It’s rare that a goal scored midway through the second half of a regular-season high school girls lacrosse game moves people to both tears and thunderous applause.
But that’s exactly what happened when Plainedge’s senior defender Rachel Valenti had a goal against Hewlett in a lacrosse game on May 11. Plainedge won on Senior Day, but the day belonged to Valenti.
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“There wasn’t a dry eye in the place,” said Plainedge coach Rob Shaver, who moved Valenti from defense to offense in the second half. “People were cheering for a few minutes.”
Valenti’s father, Jim, said, “I never heard people cheer so much for a goal.”
“It was a big accomplishment, and showed all my work really paid off,” said Valenti, who added a goal and an assist the next day in a victory over Roosevelt. “It felt so good to come so far.”
To understand the road the 17-year-old has traveled — and why Plainedge fans were so emotional — you have to go back to May of last year. As Valenti was putting on her dress for the junior prom, she discovered a lump on the left side of her neck by her collarbone. A few days later, she finally told her parents.
On June 16, 2015, Valenti was given her diagnosis: Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system, which is part of your immune system, according to the Mayo Clinic
“The first time you hear that,” Jim Valenti said, “your heart skips a beat.”
Valenti had three rounds of chemotherapy in Mineola last summer, which kept her from working out with the lacrosse team or working at Hofstra’s summer camp. The lowest point came in early July, when she spent three days in the hospital because of dehydration. The treatment took its toll on Valenti and her family.
“It was hard when she wasn’t feeling good,” said Lauren Valenti, Rachel’s sister and a sophomore midfielder. “Seeing her throw up, and not being able to do anything to help, was tough.”
Valenti lost 15 pounds off her 5-8 frame, not to mention her long, flowing brown hair. At first, she got her hair cut to her shoulder. But it continued to fall out. Finally, Valenti’s father convinced her to shave her head.
“That was a turning point,” said Valenti’s mother, Kelly. “Afterward, she was so much better.”
Even when her fourth, and final round of chemotherapy coincided with the first two weeks of school, Valenti — who has a 97 average and took four college courses this year — never slowed down. She was a treasurer of the Key Club, a participant and committee chair in Plainedge’s Relay For Life, a member of Plainedge’s Best Buddies program and a manager of the winter track team.
“This is my senior year, and school is so important to me,” said the North Massapequa resident. “I enjoy seeing my friends and I love learning.”
Valenti, who missed only three days of school throughout the ordeal, received two booster treatments in October. As Halloween approached, Valenti showed an incredible sense of humor and dressed up as Charlie Brown. A few of her friends joined her as Peanuts’ characters.
“I couldn’t believe she wanted to do that,” said Kelli Smith, one of Valenti’s best friends, who dressed as Linus. “She was amazing.”
Valenti will attend Towson University, where she will play intramural sports and concentrate on her major: occupational therapy. Valenti, who has regained nearly all her weight, hopes to help children who have gone through ordeals like hers and work in either a school or hospital.
Through it all, Valenti — who played a majority of the season with a port in her chest (it was removed April 27, causing her to miss four games) — has been an inspiration to her family, friends and teammates. Plainedge defeated Calhoun in a Nassau Class B playoff game, 16-4, before it lost to Wantagh on May 19 in a quarterfinal and ended the season 13-5.
Valenti earned an award on Tuesday night at the Plainedge lacrosse team dinner. Now, each year, a Plainedge girls lacrosse player will be honored with the Rachel Valenti award.”
“Rachel is such a motivation,” said senior attack Sabrina Bastos. “If she can be so strong through something so hard, it makes what we’re doing on the field seem easy.”
Shaver also has been the Red Devils’ football and wrestling coach the last 19 seasons. When it comes to recognizing toughness, he’s as good a judge as any.
“Her intestinal fortitude — she’s up there as one of the best I’ve coached,” Shaver said. “What she went through would have broken a lot of kids.
“Some people may have gotten through it like she did, but it would have changed them for the worse. But with her, it’s changed her for the better. She’s never used this as an excuse, never said, ‘Woe is me’ or ‘could of, should of, would of.’ She just has a special attitude.”
That spirit has been on display whether Valenti is on the field or in the classroom.
“You have to stay positive,” said Valenti, who will graduate from Plainedge on Thursday. “If you don’t have a positive attitude, you’re not going to be able to accomplish your goals.”