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Sports campaign to support cancer research

Mary Ruchalski Foundation launches ‘Play 4 Mary’

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The Rockville Centre-based Mary Ruchalski Foundation is using sports to connect with local communities and raise awareness of pediatric cancer. Charity games scheduled throughout May aim to commemorate Mary’s fighting spirit, honored by her friends and teammates.

A St. Agnes student, Mary died in 2018, at age 12, of a rare cancer, rhabdomyosarcoma. She is remembered as a talented multisport athlete who played softball, basketball, soccer and lacrosse and swam.

Sacred Heart Academy’s junior varsity girls’ lacrosse team won a back-and-forth game against the Kellenberg Memorial High School JV last Sunday, 10-9. Sacred Heart hosted a small crowd of parents as well as family members and friends of the Ruchalskis.

All of the athletes wore bows in their hair and laces on their shoes sporting their team colors and the words “Play 4 Mary.”

The Rockville Centre PAL lacrosse league will have a “Play 4 Mary Day” on Sunday at the village sports complex, with six games scheduled in the girls’ division. The athletes’ jerseys will have Mary’s initials displayed prominently on their right shoulders. And attendees will be able to purchase “Play 4 Mary” socks to raise money for the foundation, which was launched in 2018 by the Ruchalski family to fund research for rhabdomyosarcoma and to help families impacted by cancer.

The “Play 4 Mary” campaign was launched last year, and generated great momentum before the Covid-19 pandemic struck. Because of the health crisis, the 2021 campaign has been focused on local schools and youth leagues. Organizers expect more than 20 games to be played in Mary’s honor by the end of May.

The name “Play 4 Mary” references a statistic from the National Pediatric Cancer Foundation: Only 4 percent of the money the federal government spends annually on cancer research is dedicated to childhood cancer.

As part of the effort to remedy that, the Ruchalski Foundation donated $30,000 to the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory for rhabdomyosarcoma research in 2019.

“As much as I wish Mary was physically here with us, I know she is here,” her mother, Carol Ruchalski, said in a speech before the Sacred Heart-Kellenberg game. “She’s on our minds, on our lips and in our actions. So play for Mary with all your heart, and respect your teammates and others.”

Last year, Mary’s sister, Ashley, who played lacrosse at Siena College from 2013 to 2016, asked the Saints’ coach if the school could take participate in the inaugural tournament in Rockville Centre. Siena accepted, and word spread to other NCAA lacrosse programs about the proposed tournament and its goals. The “Play 4 Mary” campaign was set to launch with not only Siena taking part, but also Boston College, Columbia University, Hofstra University and Holy Cross as well — but the pandemic’s arrival forced the games’ cancellation.

“We just had great momentum, so it was so upsetting to us that we had all these great colleges agreeing to a ‘Play 4 Mary Day’ and it just ended up not happening,” said Kathy Paesano, co-organizer and a family friend of the Ruchalskis.

Paesano’s daughter, Mary, who plays on Sacred Heart’s junior varsity lacrosse team, competed in memory of her friend last Sunday. “Mary was my best friend,” she said. “Today was such a special day for me, but to be honest, every time I walk on the field, I play for Mary.”

Still ahead for the campaign is a game between South Side High School’s varsity and junior varsity girls’ teams this Saturday, and the six-game schedule on Sunday. Supporters can purchase socks and bows or donate online at themaryruchalskifoundation.org.