One year ago, Ryan Waski and Jordyn Stromski never would have guessed they’d be celebrating homecoming on Sept. 29 wearing the blue and white Mardi Gras beads of Riverhead High School’s Blue Waves.
They expected to finish out their high school days in the green and gold colors of Bishop McGann-Mercy High School. But the Diocese of Rockville Centre, which ran the school, had other plans.
When the diocese announced last March that the East End’s only Catholic high school would be closing due to low enrollment, the school’s community was devastated.
“We didn’t see it coming at all,” Stromski said.
Stromski and Waski, whose parents are longtime friends and who have been inseparable since birth, knew they were going to miss cheering on McGann-Mercy’s football team with their friends in “the zoo” — a cheering section so named because of how wild it would get, Stromski said. The students would dress up according to different themes for home games. The themes included “white-out,” “black-out,” Hawaiian and even Christmas, where the students sang Christmas carols during the game.
The school’s closing was especially hard on the Waski family. Waski’s grandfather was in McGann-Mercy’s first graduating class in 1956. Her grandmother graduated the next year and her twin siblings graduated on the school’s 60th anniversary in 2016.
“It was [an] absolute shock,” Joann Waski, Ryan’s mom, said. “I was shocked the day I found out I was having twins. I was equally shocked to find out that news. That day my husband was at work when I got the call and I called him and I was crying, I could barely get the words out, especially because I had a senior.”
After learning that their school would close, Stromski decided to spend her last year at Riverhead, though Ryan didn’t make that decision until one week before classes started. She was planning on going to Westhampton Beach High School, but changed her mind when she found out she wouldn’t be able to play tennis at the school. At Riverhead she could play tennis and be teammates with Jordyn.
The two drove to Riverhead together on the first day of school. When they left, Ryan sent her mom a text saying, “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life.”
“It broke my heart,” Joann Waski said. “As a parent [you] always want the best for your child.”
But that afternoon, Ryan played her first tennis match as a Blue Wave. She came running off the court toward her mother and exclaimed, “I loved school!”
The girls said their tennis teammates have welcomed them with open arms and made the transition easier by introducing them to new people.
“Everyone is really nice and once they know you’re from Mercy they kind of accept you more and they understand what it’s like,” Ryan said.
Though they’ve made new friends, both girls miss the tight-knit community at their old school “where you could walk down the hallways and know everyone,” Ryan added.
It has been hard to keep in touch with friends from McGann-Mercy, many of whom ended up at St. John the Baptist Diocesan High School in West Islip, St. Anthony’s High School in South Huntington or other public schools on the East End.
“I haven’t talked to a lot of them in a while,” said Stromski, who still wears her McGann-Mercy class ring and had a message for her former classmates and teachers: “I miss them and I hope they’re having fun wherever they are.”
A coach also readjusts
Bishop McGann-Mercy High School’s faculty found out only moments before students and parents that the school was closing. Former physical education and health teacher Jeff Doroski said the emergency faculty meeting where the news was announced was “like being at a funeral.”
For Doroski, McGann-Mercy was literally about family. Doroski, his wife and both of his parents are Mercy alums. His older son Christian, 15, had attended the school from seventh grade until ninth grade, when the school closed.
“I have two younger children… the hope was [that they would] follow in Mommy and Daddy’s footsteps, [that] I would be able to teach and coach them at Mercy someday,” he said. “That is no longer a reality for us.”
Doroski had taught at McGann-Mercy for 17 of his 22 years in education. He had coached varsity football, girls basketball and junior varsity baseball. Suddenly, he was left “scrambling to find a job and ... competing with all these young kids right out of college for physical education jobs.”
He landed a physical education teaching job at Westhampton Beach High School, where he is also coaching junior varsity football. But he says some of his former colleagues haven’t been so lucky, and are still struggling to find employment.
The school’s closing has been “possibly one of the worst things I’ve experienced” not just as a professional, but as a parent, he said. Christian is now commuting 40 miles to St. Anthony’s High School in Melville.
But Doroski said his family doesn’t talk about it much anymore. He believes it’s important to move forward, though he’ll never forget his alma mater.
“It’s important to remember the role Mercy played in my life, and the lives of everyone. “...It’s important to recall all the positive things Mercy offered to our students and that we miss.”