Athletes of the Year: Blue Waves and Wildcats

Every year, the Riverhead News-Review compiles a list of student-athletes who excelled over the school season and chooses male and female “Athletes of the Year” for both Riverhead and Shoreham-Wading River high schools. The award winners have excelled in their sport or sports through hard work, resilience and determination. These athletes have brought their schools to new heights — leaving legacies that will not soon be forgotten.

Kaysee Mojo, Riverhead softball

In Riverhead’s historic undefeated softball run through League I, it was clear who the leader of the group was, even to an untrained eye. Whenever the team needed a game-altering hit, Mojo was there to supply it. But there was a moment early in the season when she was struggling mentally.

“Kaysee came to us coaches during the struggles at the plate and acknowledged that she felt like her entire career, she always was in the shadow of others and was okay with that,” Riverhead head coach Rich Vlacci said. “She told us that it was time for other people to shine and get their opportunity. She wanted to bat at the bottom of the order. We challenged her to step out of that shadow, to show everybody who the real Kaysee Mojo is, and become the leader that she was meant to be. From that moment on, we saw a completely different person.”

Mojo stayed after practice regularly and really committed to her craft. Typically more quiet, she became the one to give speeches before the games. She was the one keeping everyone level-headed. Her leadership translated into offensive success. Mojo began to lead by example and the team followed suit.

By the end of the season, Mojo was the most feared hitter in Riverhead’s lineup. She batted fourth in the order, and nobody wanted to pitch to her. Mojo ended up leading the league in both home runs (6) and runs batted in (28). Her six home runs were good for fourth place in all of Long Island. Her performance earned her an All-County award, and there was nobody more deserving. Mojo will trade in the blue for green and suit up for the Farmingdale State College Rams next year.

“I truly can’t put into words how much she meant to our success this year,” Vlacci said. “Sometimes players transcend the on-the-field performance and become one of those people that create a positive, infectious environment that allows others to feel comfortable and thus successful. It allows them to be okay with failing and not become down on themselves. Kaysee was this for our team. To say she will be missed is an understatement.”

Aside from softball, Mojo was also an integral part of the volleyball team that made the playoffs for the first time since 2013. 

Griffin Sumwalt, Riverhead lacrosse

Riverhead’s boys lacrosse team made the playoffs for the first time since 2019 and senior attackman Griffin Sumwalt was right in the middle of it all. The team finished the regular season with its best record and division placement in school history. Not only did Riverhead make the playoffs, they also won a playoff game against Commack, 16-8, showing how far Riverhead has come in the last few years. Last year, the team posted a 6-10 overall record. This year, they completely shocked Suffolk County’s Division I with a final record of 14-4.

When the moment called for it, in the toughest games, Sumwalt was there scoring or assisting on crucial goals. In early April, in a game against Commack, Sumwalt scored a season high in goals, with seven. Against Center Moriches in March, he netted six. When the ball was in the netting of his stick, good things tended to happen, making the left-handed senior pivotal to the team’s success. 

“He went from a small kid starting as a freshman to one of the best players in the league by his senior season,” Riverhead head coach Vic Guadagnino said. “He committed to the weight room. He was very easy to coach. He absorbed everything he was learning very quickly. He knew if he bought into the system, it would pay off and work for him.”

Sumwalt, who will head to the University of Massachusetts at Lowell in the fall, achieved some records that will likely stay atop Riverhead’s leaderboard for years to come, including a school record for scoring 83 total points in a single season. Out of those 83 points, 54 were goals scored, which is also a new record. He finished his career with 192 total points and — you guessed it – that is now a record as well.

Following a game during the season, as the peewee players got ready for their practice, Guadagnino observed one of them practicing catching balls and finishing at the back of a nearby goal with his dad. The kid scored and said, “That was just like Griffin does it, Dad.”

“That’s what it’s all about,” Guadagnino said. “That’s the legacy this senior class is leaving. They’re inspiring the youth to play this great game. Griffin’s part of the group that brought Riverhead lacrosse back.”

On Wednesday, Sumwalt set one more record. He and fellow senior Danny Healy were not only named All-County but also — for the first time in Riverhead lacrosse history — named as Academic All-Americans.

“What a huge accomplishment not only for Griff but for the program as well,” Guadagnino said. “The kid wasn’t just a phenomenal lacrosse player. He was committed to his academics as well and that’s the full package right there.”

Lacrosse has always been Sumwalt’s first love and he’s been playing since kindergarten, but he’s not too shabby at golf either. In addition to lacrosse, he also starred on Riverhead’s boys golf team, which finished in first in its division with a flawless 10-0 record.

Gavin Mangano, Shoreham-Wading River Wrestling

Though this award is typically geared toward seniors, it’s hard to ignore the dominance Gavin Mangano exhibited this season on the wrestling mat. Only a freshman, he’s reached heights that a senior could only have hoped to accomplish when their career was over and done with.

After finishing second in the New York State Division II tournament last year, Mangano was not going to be denied this time around. He ripped through his opponents, one by one, earning titles on the way. Mangano won the Suffolk County title and then promptly dispensed with everyone in his way en route to the New York State championship in the 131-pound division. The New York State finals match wasn’t even close as he pinned Jayden Duncanson of Tioga in the second period. Mangano, despite his age, is just miles ahead of everyone in his weight division. 

“He’s already held in high esteem among all the Shoreham-Wading River wrestling greats,” said SWR head coach Joe Condon. “Very few people have even touched the accomplishments that he already has as a freshman.”

As if winning the state title wasn’t enough, Mangano put his talents on display at the Virginia Beach Nationals, where the best of the best from across the nation face off in a grueling tournament featuring 80 different wrestlers in each weight division. Mangano emerged victorious as the last one standing in the 126-pound freshman division, putting an exclamation mark on his remarkable season. He defeated Greyson Music — who has been widely recognized as one of the best talents in the nation out of Pennsylvania — 5-1 in the finals.

Mangano has now wrestled to a record of 117-3 during his high school career and if he hadn’t broken his wrist during his seventh grade season, the win total would even be higher. With three more years left in high school, barring injury, it’s hard to believe that he won’t be the most successful wrestler to ever set foot at Shoreham-Wading River High School.

“He’s going to do anything to help him improve and rarely takes any days off during the entire year,” Condon said. “He travels a lot and faces the best competition all the time. Even in club wrestling, he’s training with the best competition in Nassau and Suffolk counties routinely. The kid just does not stop. Like the old adage goes, iron sharpens iron.”

Grace Hillis, Shoreham-Wading River soccer

The Shoreham-Wading River girls soccer team made it all the way to the New York State final and senior captain Grace Hillis proved herself a leader along the way. Typically more of a defensive-minded player, where she routinely guarded the opponent’s best offensive option from her midfield position, Hillis impacted the game from one end to the other, bringing goals and assists while also keeping the opponents off the board.

When you look at the success the team had this year, a lot of it doesn’t happen without Hillis’ presence on the field.

“I’ve coached at Shoreham now for 14 years and I’ve coached some amazing athletes,” SWR head coach Adrian Gilmore said. “Great soccer players have come through this program. But since I’ve started, two players come to mind that were undoubtedly the best: Kari Quinn and Grace Hillis. Right from the first time I saw Grace, I just knew she had everything to make an amazing player. She’s the heart of the team. She’s a beast on the field. She demands perfection of herself. She was the only kid at practice that was angry she missed a shot.”

In the Suffolk County Class A championship against Kings Park, Hillis scored both of the goals to send the Wildcats into the Long Island championship. Then, in the Long Island finals, she scored the first goal and assisted on the next to defeat Plainedge and bring the team to states. It didn’t stop there. On a cross from Mia Mangano in the state semifinals against New Hartford, Hillis buried the team’s only goal on a volley to advance to the finals.

“Her role changed throughout the season depending on who we were playing,” Gilmore said. “We had a young team and our top goal scorer from last year got hurt with an ACL injury. We graduated Grace Leonard, which was a huge loss. There were a lot of changes and I think she saw the need to put the ball in the back of the net. I don’t think you have to ask a great player to do what’s necessary. They just see it and they do it.”

There was a time, though, when it looked like the senior’s season might have been over. At the end of the regular season against Bayport-Blue Point, Hillis was tackled and was immediately in immense pain. She had to be stretchered off the field.

“When she went down that game we saw the season flash before our eyes,” Gilmore said. “Bella Sweet rallied and put the ball in the back of the net for us to win the league but there was that big question mark whether she would come back. But the type of player she was, I knew if there was a chance she could, she would play. Her coming back from that and having that kind of performance shows the caliber of player she is.”

Hillis ended up winning All-County and All-State awards after the season ended. She was also named MVP of the state championships. Hillis will continue her soccer career at Old Dominion University.