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Lacrosse tournament honors late MSG player, benefits charitable foundation

Strawberry Fields forever will be linked to Ryan Oliver’s beginnings as a lacrosse player.

As his father Mike recalled, Ryan was a kindergartner playing for North Fork Lacrosse Club. “This was home,” he said, scanning the field in front of him. “So, literally right there, Field 2 is where I coached the Bulldogs in kindergarten. It’s where he grew to love the game.”

And it’s where family, friends, former teammates and players who played against Ryan Oliver gathered with others early Saturday morning for the Ryan’s Team Memorial Tournament. Ten boys lacrosse teams with high school age players — mostly Long Islanders, with one team from Florida — participated in Oliver’s memory at Strawberry Fields in Mattituck.

Ryan Oliver’s sudden death Jan. 28, 2021, left the North Fork community and the tight-knit lacrosse world grief-stricken. Oliver was 16 at the time, a sophomore midfielder/attackman who had had never played in a varsity game, but was promoted to Mattituck/Southold/Greenport’s varsity team for the 2019 playoffs. The 2020 season wasn’t played because of the coronavirus pandemic, and Oliver was projected as an impact player for a talented 2021 team that spring.

In Oliver’s memory, his father initially started a GoFundMe Facebook page to collect donations for local charities and families. A foundation, Ryan’s Team, was created in 2021 for North Fork families in need, said Mike Oliver, who noted that roughly $80,000 has been raised.

“Well, there’s always people in need and, you know, when we were in need, people came to our aid,” he said in an interview before the games started. “The town was incredible. They came out and just did whatever it took to help us and, you know, Ryan had a heart of gold. He was always looking out for people, always wanted to help people. So we took that mentality and just moved it forward. It’s just, you know, we want to honor his legacy by helping those that need help.”

Mike Oliver, delivering remarks before the start of Saturday’s tournament, said Strawberry Fields was where his late son, Ryan, “grew to love the game.” (Credit: Bob Liepa)

The tournament raised money for the foundation, but Mike Oliver said it was more about bringing the players together. All the team jerseys represented teams Ryan Oliver played for, he said.

Many of the players in the tournament knew Ryan Oliver, perhaps none better than his former MSG teammate, senior long-stick midfielder Sean Lawson. Lawson said he choked up during Mike Oliver’s ceremonial remarks.

“He’s so close to my heart,” Lawson said. “His son [was] my best friend, you know. We just have a connection together, his dad, his mom, his sister, you know. I want to look look after them.”

Another MSG player, senior defenseman Gavin Richards, had “RO#3” inscribed on tape attached to his helmet. Oliver wore No. 3.

“I think it’s really good what we’re doing out here for him, and I think most guys out here are just worried about having fun and not worrying about the wins and losses,” he said. “We’re just here to remember Ryan.”

Griffin Sumwalt, a Riverhead junior attackman who had played on travel teams with Oliver, said, “He was just a great person, always caring, looking out for other people.”

MSG coach John Amato, who split time Saturday coaching two teams, said the day brought about “mixed emotions. Happy to be out here with a lot of people that loved Ryan, but also sad that he’s not here with us playing.”

Five modified 60-by-40-yard fields, way smaller than a typical lacrosse field, were set up. This was a different type of tournament. Each team was to play four seven-on- seven, 36-minute games. No playoffs. No championship game.

The emphasis was on having fun, and Mike Oliver made that clear in his pregame remarks. Addressing the players, he said: “A lot of you guys graduate this coming year, so this could be your very last tournament, so enjoy it. Please go out, enjoy the game the way Ryan did. Have fun. Shoot behind the back, shoot through the legs. Goalies, I want to see some points, right? Goalies should be scoring.”

One Riverhead goalie took that to heart. Connor Golz, a junior, saw an opportunity, took it and scored his first career goal in a 19-6 win over the Jokers. “Pretty fun,” he said.

“Playing in memory of [Ryan], we’re having a good time,” Sumwalt said. “He would have loved this.”

Lawson concurred, saying, “I hope that he’s watching us play and having a smile on his face.”