One by one, each member of Kings Park High School’s varsity girls soccer team pressed their hands to their lips, then touched a large rock on the sidelines of their home field during halftime of Thursday’s game against West Babylon.
An inscription that appeared on a metal plate attached to the stone included the phrase “LaurenStrong,” and at its base, there were flowers, small candles, a plush soccer ball and a framed photo of a smiling young girl.
Since 2011, Kings Park High School has been hosting the annual “LaurenStrong” soccer game for Lauren Lenardi, a student-athlete who was diagnosed in 2010 with rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare and aggressive form of cancer. But this was the first year that Lenardi could only be there in spirit. She lost her battle on March 1 at the age of 16.
Instead of coming to support Lenardi in her fight, this year, the crowd of more than 300 students and their families turned out to the game to show the lasting impact she had on their lives.
Many wore yellow and black shirts bearing Lenardi’s initials, jersey number -- 40 -- and the phrase “LaurenStrong,” as they cheered on the sidelines and then, gathered around a memorial in her honor during halftime for a dedication ceremony.
“We don’t want to forget her,” said Bridget Keenan, Kings Park High School’s junior varsity girls soccer coach, who spoke of Lenardi’s optimism, strength and courage during the ceremony.
Keenan coached Lenardi during her freshman year, the last season she would get to play the sport she loved. That December, her cancer was discovered after she had trouble breathing during a volleyball tryout. Once she started receiving treatments, she was too weak to return to school, Keenan said.
She did, however, earn an honorary spot on the varsity girls soccer team’s roster for the 2011 and 2012 seasons. When she was up for it, she’d attend practices and games, serving as the team’s biggest motivator.
“She loved coming down and supporting us and just being with the team,” said senior Katie Tuorto, 17. “She always had a smile on her face, even though you could see the pain in her eyes from what she was fighting.”
Tuorto, who played soccer with Lenardi since they were both 4, described Lenardi as a great friend and a tough soccer player.
“She went hard to every ball. Every time she stepped onto the field she played like it was the last time,” she said. “She still inspires me today.”
Even when Lenardi had to miss games, because she was in the hospital, girls varsity coach Bryan LoPalo said he would receive texts from her asking for recaps.
“She was passionate about soccer and dogs,” said Sharon Lenardi, 52, of her daughter.
Lauren Lenardi was a longtime volunteer with the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind in Smithtown, fostering more than 50 puppies. Two service-dogs-in-training even attended Thursday’s game sporting “LaurenStrong” T-shirts, and sat in the stands with Lenardi’s mother, her father, Rob, 50, and older sister, Holly, 18.
In the past, proceeds from the sale of these shirts, along with refreshments and 50/50 raffles, were donated to Lenardi’s family to offset her medical expenses. Now the funds raised will go to a scholarship set up in her name.
Keenan said the school will continue to host the game each year, as close to Lenardi’s birthday -- Sept. 13 -- as possible.
“To see this and to know that Mr. LoPalo and his team is still there for her and they haven’t forgotten her, it would mean everything to her,” Sharon Lenardi said.
After shutting out West Babylon, 3-0, Kings Park celebrated the win by putting their hands into a huddle and shouting Lauren’s name.
“They still play for her,” said LoPalo. “They carry her with them once they step onto those lines, and they play hard.”