Through Soccer Lens, Varsity Team Leans Life Lessons of Love, Kindness
After winning a 5-0 shutout at home against Croton at Viking Stadium, the Valhalla boys varsity soccer team was on a three-game winning streak. The Viking athletes beamed, hugged each other and high-fived on the pitch.. Coach Sandro Prosperino had an idea to keep spirits high: instead of holding a practice the following day, the team would visit the American Youth Soccer Organization's Very Important Players program for children with special needs.
The following day, the players arrived slightly before 3 p.m. at the Lakeside Field in Mount Pleasant. The green field was the site of AYSO’s soccer program for students with special needs. The program is geared toward children and adults whose physical or mental disabilities prevent them from successful participation in mainstream teams.
“We often think that it’s so easy to play soccer all the time,” said VHS senior Steven Thelliyankal, a third-year varsity player, “but it can be challenging for them. It’s humbling to see that we can help. It’s eye-opening because you’re there to help others.”
The varsity team split into groups with the children. Six Vikings befriended the older students and began a game of six-on-six. Another group played a three-on-three mini-game. Others practiced drills, like dribbling and shooting, encouraging them and sharing tips.
“It felt good – it was very uplifting and everyone was happy,” said senior Dominick Novello. “Our group was having a scrimmage and we were all doing our own thing.”
Steven agreed: “They’re often kind of shy, but they interacted more when we were there,” he said. “It was fun. We had some good laughs together.”
During the session, junior Jonah Strupinsky and his teammates were standing by the goal, acting as the VIP children’s “fan section.” A child approached Jonah and wanted to play. The boy’s parents said that he had attended the program for weeks but had never touched a ball. With Jonah’s encouragement, he learned to kick it, dribble it toward the goal and shoot – scoring a few times in the process.
“We were so engaged with him,” said Jonah, a first-year varsity player. “We were continuously cheering him on. It definitely made me feel good. I’ve never felt like that before. It’s incredible to know that you made that much of a difference in someone’s life. It stuck with me.”
After the 90-minute session was over, the Viking athletes felt fulfilled. Jonah said that it was sad to leave, especially knowing that he and his teammates had imparted joy to the VIP students. He looked forward to returning.
“It was a very uniting feeling,” Steven said in agreement. “We don’t always see these kids in the community, so this was great. It was really nice to have that feeling of being all together.”
“I think that the varsity boys got more out of it than the kids in the program,” said Coach Prosperino, who is a Valhalla Middle School special education teacher. “They realize the power of it and how they’re playing a role. You cannot leave the experience and not feel good. It’s a way for us to say thank you to our community for supporting us.”
Instilling kindness, generosity, leadership skills and a positive spirit in the varsity players has always been at the forefront of how Coach Prosperino leads his team. Now the head varsity coach for 14 years, he had previously acted as the varsity assistant coach for a year, junior varsity coach for three years and modified coach for five years. About five years into leading the varsity team, he elected to no longer name captains.
“This goes back to the question: Are leaders born or can they be developed?” Coach Prosperino said. “I believe that you can develop those skills. I used to wrestle with who to make captain. Do I pick my best players? They’re not always the best leaders. Do I pick my best leaders? They’re not always the best players. It was a tough decision.”
Instead, he encouraged his 12th-grade players to step up as the team’s leaders. They were the first to arrive at practice and the last to leave. They led warm-ups, gave advice to the younger players and carried the water, ice, balls, pinnies and other equipment. With 11 seniors on the Fall 2019 team, it afforded them endless opportunities to spearhead the team and showcase their leadership skills.
“Usually the younger kids do everything, but we do it differently here,” Steven said. “Here, the seniors are responsible. We lead by example. It has taught me to always live life as if someone is watching you and that we have to keep a high standard for ourselves. We always have to be cognizant of what we’re doing and where we are.”
Dominick agreed, saying that while it’s usually the younger students who are given the extra tasks, Valhalla’s team affords the seniors a chance to have leadership roles: “Our motto is that it’s right for the older players to take care of the team,” he said. “It’s a good move. Coach looks to us to do things. Everyone on our team gets along. As seniors, we have a lot of responsibility.”
Another way to share positivity and growth was through the team’s Gratitude Jar, which they began this year. Once a week, the team gathered in a room, each grabbing a small piece of paper and a pen. They each wrote down something that they were grateful for that day, folded the paper and placed it in the jar. No one was ever obligated to share what they wrote, but a handful usually did.
“We jot down things that put a smile on our faces,” said Dominic. “It’s a nice reminder that there are always things that make us happy and to always look at the upside. It shows us how everyone’s feeling. Someone might be having a bad day, so this allows us to lighten up and have a good practice. It helps the bad stuff to all go away.”
Coach Prosperino echoed his player’s sentiments. While he doesn’t read the anonymous papers that go into the jar, he shares his gratitude aloud – sometimes they’re about his colleagues, his family or the students he teaches.
“After people clap and acknowledge other peoples’ gratitude, there’s a buzz in the room,” he said. “The room is filled with warmth and positive energy. It’s about getting them to acknowledge the little things in life that are easy to miss. It helps us start a good practice and feel good about our company. We care about the people around us and about being a positive force.”
This positive attitude carried the team to a winning season, which saw them reach the first round of Sectional play.
“If the only thing I’m doing is coaching these boys in soccer, I’m doing a great disservice,” Coach Prosperino said. “It’s my pleasure to teach them about things outside of the game.”
Varsity Volleyball Repeats as Section Champions
For the second year in a row, Valhalla High School's girls varsity volleyball team was crowned the victors of Section One. At Pace University on Nov. 3, the Vikings outplayed the Rye Neck Panthers in three straight sets.
“It was great – I’m very proud of them,” said Trish Ward, who has coached the team for 10 years. “They were super pumped that they won Sectionals two years in a row. They felt confident going in. They hadn’t seen Rye Neck this season but they watched video.”
She noted that the student-athletes work well collaboratively and genuinely enjoy each other’s company. That team effort created a tough squad that, throughout the season, defeated rivals Briarcliff and Westlake twice each – and, ultimately, became League champion.
“I can’t say we’re a perfect team,” VHS senior Jasmine Grant told LoHud after the game, “but we truly rise above when it’s required – and that is one thing I greatly respect when we come onto the court. If there’s a situation, we have each other’s back, I can’t emphasize that enough.”
Before their run of success began last year, the Valhalla girls varsity volleyball team hadn’t made it this far in competition in approximately 20 years. Coach Ward and her athletes were delighted that so many fellow Vikings attended the game to cheer them on.
“The atmosphere was amazing,” she said. “The crowd was very loud. It’s incredible. The community is unbelievable with the support they give to these girls. They’ve always been big supporters throughout the season.”
The Vikings will next play in the Regional semifinals on Tuesday, Nov. 12, at Kingston High School at 7:30 p.m.
“We’re just trying to start a trend this year – to keep winning,” VHS senior Linda Rossi told LoHud after the game. “After last year, we were motivated even more to keep going, and we want to keep going further every year.”
The triumphant team was composed of seniors Isabella Masucci, Natalie Barbuto, Angelica Joseph, Juliana Abbondola, Naomi Ndzibah, Ava Reluzco, Olivia Callaghan, Dylan Van Bramer, Jasmine Grant, Sofiah Pacheco, Sophia Cavallo, Linda Rossi, Stephanie Sicilian, Gabriella Rinaldi, Mikaela Robinson and Elianiz Torres.
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Field Hockey’s Ava De Natale Named LoHud “Player of the Week”
Ninth-grader Ava De Natale had possession of the ball and was running down the pitch. It was the beginning of a field hockey game against Pleasantville on Viking Stadium. Ava told herself that if she didn't shoot at that moment, she wouldn't make it. She was off the side of the field but decided to shoot anyway. She tumbled and fell onto the turf... but she scored!
That quick-thinking goal helped her team soar to a competitive and hard-fought 1-0 victory over the Panthers. It – and her excellent playing over the last month, including another goal in a 3-1 win over Croton – netted Ava the recognition of being named lohud’s field hockey Player of the Week for the last week of September.
“I was really excited,” said Ava, her team’s leading scorer, who learned that she won while at home with her family. “It is really cool to get recognized. It’s a good feeling to have.”
Ava was nominated alongside nine other standout field hockey players from Westchester, Rockland and Dutchess counties. She won – and was in the lead throughout the entire voting process – despite Valhalla being one of the smallest schools nominated. She earned one-third of the 35,000-plus votes cast.
“What makes her so good is her quickness,” coach Ashlee Austin told lohud. “Ava always wants the ball and will often out-run people to get it… (She) takes all critique and suggestions with open arms and then applies them to the game play… In the future, we are looking to grow Ava as a player and continue to see her as our leading scorer.”
Ava began playing field hockey during the summer before seventh grade. She played for two years on the modified team before being called up to the varsity team for her freshman year. Her interest in field hockey was inspired by her family’s love of hockey.
“Field hockey is really fun,” said Ava, who plays center forward and is the only freshman on the varsity team. “I like that it’s fast-paced and hands-on. My family watches hockey and it’s a similar game.”
Valhalla Standout Swimmer Makes All-American Scholastic Team
Senior Isabella Fountain was named to USA Swimming's Scholastic All-American Team for being, simultaneously, a strong athlete and student.
In mid-September, the national organization honored the standout Viking swimmer among 1,634 swimmers in grades 9 through 12 nationwide. She was one of only 806 females and one of only 381 seniors to be recognized.
To earn a spot on the team, an athlete must maintain at least a 3.5 Grade Point Average and meet the 2018 Winter Junior time standards in the pool during the year of application (2018-19).
“This is so surreal,” Isabella said. “I’m so satisfied that I almost don’t believe it. I think of myself as an athlete as I often get recognized for swimming. So this is cool to be recognized for academics also. I’ve very proud of myself.”
Isabella has been swimming for Valhalla since ninth-grade and excels as a freestyle sprinter. She said that she enjoys many of her classes, but has really challenged herself academically by taking new subjects.
“USA Swimming is proud to recognize these scholar-athletes and congratulates the swimmers on their achievement,” read the company’s press release, “as well as their coaches and parents for their outstanding support.”
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Congratulations to Class of 2019 graduate Gianna Bencivengo, who was named an All-State Softball player!
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VHS Junior Wins Hammer Throw, VMS Athlete Competes at Track Nationals
Following an exceptional sports season filled with improvement, new records and awards, track and field star Noah Belmnahia won his division at the National Championships.
Noah competed at the New Balance Outdoor Track and Field Nationals on June 14 at the Aggie Stadium in Greensboro, North Carolina. He competed in the “Emerging Elite” division for men’s hammer throw and set a personal record of 185 feet and 4 inches with his winning throw.
This showing earned Noah many new accolades. He is the first Valhalla athlete to win any division at Nationals. He is also now in the Top 10 of Section 1 hammer throwers all-time.
“He’s self-motivated and self-driven,” said coach Sonya Greaves. “He’s the first kid at the track and the last kid to leave. He’s always practicing – practice, practice, practice – until he gets it perfect. You can’t think of a more deserving kid to win this.”
Noah’s 185’4” throw was a full foot farther than the second- and third-place finishers, and over 11 feet farther than the fourth-place finisher. His goal for his senior year of high school is to throw over 200 feet.
Not only is Noah a spectacular athlete, but he has taken his coach’s advice to be a good sportsman. “He has really gone out of his way to help kids from other schools,” said Ms. Greaves. “He has friends in other schools and they all help each other. He is very highly respected by coaches at other schools in this region.”
A New, Young Star Steps into the Limelight
Valhalla Middle School eighth-grader Juliette Sullivan also competed at the New Balance Outdoor Track and Field Nationals alongside Noah. She contended in the 200-meter and 400-meter races.
Juliette’s outing makes her the first Valhalla eighth-grader to ever qualify for Nationals, and the first Viking student-athlete of any grade to ever qualify for Nationals in two events. She ran the 200-meter race in 26.9 seconds and the 400-meter race in 62.2 seconds – both results are about two seconds shy of Valhalla’s best.
“Now she has four more years left to compete,” said Ms. Greaves. “She’s a great kid, she works hard and has a great attitude. For an eighth-grader, this was a really excellent experience.”
Juliette joined Valhalla’s varsity track and field team a few weeks into the season after coaches noticed her potential on the modified team. She is now the fastest athlete on the varsity team and had an impressive, challenging and fruitful first year running with her high school teammates.
Three VHS Senior-Athletes Commit to Colleges
It’s official! Valhalla High School athletes Gianna Bencivengo, Shannon Brosnan and Joe Pecora signed their commitment papers to play college sports.
On June 12, the athletics department held a special ceremony for the three students in the Valhalla Middle/High School auditorium. The college-bound student-athletes were joined by their coaches and families.
The students are:
Gianna Bencivengo – Dean College (Mass.) – Softball
Shannon Brosnan – SUNY New Paltz (N.Y.) – Lacrosse
Joe Pecora – Sacred Heart University (Conn.) – Football
VHS Athletes Receive All-Section Honors
To cap off a victorious spring sports season, 13 student-athletes were recognized with All-Section honors.
At the June 11 Board of Education meeting, Athletic Director Jamie Block awarded the standout athletes with certificates and expressed how dedicated they were to their sports and their teammates throughout the season.
“I appreciate the students and all that they’ve done,” he said. “This is all about being a Viking, and we are grateful for the community’s support.”
The All-Section students are:
Robert Carbone (junior)
Patrick Gleason (senior)
Gianna Bencivengo (senior)
Track and Field:
Noah Belmnahia (junior)
Tyler Drummond (freshman)
Madison Marino (freshman)
Mekhi Miller (sophomore)
Ada Nduka (sophomore)
Henry Pennella (senior)
Julianna Pisacana (senior)
Diana Santini (senior)
Michael Rizzuto (senior)
Stefan Thiele-Pissini (senior)
Junior Thrower Noah Belmnahia Medals at State, Nationals, Earns New Record
It brings 11th-grader Noah Belmnahia joy to compete in indoor track and field’s weight throw event. When he spins in circles and throws a 25-pound ball as far as he can, he feels rushes of adrenaline and excitement.
Noah competed in the State and National competitions on March 2 and 8, respectively. He won fifth-place at States (additionally earning seventh-place at the Federation meet) and 12th-place at Nationals.
At the State competition, which took place at Staten Island’s Ocean Breeze Athletic Complex, Noah felt physically prepared and mentally strong. He had worked diligently during the season to continuously improve, had rested well the night before to refuel his body, and expected to perform well.
In the prelims, he threw a new personal record of 58’10” – a 24-foot improvement over his best distance from last year. As he progressed in the competition, he saw many strong opposing throwers, but was “in the zone,” he said, and stayed sharp. Even though he was seeded 15th, he placed fifth overall and took home a medal.
“It was a true honor to receive that medal,” Noah said. “It’s a true privilege. I felt like I deserved it. I worked really hard.”
Following that win, Noah became the first-ever Valhalla athlete to compete at the New Balance Indoor Nationals at Manhattan’s Armory. His 12th-place finish was a satisfying conclusion to his indoor track season.
Throughout that season, Noah racked up several accolades. He was named an All-League, All-County, All-Section and All-State athlete. He was the winner of the League Championships, Section 1 (Class C) Championships and the Westchester County Championships. In addition to being Valhalla’s first indoor track athlete to qualify for Nationals, he was also the first to qualify for the Millrose Games in New York City and to win the aforementioned county title.
Coach Steve Reich said that Noah dedicated himself to the weight throw and was committed to improving. Fellow coach Sonya Greaves agreed, saying that his focus propelled him to success.
“Noah really stepped up his throwing game this year,” she said. “He practices seven days a week and has an incredible work ethic. He got his feet wet in a lot of great competitions this year. This is what he does – he’s a thrower. It’s a lot of hard work and commitment.”
Noah began competing in track and field as a freshman to stay in shape during soccer’s off seasons. He picked up the weight throw at the suggestion of a friend, who recommended it due to his height and frame.
Basketball Star Shelby Sekinski Scores 1,000th Point, Wins “Player of the Week” Honor
After being fouled in the second quarter, Valhalla High School junior Shelby Sekinski stood at the free-throw line and focused. She knew that if she sunk her basket, she would reach a rare milestone.
On Dec. 6, the Vikings played against North Salem High School at the Keio Academy. With her teammates cheering her on, Shelby made her shot and scored the 1,000th point of her varsity basketball career.
“It’s exciting and I was really happy,” said Shelby, who is the captain of her team. “My friends were happy for me, too. I’ve had more faith in myself lately. And when I have more faith in myself, my shots go in. So I stayed focused.”
Following her momentous achievement, The Journal News named her its “Player of the Week.” Battling five other standout basketball players from Westchester and Rockland counties, Shelby won with nearly 44 percent of the vote. In a story focused on her win, the media outlet noted that she scored at least 20 points in each of the Vikings’ three games that week.
The point guard, who wears jersey No. 25, is now part of an exceptional group of only three female Valhalla student-athletes to score over 1,000 points in their varsity careers. “It feels pretty cool to be up there with great people,” she said.
Shelby began playing basketball in third grade at her father’s suggestion. He noted that she had confidence and a “tough” look for an elementary school student and could be a force on the court. While she practiced with teams and dedicated herself to improving, she met many friends along the way and enjoying playing with her peers.
No stranger to playing on Viking teams, Shelby has been a varsity basketball player since 8th grade and played on the modified team in 7th grade. She also played lacrosse in 7th and 8th grade. Aside from sports, she participates in the yearbook club and the Valhalla International Fund.
Varsity Volleyball Team Wins Sectional Title
For the first time in Valhalla history, the high school varsity volleyball team is the Section One champion in Class C.
The team – who soared through an undefeated 19-0 season – played a tough match against Haldane High School, the defending champion. The Vikings won by three sets to one (25-17, 26-28, 25-9, 25-16) at Pace University on Nov. 3.
Viking Swimmer Isabella Fountain Shines at Sectionals
For yet another year, Valhalla swimming phenom Isabella Fountain will compete at States against the best high school swimmers in New York.
Isabella, a junior, will contend at the New York State Public High School Athletic Association’s 2018 girls swimming and diving championships on Nov. 16 and 17. She qualified in the 50-yard freestyle capturing the section I title, the 100-yard freestyle and 200 IM relay.
Last year, as a sophomore, Isabella swam in four events at the state competition, and won three medals. She placed 6th in the 50-yard freestyle, 6th in the 200-yard freestyle relay and 11th in the 200-yard medley relay.
Boys Varsity Soccer Team Earns Academic Award
For the third time in four years, United Soccer Coaches recognized the Viking boys varsity soccer team of 2017-18 with an educational award for their high grade point averages.
In mid-October, the organization announced that Valhalla was one of 312 high school teams nationwide that earned the prestigious Academic Award. The award is merited if the combined GPA of the team is 3.25 or higher throughout the entire school year. Valhalla’s 21-member team had a collective 3.31 GPA.
“This is about as good of an award as you can win,” said coach Sandro Prosperino, who has coached Valhalla Schools’ soccer programs for 21 years, 13 of which as varsity coach. “This is a true reflection of a student-athlete. They are holding themselves accountable for their grades.”
Of the 312 high school teams selected for United Soccer Coaches’ Academic Award, 107 were boys teams. Valhalla was one of only three boys teams from New York to win.
“They put their studies first,” Mr. Prosperino said. “This is very cool. They help each other. They can lean on each other – academically and for moral support. It’s wonderful that their priorities and friendships extend to the classroom, which is the most important place for them to excel.”
During pre-season, he and assistant coach Marko Loncar make a point of not only discussing the team’s soccer goals, but also its academic goals. They reviewed the importance of cultivating a strong education and performing well in class.
“We’re called ‘coaches’ but we’re teachers,” Mr. Prosperino said. “We teach them about soccer, but also about integrity, respect, discipline and staying together. We’re really happy that they won this award for themselves.”
United Soccer Coaches is the largest soccer coaches’ organization in the world, composed of over 32,000 members that lead at every level of the game – from recreational to collegiate. Its mission is to provide programs and services that enhance, encourage and contribute to the development and recognition of soccer, its coaches and their players.
Field Hockey Goalie Hannah Etlinger Named LoHud’s Player of the Week
Senior Hannah Etlinger, the Viking field hockey goalie, earned LoHud’s “Player of the Week” recognition after performing exceptionally well during an exciting game late last month.
In early October, The Journal News announced that Hannah had beaten seven other standout field hockey athletes from nearby schools for the special honor. The media outlet recognized her spectacular 30 saves during the Vikings’ loss to Albertus Magnus High School.
“I wasn’t really expecting to win ‘Player of the Week,’” Hannah said. “It was kind of crazy. I didn’t know I had so many people voting for me. I’ve never had that many people behind me before.”
In addition to Hannah’s teammates and classmates, several Valhalla alumni saw Hannah’s name on the list and were happy to support their alma mater. Thanks to that support, Hannah narrowly defeated the runner-up from Clarkstown South High School by 35 votes in a tight race.
This fall season is currently Hannah’s second year playing field hockey. She made the switch from lacrosse, which she played in 9th- and 10th-grade on the varsity team.
“I love my team,” she said. “Being the goalie is a good leadership role for me where I can be loud and assertive. Our team works really well together. Some athletes play for themselves, but we play for each other.”
Two Juniors Medal in Grand Cross Country 5K Race
At an invitational 5K race featuring hundreds of runners, two Valhalla High School student-athletes earned medals thanks to their fast times.
Juniors Mary Henry and Gwen Lileika finished in the top 25 of their race during the Six Flags Safari Invitational in New Jersey on Sept. 29. The race featured top runners from high schools in the Hudson Valley and northern New Jersey.
“Both Mary and Gwen are really hard workers and are dedicated to the team,” said coach and teacher Ashley Fetzer, adding that Mary set a personal record during the race. “We’re happy that they performed so well.”
The invitational hosted several hundreds of runners, who were divided into groups of approximately 150 athletes. The top 25 finishers in each group earned medals. Mary and Gwen finished with times of 24:22 and 24:16, respectively.
Following the race, the team spent the rest of the day touring the park, enjoying each other’s company and engaging in team-building activities.
Always striving to develop their skills, both girls have improved their 5K times since the Six Flags Safari Invitational. Mary shaved nearly a minute off of her time by setting a personal record of 23:23 at the Brewster Invitational, and Gwen bettered that with a 22:46 finish at the League Meet.