After a two-year hiatus, the Lax for Autism game returned to MacArthur High School and it certainly lived up to the billing. Although the COVID-19 pandemic sidelined the game for two seasons, the MacArthur High School community was out in full force for its return.
“I feel that this event was extremely important to bring back this year,” MacArthur head lacrosse coach John Nessler said. “Our boys look forward to participating in the game, and they look forward to being able to wear the uniform that shows our support for the autistic community.”
It was the 10th annual Lax for Autism event at MacArthur. It’s a day designed to raise awareness about autism and few schools have risen to the challenge like MacArthur. The crowd was engaged in the action all day. The field and bleachers were decorated with autism puzzle pieces and the varsity team wore special, light-blue uniforms, with messages like “Strength,” “Courage” and “Hope” on the back. The day started with the MacArthur girls varsity playing at 9 a.m. and culminated with the boys varsity team facing Bellmore JFK in a Conference B matchup. In between, the junior varsity teams played, the Nassau County Police department took on the New York City Police Department lacrosse team and the Levittown Tomahawks PAL squared off against the Plainedge PAL.
“I absolutely love playing in this event knowing that I have a whole community behind me,” MacArthur captain and goalkeeper Steven Weber said. “I think being a part of this amazing day definitely hits a certain spot for my team.”
The MacArthur girls varsity team got things started by beating Hicksville, 12-5. Natalia Russo and Kailee Coppola each scored three goals to lead MacArthur (7-4). Kayliegh Huggard had a goal and two assists while goalkeeper Gia Stamatelo made 17 saves.
After a day filled with lacrosse action, the main event arrived at 7 p.m. MacArthur (6-3, 2-0 in Conference B) hosted Bellmore JFK (7-3, 4-2) on senior night. When the Generals took the field, they didn’t disappoint. Less than a minute into the game, John Rebaudo took a pass from Matt Cassidy on the right side of the cage, raced to the opposite side and scored as MacArthur went up 1-0. In the third minute, the Generals found themselves in a man-up situation when Rebaudo passed to a cutting James Hegel to make it 2-0.
A minute later, Rebaudo returned the favor to Cassidy. He hit Cassidy about 10 yards in front of the cage and the senior midfielder buried a left-handed shot for a 3-0 MacArthur lead. Junior attackman Joey Forchelli made it 4-0 with a hard-charging lefty drive to the net. Then, with 55 seconds left in the first quarter, senior midfielder James Napoli took a feed from Matt Papach and fired a laser past the Bellmore JFK goalie into the upper right corner of the net.
The second quarter started in similar fashion when Ryan Fitzpatrick broke through a scrum of players and scooped a loose ball. He raced to the cage and fed a wide-open Rebaudo for the senior’s second goal of the game and a commanding 6-0 lead. Midfielders Papach. Nick Del Grosso and James Napoli dictated the tempo of the game and continually kept the Generals in attack mode.
Additional second quarter goals by Hegel, Rocco Hogan, Papach, Fitzpatrick and Forchelli extended the MacArthur lead to 11-0 at halftime. The final score was 18-2 in favor of MacArthur.
“Playing for a cause like autism made me really think that I was playing for something much bigger than the game,” Weber added. “We are playing for something way bigger than words can describe.”
Weber and his defense—Ryan Larkin, Sean Napoli, Michael Cassano, Nick Del Grosso, Luca Runyan and Joe Hespe—locked down the Cougar offense for much of the game. Connor Cullen and Paul Lichter dominated the face-off circle.
But this day represented more than just athletic competition. The history of the Lax for Autism event is one of friendship and loyalty from the community.
“This year was especially important, as we not only celebrated our 10-year anniversary, but we also had an opportunity to honor a long-time friend of the program, Mr. Joe Gallagher, who passed away in December of 2019,” Nessler said. “Our boys had his initials and number on their helmets in support. He was there from the beginning, and will forever be a part of this event through his wife Maria, his son Brendan, and his siblings Chris, and Patty.”
Joe Gallagher was the unofficial photographer of MacArthur’s athletic programs. A graduate of the school himself, his son Brendan, who has autism, was also a student at MacArthur. It was during Brendan’s years at the school that this event took shape. The lacrosse team took Brendan in as one of their own.
“There was a special group of seniors back in 2013 that wanted to do something special for Brendan,” Nessler explained. “We discussed different things to help raise awareness and the idea that we all agreed on was a game and some cool-looking uniforms. We had some raffles. We hoped to just raise a few dollars to donate, but what happened was we raised $1,500 that first year.”
The good will and momentum continued to build after that first game. Ever since then, the MacArthur lacrosse program has donated all the proceeds to The Hagedorn Little Village School in Seaford. Many of the students in MacArthur’s Applied Behavior Analysis and Autism program attended Little Village. To date, the event has raised close to $60,000 for the school.
“COVID-19 hit them very hard over the last two years,” Nessler said. “So it will be great to be able to bring a check over to them this year and thank them for always being there for the autistic community.”
A big thanks also goes to the MacArthur community as well.
“We have amazing students, parents and administration at MacArthur and they show their full support,” Nessler said. “After starting with just a single game back in 2013, we have grown into an all-day event. When you see our community pull together with donations, time, and some sweat, it really shows what a special place this is.”
—James Rowan is a Nassau