For the athletic department of Pearl River High School, located 26 minutes north of Manhattan in a wooded Rockland County hamlet on the New Jersey border, nothing is more coveted than the Gold Ball, the trophy awarded to New York’s Section I champions.
In 2012, Stony Brook guard Christa Scognamiglio was in her final year of a decorated high school career. A five-year letter-winner, Christa’s list of individual accolades cemented her among the country’s premier high school players: Class A New York State Player of the Year, three-time Rockland County Player of The Year, four all-league and three all-state selections.
But Pearl River had not boasted the Gold Ball in four years.
With her younger sister Marissa, then a high school junior, beside her on the court, Christa capped off her time sporting a Pirates uniform with a theatrical climax, finally winning the league championship and subsequently, the Gold Ball, in her last ever high school basketball game.
Sitting in the rafters, supporting his sisters as he always did, was Christa’s younger brother Thomas.
Scognamiglio is a household name in Pearl River athletics. Patrick, the oldest, ran track and field. Christa was a basketball star. Marissa is now a starter on the College of New Jersey women’s soccer team. Thomas’ sport of choice was baseball. Even the youngest, Rosie, 11, plays travel basketball and constantly barks at Christa with relentless taunts of “I’m better than you.” Sharing a common passion for sports, albeit different ones, the siblings were almost never absent from one another’s games.
Christa knew that championship game would be her last for Pearl River. What she didn’t know was that it would also prove to be the last time Thomas watched her take the court.
A year and a half after being diagnosed with Osteosarcoma, a bone cancer most commonly found in children, Thomas passed away in October of 2012 at the age of 16.
“My freshman year [of college], when he passed away, it was hard for me,” Christa explained. “I go into practice every day thinking that my brother never gave up his fight and these kids never gave up their fights, so why should I? Why should I stop fighting? Why should I not want to run my last sprint in practice?”
The welcome sign to Pearl River reads, “The town of friendly people.” If you asked the Scognamiglio family, they would tell you that this slogan is more than a pithy quirk. It is a mantra embedded into the ethos of the community.
“The community has been amazing and they’re so supportive of everything,” Christa said. “My brother is actually not the only student who has lost his life in the community. We have a close-knit community in school and everyone just bands together and it’s amazing.”
In order to pay homage to those in the community that helped support their family through a time of bereavement — such as the teachers who spent after-school hours tutoring Thomas at home, or the neighbors who appeared at the doorstep unannounced to cook the night’s dinner — the Scognamiglio family established the Tommy Scogs Foundation soon after Thomas’ death.
The foundation provides annual academic and athletic scholarships to seniors of Pearl River High School. Beyond this, the foundation donates equipment to both the school and its sports teams.
Two of its largest donations were new dugouts for the Pearl River baseball and softball teams and a new aquarium for the school’s marine biology program. Baseball was Thomas’ favorite sport. Marine biology, his favorite class.
“Tommy was the happiest kid alive. Like nothing could ever bring him down,” Marissa said. “Even on his worst days at the hospital or at home just feeling terrible, you could always count on a smile. He was the happiest kid alive.”
Funding is also allotted to cancer research at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Research Center on the east side of Manhattan, where Thomas received his chemotherapy treatments. More broadly, the Scognamiglio family uses the foundation as a platform for reaching out to those in the community inflicted with cancer, such as Danni Kemp, a Stony Brook softball player currently undergoing treatment for an inoperable brain tumor.
Volley-tennis, a homegrown hybrid where volleyball is played on tennis courts, a favorite gym class game of Thomas’, serves as an annual fundraiser for the foundation.
“It’s really fun,” Christa explained. “We used to play it in gym class all the time. It was one of my brother’s favorite gym class games, so my parents and his friends thought it would be awesome to make that a tournament.”
The Tommy Scogs Foundation also partnered with the Rockland Boulders, a local minor baseball team, for a fundraiser at the team’s stadium that holds over 4,500 seats.
But the foundation’s bread and butter event is an annual West Point Triathlon. This year, over 50 participants ran on the Tommy Scogs team. Christa opted for the swimming third of the triathlon, teaming up with two friends.
“We finished,” she said with a chuckle when asked how her trio fared.
And on the sidelines, supporting Christa as she slid out of the Lake Popolopen water, were her Stony Brook women’s basketball teammates. On their only day off from practice that week, the women woke up at 5 a.m. to drive two hours north to West Point in a convoy of vans.
“It meant the world to me that they could be there with me and my family,” Christa said. “They’re there for me when I need someone to talk to, when I’m upset about something. And it’s great; that’s what your team is there for. They are people you can turn to, people you can lean on. And if one of them is having a bad day, I’m someone they can turn to.”
Head coach Caroline McCombs seeks to establish a bond in her players that transcends basketball. The West Point Triathlon was a perfect opportunity to foster this family centric culture. To McCombs’ delight, Christa’s eyes widened in excitement after being asked if her teammates could attend.
“As we build the program, I want our players to understand the things that have happened in each other’s lives.” McCombs said. “There is a big trust factor in being able to share your experiences and not be judged for the things that have happened in your life. I think that [West Point] was one of the best things we’ve done since I’ve been the head coach at Stony Brook.”
“Her teammates are her best friends,” Marissa explained. “Getting to see her best friends on a day that was so important to our family was great for her.”
Her team’s top returning scorer, Christa has fallen into a familiar role: once again a senior captain chasing a championship.
Four years have passed since the Gold Ball game. After the loss of her brother and a transfer from Fairfield to Stony Brook, Christa’s circumstance is drastically different than once imagined.
But throughout the vicissitudes of fortune, one thing has remained a constant.
“[Basketball] is something I’ve always been comfortable with,” Christa said. “I’ve always known basketball.”