From left, Ella, Jessica, Angie, and Ralph Salonia stand by...

From left, Ella, Jessica, Angie, and Ralph Salonia stand by a banner of Ava Salonia, who died last year of Leukemia, on Tuesday, Apr. 16, 2024 in Oceanside. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Hearts were wrenched and tears had to be dried before the girls lacrosse game at Oceanside High School on Tuesday.

Tributes were paid in word and deed and a moment of silence was observed before the national anthem as players, coaches and community gathered to remember Ava Salonia, who would have been playing her junior season for the Sailors..

Salonia, a lacrosse fanatic and the oldest of three daughters to parents Jessica and Ralph, died last August after a nearly year-long battle against Acute myeloid leukemia, a very aggressive form of cancer of the blood and bone marrow. She was diagnosed on the first day of her sophomore year. Players and fans wear gear for every game adorned with the words “Ava’s Army.”

“She loved playing lacrosse and competing with her friends . . . and wanted to practice whenever she could,” said a choked-up Ella Salonia, her sister and a sophomore on the varsity team. “She was as nice as anyone you ever met . . . always put others before herself.”

“Ella and Ava should be playing together on this team,” said Jessica Salonia.

Ava Salonia’s battle against AML has touched many in the community. Last Tuesday’s game against Roslyn, a 15-6 win for Oceanside, was the first in what is planned to be an annual event where she is remembered and her pet project — she designed small cosmetic-style bags for friends and fellow cancer patients — could go on through fundraising. It is dubbed the “ 'Love, Ava’ Project,” for the words emblazoned on all the bags. Recipients would also adorn them with patches.

Tuesday’s effort would provide supplies for the initiative to go on.

“The money raised at this game annually will not only keep her memory alive but also bring joy to other children,” said Jennifer Gemmo, part of the parent coalition that coordinated Tuesday’s event.

“Her project brought a lot of love to people and we can [extend] it with more bags and decals for [youngsters],” said Dina Ewashko, another Oceanside lacrosse parent who was key in organizing the event. “Doing something like this in her honor only seems like the right thing to do.”

The Oceanside players always wear blue and white ribbons in their hair on game days to represent the school colors, but on Tuesday they added a strand of orange ribbon to mark leukemia awareness. They also donned orange socks. When the Sailors lined up for the national anthem, three players — juniors Samantha Gemmo and Julianna Ewashko and senior Riley Mohr — addressed the crowd.

“Ava was a special person who was kind, caring and — most of all — the strongest person we have ever known,” Julianna Ewashko said. “She is gone but will never be forgotten.”

Mohr asked that, during the moment of silence, everyone consider Ava and all who have battled childhood cancer.

Ava Salonia played on the Oceanside junior varsity as a freshman and had an excellent season. Sailors coach Ralph Montero recalled that they spoke at the end of the season and, “we talked about her possibly moving on to the varsity as a sophomore and she couldn’t have been more excited.”

“Her body language on the field was the standard,” Sailors JV assistant coach Courtney Collins said. “She played attack and was never afraid to go at the net.”

But on the first day of sophomore year, August 31, 2022, testing due to quick fatigue yielded troubling results. She was diagnosed with AML and her health took wild swings through the next year. At the end of her first course of chemotherapy, there was remission. She received a bone marrow transplant in February of 2023. But the disease had mutations that made it hard to defeat, her mother said. And she passed away last August at the age of 16, just short of a year after her diagnosis.

“The Oceanside community has been incredibly supportive,” said Ralph Salonia, who coached girls youth lacrosse programs that included Ava, Ella and their younger sister, Angie, a seventh-grader at the middle school. “She’d have loved to be playing on this team with her friends.”

Before and after the moment of silence, the digital scoreboard on the Sailors’ home field showed photos of Ava. A few of the Sailors teared up as they looked in that direction.

When the first girls lacrosse season came around after her diagnosis, Ava Salonia became the manager of the Oceanside junior varsity she played on the year before.

“She was always a part of [the program] and that was how she could do it,” Samantha Gemmo said.

Ava Salonia made an impression on all in her orbit. Collins remembered her nurses speaking at the funeral and said, “it was beyond devastating.”

“Everything that the community has done throughout the last 18 months, 20 months, has been absolutely amazing,” Jessica Salonia said. “I couldn't ask for more support and I am touched by what they’ve all done today. These are the best people, the Oceanside family.”

How to contribute: There is gear associated with the “’Love, Ava’ Project.” Local clothier Buoy4 sells them at A portion of proceeds from clothing sales goes to continue funding the project.


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