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JoJo LaRosa

Above, members of the Joseph “JoJo” LaRosa Foundation during a golf outing event Monday, July 31. Back row, from left: Dawn Gibbons, Thomas Boyle, Gina Mastrantoni and Rose Mastrantoni. Front row: Emily LaRosa, left, and Maria Murrow. Photo by Liz Ashley Photography

By Raymond Janis

A new local tradition was launched Monday, July 31, when family and friends of the late Ward Melville High School alum Joseph “JoJo” LaRosa hosted the inaugural 18 for 18 golf event in his honor. 

JoJo was diagnosed in 2018 with the cancer, desmoplastic small round cell tumor sarcoma, which had him in and out of the hospital for the remaining years of his life. He died in August 2021.

Amid beautiful summer weather on Monday morning, dozens attended the event at the St. George’s Golf and Country Club in East Setauket for 18 holes of golf in JoJo’s honor. 

“My son was one of the kindest, most amazing human beings,” Gina Mastrantoni, his mother, said. “He had the strongest will.”

Golfers take off for 18 holes of golf. Photo by Liz Ashley Photography

JoJo was a multisport athlete who “played every sport imaginable,” Mastrantoni said. “Lacrosse, football, swimming, wrestling, soccer — you name it, he did it. He lived for sports.”

The Joseph “JoJo” LaRosa Foundation, with Mastrantoni as executive director, was created in 2021 to honor his memory by assisting children fighting for their lives. Rose Mastrantoni, Gina’s sister and the foundation’s marketing/public relations officer, described the impact of the prolonged hospital stays.

“They spent almost four years living in the hospital,” Rose Mastrantoni said. “You don’t realize they don’t leave the hospital, don’t leave their child’s bedside,” adding that the foundation seeks to do “anything we can do to help” those families.

“He was always rooting for the underdog,” Gina Mastrantoni said. “He always cared about the person in the bed next to him at the hospital.”

Foundation secretary Maria Murrow, JoJo’s aunt, referred to her nephew as a lover of sports and a golf advocate. She also noted the prominent role his favorite number, 18, played throughout the day.

“We’re dedicating the event and the day to him,” Murrow said. “It’s an ‘18 for 18’ — 18 holes for number 18 to give back to JoJo.” She added, “We endeavor to do more repeat events … like the toy drive and anything else that will help families who don’t know what obstacles are coming up.”

Following JoJo’s diagnosis, Gina Mastrantoni noted that he began to hone his golf skills. “We’re having this golf outing in his honor,” the mother said. “This was his favorite course, where he played and perfected his golf game whenever he could.”

JoJo’s sister, foundation vice president Emily LaRosa, referred to the event as “a way that we keep him in our minds and at the forefront of what we do every day.”

“We’re not forgetting about him,” she said. “This is our way of keeping him with us and trying to do good in his name.”

Foundation treasurer Dawn Gibbons, a longtime friend of Mastrantoni, characterized the immense work that took place behind the scenes to make the inaugural outing a success.

“It’s a tribute to JoJo, but I have to say that this event is also a tribute to his mom and his sister, Emmy,” Gibbons said. “As Gina said, he was always very concerned about the kid in the next bed. They want to now help that kid and their families.”

She added, “They know what they went through, and they want to ease the burden on other families with this foundation.”

Gina Mastrantoni responded to the immense show of support during this golf outing as “beautiful,” noting the sense of pride she derives from her son’s example.

“Everyone’s here in support of JoJo,” she said. “It’s overwhelming, as his mom. It makes me proud.”

To donate to The Joseph “JoJo” LaRosa Foundation, please visit jojostrong.org.

Emily LaRosa greets a lacrosse player. Photo by Rita J. Egan

On the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend, Three Village community members and athletes from surrounding areas came together to remember a former Ward Melville High School athlete and raise funds for his namesake scholarship.

JoJo LaRosa’s mom, second from left, is joined by friend Kathy Whelan, sister Rose Mastrantoni and friend and one of the jamboree organizers Dawn Gibbons. Photo by Rita J. Egan

The inaugural JoJo Strong Jamboree took place Nov. 27 on three of the WMHS fields with more than 230 lacrosse players from 12 teams competing, some from areas outside of the Three Village community such as Smithtown and Adelphi alumni.

The inaugural champions, the Ward Melville women’s team comprised of Team Hannah/Team Madison, beat the Adelphi women’s team, 7-6, in an incredible come from behind victory, including a last second save by Samantha Tarpey. The Adelphi men’s team beat the Ward Melville 2015/16 team.

The event was held in memory of Joseph “JoJo” LaRosa who graduated from WMHS in 2017 and was part of the state champion lacrosse team that same year. This past August, LaRosa passed away during surgery. He went in for a procedure that would have involved a full abdominal transplant due to complications caused by radiation treatment he had received during his battle with the cancer desmoplastic small round cell tumor sarcoma. The Stony Brook resident had beaten the cancer that started soon after he graduated from WMHS.

David Ratner, one of the event organizers, said while a count has not yet been finalized, thousands of dollars were raised for the Joseph “JoJo” LaRosa Memorial Scholarship Foundation at the first annual event. The goal of the jamboree and scholarship is to assist scholar-athletes for years to come, according to Ratner.

The Nov. 27 event included clinics for young athletes, Ward Melville alumni competing against teams from Adelphi University and Smithtown, an Old Skool men’s tournament and fastest shot competition. After the games on Nov. 27, an awards ceremony was held at The Bench Bar & Grill in Stony Brook.

The hope is for the lacrosse jamboree to become an annual event and next year’s is scheduled for Nov. 26, according to Ratner.

LaRosa’s mother Gina Mastrantoni described the event as “spectacular.”

“It was an amazing show of love, and it was humbling,” the mother said. “It was bittersweet. I didn’t really have much of a dry eye.”

She added her son is her hero and was a warrior.

“He had the highest level of determination, grit, perseverance,” the mother said.

Players hit the field during the JoJo Strong Jamboree. Photo by Rita J. Egan

Mastrantoni attended the event with her daughter Emily, who played on traveling lacrosse teams, husband Bruce Latham, sister Rose Mastrantoni, best friend Dawn Gibbons, who was a jamboree organizer, as well as other friends and family members.

Throughout the day, she saw friends of LaRosa’s that he made during his semester at Adelphi studying and playing lacrosse, and those he had been friends with since his early days in the Three Village school district. Mastrantoni said a group of about a dozen-and-a-half kids from the neighborhood was called the Sluggers.

Among those Sluggers was Dylan Maggio, who played lacrosse for a few years. While Maggio stopped playing in ninth grade, he said on Saturday he played with the 2017 team and even scored a goal.

Maggio described the day as well organized with everyone excited to play. He was impressed with the number of people who attended and said they made the day a rewarding experience.

“We were just surprised with how many people have come to know JoJo where they wouldn’t have before, and how many people he has inspired just by persevering through the things that he was forced to confront,” he said.

LaRosa’s father Joseph LaRosa attended with his wife Gianna and their 12-year-old son James. The younger LaRosa was excited to play with members of the 2017 WMHS team who played with his brother. During the jamboree, Emily LaRosa also played as well as some of JoJo LaRosa’s cousins.

“It was great to see everybody come out and see how many people JoJo touched through his journey and what he has been through,” Joseph LaRosa said.

The father said the organizers “put their hearts and souls into planning this jamboree.”

Dave Purdy, one of the organizers who coached JoJo LaRosa in youth lacrosse for a few years, was on hand Nov. 27 and played in the Old Skool game. He described the lacrosse community as a close-knit one. He added that while the Ward Melville alum only played at Adelphi for a semester due to cancer, the team and coaches always made him feel as if he was a part of them by having him sit on the sidelines with the team during games and fundraising so he can join them on a trip to Tampa, Florida. So, it was no surprise to organizers that former lacrosse players from Adelphi took part in the jamboree.

“It was just a great day to remember JoJo for the game that he loved so much, and see it all come together,” Purdy said.

He added, “Just seeing old friends down there, community members who used to go to travel tournaments together and maybe had not kept in as close contact, they get to see each other down there at Ward Melville High School and The Bench afterward.”

At The Bench at the end of the day, Maggio’s band SWIM played for the attendees. LaRosa’s friend sang the song “Everybody” by rapper Mac Miller. The song is a remake of Love’s “Everybody’s Gotta Live.” LaRosa told Maggio he liked the song during a trip to  Vermont with friends. It was just the two of them in the car at the time.

“It just reminds me of that drive with him,” Maggio said. “It just reminds me of hanging out with him one-on-one. I really cherished those times.”

JoJo LaRosa, #18, takes to the field with his fellow Ward Melville High School lacrosse players in 2017. That year, the lacrosse team won the state championship. Photo by John Dielman

The memory of a young man from Stony Brook has inspired a lacrosse jamboree that will raise money for scholarships for Ward Melville High School student-athletes.

Joseph “JoJo” LaRosa

Joseph “JoJo” LaRosa graduated from WMHS in 2017 and left behind an impressive sports legacy, and in the few years after high school, he taught the community about courage.

This past August, LaRosa died after a battle with the cancer desmoplastic small round cell tumor sarcoma. The form of cancer started soon after he graduated from WMHS. While he had beaten DSRCT,  before his passing, LaRosa went in to have surgery that would have involved a full abdominal transplant due to complications caused by radiation treatment he had received. He didn’t survive the surgery.

David Ratner, whose son Dylan has been friends with LaRosa since early elementary school, is part of a five-person committee that is organizing the JoJo Strong Jamboree that will take place Saturday, Nov. 27, at the high school. The proceeds from the benefit lacrosse tournament will go toward the Joseph “JoJo” LaRosa Memorial Scholarship Foundation at WMHS. The goal is to assist scholar-athletes for years to come, according to Ratner.

Lacrosse was chosen for the benefit as LaRosa was part of the 2017 state champion lacrosse team at WMHS. The day will include a tournament and clinic for young athletes as well as Ward Melville alumni competing against teams from Adelphi University and Smithtown. The day also will include an “Old Skool” men’s tournament and fastest shot competition.

Ratner said the relationship that he, his wife Julie and son had with LaRosa and has with his mom Gina Mastrantoni could be described as unbreakable ever since the two moved around the corner from the family.

“He basically lived in my house for the last 17 years, so he was almost like my adopted son,” Ratner said.

For a while, Ratner’s son played lacrosse with LaRosa, until Dylan Ratner switched to tennis. The boys used to play lacrosse on the family’s driveway and street, too.

“The neighborhood was a field of dreams for these kids,” the father said. “They would run around and play in the dark, and it was like the old times.”

In addition to lacrosse, LaRosa was a kicker for Patriots football after playing soccer for years. Ratner described LaRosa as a great sportsman.

“It was really a great role for him, and it really showed his leadership character,” Ratner said. “You can win or lose a game based upon your one kick and nothing got him down — nothing would faze him.”

Mastrantoni said her son’s first word was “ball.”

“He tried every single sport there was to try,” the mother said, adding in addition to lacrosse, football and soccer there was swimming and wrestling.

She said after he started treatment he took up golf, and it became his passion.

“You name the sport he tried it,” she said. “This kid was all about sports and competing, and as much as he’d love to win, he was a good sportsman as well. He was very kind and respectful. The best kind of kid and a very good son, very caring.”

After graduating from Ward Melville in 2017, LaRosa headed to Adelphi University on a scholarship. Ratner said during Christmas break that year, the college student felt stomach pain and went to Stony Brook University Hospital. It was determined he had some type of cancer, even though it couldn’t be ascertained what type at the time. After various tests between the Mayo Clinic and Memorial Sloan Kettering in Manhattan, he was diagnosed with the deadly cancer.

Ratner said LaRosa always stayed positive and talked about future plans, including one day getting married and having a family.

“He was ready to get back to his life,” Ratner said.

“He did not entertain sadness because he thought of it as negativity.” 

Gina Mastrantoni

His mother said he also considered going into health care and contemplated becoming a physician’s assistant or nurse practitioner.

“He did not entertain sadness because he thought of it as negativity,” she said.

The mother added that he had hoped to go to Adelphi for another semester and then go to James Madison to be part of its football team as a kicker.

This will be the first lacrosse tournament that the committee hopes to make an annual event to help students, according to Ratner. He said fundraisers were held in the past to support LaRosa and his family during his battle, and the support from the community as well as all over Long Island was tremendous.

Mastrantoni said the tournament is exciting, and she plans to attend. She has been touched by the support of family and friends as well as the community.

“It’s amazing how many people he touched in the last 22 years,” the mother said.

From being on the traveling lacrosse team, LaRosa’s life also touched many in rival school districts, including Smithtown, and former members of the town’s traveling team will be at the tournament to play.

“They’re coming out to show solidarity,” Ratner said.

He added members of the Three Village school district and board of ed have been helpful in making the event happen. Kevin Finnerty, school district executive director of health, physical education, recreation and athletics, said his heart broke for the former student-athlete’s family and friends when he heard of LaRosa’s passing a few months ago. The decision to have the event at the school, he said, was an easy one.

“JoJo was an amazing student-athlete with a heart of gold and a great perspective on life,” Finnerty said. “As his family would say, he was the bravest warrior. During JoJo’s battle with cancer, he inspired so many of his peers, family members and the community with his strength, resiliency and positive attitude.”

Finnerty said the organizers have been putting a lot of work and effort into the event.

“I know it will be a great success and a great way to rally our community to remember and honor JoJo,” he said.

After the games on Nov. 27, an awards ceremony will be held at The Bench in
Stony Brook.