Featured Story

Girls Lacrosse: Blue Waves have Malanga’s back

When tragedy struck Ava Malanga’s family last year, her lacrosse family was there for her.

It was on May 24, 2021, when Malanga’s mother, Tara, died at the age of 49. She had been battling brain cancer.

The pain was felt deeply by the Riverhead girls lacrosse team. Not only is Ava Malanga a senior midfielder on the team, but most of the team’s nine seniors had played for Tara Malanga when she coached them in PAL lacrosse.

“It was heartbreaking, but I mean, literally though, there is no kid tougher,” Riverhead coach Lindsay Rella said of Ava Malanga. “She barely missed anything. She used lacrosse as her outlet and she showed up for her teammates and, you know, really embraced being here. But, you know, we also embrace, you know, being a family and a support for her.”

The Tara Malanga Memorial Scholarship in the amount of $4,000 has been established by the Rotary Club of Riverhead to be presented to a Riverhead High School senior. Proceeds from T-shirts and raffle tickets sold at Riverhead’s game Tuesday against Half Hollow Hills at Pulaski Sports Complex are going to the scholarship fund. An oversized $1,000 check from the Riverhead Girls Lacrosse Booster Club was donated to the cause during a pregame ceremony, attended by Ava Malanga, her father Chris and older sister Ella, a former Riverhead player.

“Today meant a lot to me to have the support of my team and for everyone to put this together and come together as a community was really amazing and it made me even more excited to come and play on the field today,” said Ava Malanga.

She continued: “My team has been so important to me. I couldn’t picture what my life would be like if I didn’t play lacrosse in the past few years, to have the support of my teammates.”

It looked for a while as if Riverhead would have a storybook ending to the day, only for Half Hollow Hills to win the Suffolk County Division I game, 13-12, on Jayden Piriano’s sudden-victory overtime goal 2 minutes, 26 seconds into the extra session.

Riverhead (4-7, 4-5) came close to winning it in regulation time, but Grace Smawley, assisted by Eliana LaGreca, fired in her fifth goal from as many shots for Half Hollow Hills (5-5, 5-4) with 17.6 seconds left in the second half to force overtime.

Alyssa Studdert accounted for three goals, one assist and nine grounds balls for the visitors, who also were helped by Krysta Boninta (two goals, one assist) and LaGreca (one goal, one assist). Alexa Dominic also scored. Alyssa Leotta and Piriano had two assists each.

Ava Lily Sumwalt, who is committed to play for Pittsburgh in the ACC, had a tremendous game for Riverhead with seven goals, six of them in the first half.

Riverhead’s Ava Lily Sumwalt (seven goals) splits Half Hollow Hills’ Jayden Piriano (4) and Christine Latorte as she races toward goal. (Credit: Robert O’Rourk)

Sumwalt, who scored her 100th career goal in three seasons Saturday in a 10-8 loss at Huntington, brought her career total to 110 goals. The senior midfielder entered Tuesday’s game as Suffolk’s third-leading point producer, according to Newsday. This season she has 53 goals and 18 assists.

But on this day, lacrosse took a back seat to a larger purpose.

The Blue Waves wore Tara Malanga’s initials on the shooting shirts they wore during pregame warm-ups and continued to be there for Ava Malanga. Moments before the start of the game, teammate Alexandra Goodale gave Malanga a hug.

“I think it was very special,” Sumwalt said. “I mean, coming into this, we all were playing for something bigger than ourselves, and I think we showed that on the field.”

Malanga, who will play at SUNY/Cortland along with current teammate Rachel Rempe, turned in a strong game with two goals, one assist, five ground balls and four draw controls.

“She really stepped into a leadership role this year that she truly earned,” Rella said. “Like she was a kid that, you know, I think loved lacrosse, but it wasn’t her life. And I think now this is something that is important to her and she wants to make sure that she leaves a lasting impact.”

Rempe had two goals, two assists and eight draw controls for Riverhead. Logan Pilon also scored.

Regardless of the outcome, Sumwalt was sure of one thing going into the game: The Blue Waves were going to look out for Malanga.

Sumwalt said, “Like whatever happened with the score and whatever, we were always gonna be there for her if we play good, horrible, like, we are gonna be there.”

That’s just how families are.