At the start of each season, Riverhead girls lacrosse coach Lindsay Rella allows the seniors to choose the message written across the back of their warm-up shirts, whether it’s a quote or word of inspiration.
The seniors this season chose: Prove them wrong.
“I think this year they feel they have something to prove,” Rella said.
The Blue Waves have a chip on their shoulders, eager to show the team can return to the upper echelon of Suffolk County where it had risen before the pandemic wreaked havoc. The Blue Waves are still feeling the effects of the pandemic and failed budget that upended the athletic program, even now a year later after sports finally returned.
The Blue Waves are short on numbers overall, fielding a varsity roster 21 players. Ideally, Rella would prefer a minimum of 24 to allow full intra-squad scrimmages. And the Blue Waves will be without a junior varsity team for a second straight year.
An impact of the lost sports season has been students transferring to Catholic schools or other public schools and the lacrosse team hasn’t been immune to that. Rella said several players who would have been with the program are now elsewhere. No players have returned to the program this season after leaving.
The Blue Waves, coming off a 4-10 season, were seeded 14th in Division I by the coaches prior to the season, providing another round of motivation for the returning group. The Blue Waves may not have the biggest roster or the most depth, but they bring back a team that was dedicated to improving through offseason workouts.
“I think there’s always been a lot of talent in Riverhead lacrosse,” Rella said. “And I think the commitment level has been something that was there, but wasn’t expected. And now it’s expected and it’s demanded.”
Many of the athletes were attending winter workouts right after a practice from another sports, whether it was basketball or track.
“I think they really invested this time that this is something that is not just a March 14 start date,” Rella said.
The Blue Waves will rely heavily on their nine seniors, who Rella said are “force be reckoned with.”
It’s been an odd journey for this particular group. As sophomores in 2020, the Blue Waves featured a senior-heavy, deep and talented squad that was predicted to contend for the county title. Rella had joined the program as the junior varsity coach that spring when the pandemic hit about a week into practice. The season never resumed.
Senior Ava Lily Sumwalt is the only player left from the varsity squad dating back to the pre-pandemic team in 2019. She’s a returning all-county midfielder who will lead the Blue Waves all across the field. She will play for the University of Pittsburgh next year.
Ava Malanga is another returning midfielder who was all-county honorable mention last season. She plays to play for SUNY/Cortland next year.
Midfielder Rachel Rempe and defender Alex Goodale are both captains as well and returning all-division players. Rempe will join Malanga at SUNY/Cortland next year while Goodale plays for the University of Mount Olive.
The Blue Waves will turn to a freshman in goal after their starter from last year graduated. Rella said the Blue Waves are lucky to have a talented freshmen class this year and several players were up on varsity last season as eighth-graders.
“We definitely had to change our defensive style this year so that’s something we’ve been hyper focused on in the offseason,” Rella said. “And to be super physical and aggressive between the 30s.”
Rella said junior attacker Liz Hanham has been “quietly one of our most consistent players.”
Riverhead will play a challenging schedule, starting with a non-league game against Westhampton Friday. The league season begins Monday at home against Commack. On April 26, the team will dedicate its game to the memory of Tara Malanga, Ava’s mother who died last May during the team’s season. And on April 11, the team will hold a fund drive for the HEADstrong Foundation, which provides support to families affected by cancer.