we have nothing to lose, that we just had to play our hardest and I think that we really showed that.”

Northport’s quality came through as Smith struck for three of her four goals during a 6-0 spell in which Isabella Germani scored twice and Mackiewicz finished the first of her three goals.

Riverhead, seeded eighth in the 21-team division, kept plugging away and managed to cut Northport’s lead to 7-5 after second-half strikes by Malanga and Sumwalt (assisted by Malanga). But Northport closed the game on goals by Smith, Julia Huxtable and Mackiewicz.

Northport outshot Riverhead, 26-17. The Blue Waves received 12 saves from Dorr. Rachel Rempe and Ruschin each scooped up five ground balls for Riverhead.

Ava Lily Sumwalt tries changing direction to get past Lindsay Lindvall. (Credit: Robert O’Rourk)

“I think that I learned that we’re just as a good as all these other teams, and I think we have it in us to fight against all these top teams,” Sumwalt said. “I think that we just have to play together, look for those open looks.”

Sumwalt already has 13 goals and four assists in three games.

“She’s not intimidated and she controls the tempo of our game,” Rella said. “She always has our biggest matchup with the other team’s best player on defense and she’s usually their defenders’ biggest matchup [when she’s] on attack, so she has a tall order when she steps onto the field, but she handles it.”

With the disappointment of the lost 2020 season behind them, the Blue Waves are looking to the future, not dwelling on the past.

Said Sumwalt, “I just want to show everyone that Riverhead still has it in them even though we graduated most of our varsity team, that I think we can still push through and get through these games.”