Former Shoreham-Wading River High School wrestler Kevin Meloni didn’t realize he had won his 100th career match last year until he paused to point to the crowd. There among the SWR contingent, Mr. Meloni recalled, was eighth-grader Nick Donnelly, a call-up to the varsity team who had placed third that day.
“I see this kid cheering, screaming,” Mr. Meloni said last week. “I see this big smile, him laughing, like, so happy.”
Then a senior, Mr. Meloni watched as Nick charged down the stands to embrace him.
“He just jumped on me and gave me a big hug,” he said. “I’ll never forget that moment.”
Mr. Meloni, who graduated last year, became close with the young wrestler and often coached him. He and Nick were supposed to practice last Wednesday, but they never got the chance. Earlier that morning, Nick’s body was found in a wooded area in Shoreham, nearly a day after he was reported missing.
“I really miss him, man,” Mr. Meloni said in a wavering voice during a vigil to remember the teen. “It’s so hard.”
Hundreds of classmates, parents and community members gathered at candlelight vigils in Shoreham last week to remember Nick, a 14-year-old SWR freshman and member of the varsity wrestling team.
Nick left his house to go for a run around 10 a.m. Oct. 4 without bringing his cellphone, police said. He didn’t return home.
The teen’s body was found a short distance from his home on Chambord Court, police and a family member confirmed.
Authorities said the cause of death appears to be non-criminal but declined to discuss specifics. Nick’s uncle Donald Donnelly said Nick’s parents are awaiting results from the medical examiner’s office.
The sudden passing of a high school student shocked the tightknit community, which offered a pouring of support to the Donnelly family online and in person.
Last Wednesday night’s vigil began with a prayer service at St. Mark’s R.C. Church in Shoreham, not far from Nick’s home.
After the pastor led guests in prayer, a church band played the hymn “You Are Mine.” When it concluded, the church’s silence was broken only by the sniffs of parents and the sobs of Nick’s classmates sitting in the front pews.
One woman stood up and walked to an area near the altar to light a votive candle. After silently dropping to her knees and praying, she walked back to the mourners, dabbing away tears with a napkin.
After the service, Nick’s classmates walked to the nearby sod farm and stood in a circle as a cool fog rolled in. One by one, they lit candles in the shape of a heart with Nick’s initials spelled out inside. After a moment of silence,
students and their parents lit sky lanterns.
Nick is the second Shoreham-Wading River student to die suddenly in as many years. In 2014, football player Thomas Cutinella died after he sustained a head injury on the field. During last Wednesday’s vigil, held in the same location where students mourned Tom the evening after his death, some students who had weathered the previous loss comforted their peers, promising to support them.
“I’m not going to sugarcoat this,” one student told classmates huddled in the center of the vigil. “It’s going to be hard.”
Several of Nick’s wrestling squad teammates led the crowd in sharing stories about the teen. There was the time Nick walked his pet tortoise, they recalled, laughing. One boy said he remembered Nick facing off against an opponent at a wrestling camp who was much bigger than him — and still managing to take him down.
“He was a good kid,” said teammate Brendan Frances. “He put his heart into wrestling. He was a great friend, a great teammate.”
Brendan urged his classmates to talk to friends, parents, a trusted adult or counselor if they’re feeling troubled.
“A lot of people are willing to listen,” he said.
After news of Nick’s death spread, the entire wrestling team gathered at an assistant coach’s house to support each other, said varsity wrestling coach Joe Condon. Mr. Condon called Nick a “quality kid” who was intelligent, kind and polite — not to mention a dedicated wrestler.
Last Thursday afternoon, school sports resumed at Shoreham-Wading River High School. During the varsity tennis match, coach Debbie Lutjen said Nick had been one of her physical education students.
“A wonderful boy,” she said. “He’s an ‘A’ student. He’s an honor student. He’s funny. We want to remember those things. Such a tragedy.”
Senior Amanda DeTiberiis said her brother Kenny is a freshman who was friends with Nick.
“The first time we all heard, everyone just stopped talking, moving,” she said. “We were all kind of just shocked to hear the news.”
At sunset last Thursday, hundreds of people met at Shoreham Beach to pay tribute to Nick. The teen’s priest, uncle and nearly a dozen other students, parents, administrators and coaches spoke about what he meant to them.
“I think anyone here who had the privilege of knowing Nick Donnelly is a better person for it,” Mr. Condon said.
Many of the students then carried lit candles from the parking lot to the water, where they shed tears and shared embraces. During the memorial, they raised their candles to the sky and bowed their heads.
“My nephew lit up the room when he walked in,” Nick’s uncle said. “On behalf of my family, I can’t thank you enough.
Your love and support has been overwhelming.”