Ally Leeds, a senior at Ocean City, and Maddie Abbott, a Holy Spirit junior, led their respective teams into the inaugural Cape-Atlantic League Tournament championship game this spring and were huge contributors on offense. (South Jersey Glory Days photo/Sully)

By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Staff Writer
The Cape-Atlantic League Tournament, held on May 17 at Stockton University, was one of the more unique girls lacrosse games that South Jersey fans will ever see. First, because it was the first tournament championship game in league history. (The CAL added league tournaments in baseball, softball and lacrosse this spring.)
But even more than that, there were a couple of families who had their rooting loyalties tested. Sisters — well, in a manner of speaking — were doing battle for the first time in their careers as Ocean City took on Holy Spirit with the championship on the line.
It was a game that featured two pair of step-sisters going at it, as Olivia Vanesko and Ally Leeds of Ocean City were squaring off against Sienna Calhoun and Maddie Abbott of Holy Spirit. Vanesko and Calhoun are step-sisters, as are Leeds and Abbott.
“We’ve never gone to the same school. We grew up in different towns and went to different schools, played in different youth programs. So it was really fun to play against her (in the CAL Tournament championship game) because we really never have,” said Vanesko, a senior captain for the Red Raiders. “The second the game ended, the first thing I wanted to do was give her a hug because at the end of the day, family is my first team.”
Vanesko and Calhoun have been step-sisters for about eight years now. Calhoun remembers revering Olivia when she was a young child, but it took Vanesko a little longer to warm up to the idea of being involved in a blended family. Olivia’s mom married Calhoun’s father, Dan, who is Ocean City’s wrestling coach. Olivia has an older brother, Jackson, a former standout baseball player at St. Augustine Prep, and younger sister Atlee. Sienna brought along two brothers into the fold for a total of six step-siblings.
“I was young. When they first got together it was probably about two years after my parents got divorced. I looked up to Liv immediately and she was very, like, ‘get away from me, I don’t want to deal with you.’ But, she warmed up and we’re good now. “I love Liv. I literally lean on her for everything and she’s been a really big part of my life. I don’t have any sisters, so having an older sister in my life is really important. She’s my best friend.”
Vanesko said it wasn’t easy learning how to be part of a blended family like that. Even with as common as that situation is in this day and age as opposed to maybe 20 or 30 years ago, it’s still a difficult transition for kids in grade school, like she was at the time her parents got divorced.
“It definitely was (a difficult transition) because when you’re younger you’re not as welcoming to new people in your life, so it took a while,” Vanesko remembers. “I didn’t welcome them at all. But after a couple of months, me and Sienna really started getting along and she got along with my younger sister, too. We had a really good bond and I realized this was going to be a really good thing in my life.”
Abbott, a junior captain for Holy Spirit, has similar memories of when her family became blended.
“At first, we didn’t get along and there was some fighting the first couple of months. But our parents threatened us and said we weren’t going to be allowed to see each other for a month if we kept fighting, so we realized we had to shape up. After that, it was smooth sailing from there and everything is great now,” said Abbott, who scored 67 goals this season, including one in the Spartans’ 16-4 loss to Ocean City in the CAL championship game. “Nobody really thinks it’s an odd situation. I see it as I have two extra siblings I get to hang out with all the time and be with on the weekends. They are two extra people I have in my life for emotional support with whatever I’m going through.”
Ironically, the two pair of step-siblings had never faced each other as members of their respective high school programs before this year’s league title game. All of them had the 2020 season wiped out due to Covid-19, and Abbott was out most of last year with a knee injury. Calhoun is just a sophomore, so this year was her first real taste of varsity lacrosse. Calhoun and Abbot played well in the game for Spirit, while Leeds scored two goals and had an assist and Vanesko had a goal and two assists.
“With my step-sister going off to college next year and having just one chance to play against her, it was a great opportunity. I loved it,” Abbott said after the game.
Leeds said she has a different perspective now than she did when she was younger when it comes to how and why her parents split up. It took her growing up and becoming a young adult to understand the intricacies of adult and marital relationships, she said.
“My parents fought a lot, but I was so young so I never really thought much about it. Looking back, I feel like it was the mature option by my parents to split up. When I was younger it was upsetting, but now, looking back, nobody wants to stay in an unhappy marriage,” Leeds explained. “My parents are still close and I’m lucky that I can have them sit together at all my games; my step-mom and my mom are friends, so it’s lucky that it’s a really happy environment that I’m in now. You don’t always see that. We all have a lot of fun and hang out a lot. It’s always an adventure with my family.
“I think the biggest challenge is just realizing there is more to life than just me and my brother. That was kind of hard for both me and my brother going into this because we were our dad’s only thing, and now we’re shared,” she continued. “But the best thing about it is I now have four more best friends, so I have no complaints at all. And I love my step-mom.”
All four athletes said they believe the good has certainly outweighed the bad when it comes to their blended families. They love having the opportunity to grow close to people who they may only have had a passing relationship with had their respective parents not gotten together.
“I know a lot of people in Ocean City from my grade and they are all friends with her, so we all hang out. We do a lot together. It’s great because I have somebody to do my hair now — just all those random things you can do with a sister,” Calhoun said. “I love that we are really close-knit. They are my family and I lean on them for everything, and that’s the best part about having a blended family.”
“It was different because (Abbott) has three siblings and I have one, so now there are six of us. We have so much fun together. During the (Covid-19) quarantine, all we did was play lacrosse. It was exciting to get the chance to play against her (in the CAL Final) because I never got the chance because of covid, she tore her ACL (last year) and I broke my ankle another year,” said Leeds, a senior who has been a step-sister of Abbott since she was about 12 years old. “It was hard because it was a crazy difference, but I’m grateful for it because it changed my life, and I’m hoping theirs, for the better. My life is so much better. Every time I go to my dad’s house we have so much fun together. They are all my best friends. I’m the oldest, and the youngest is four years younger than me, but it doesn’t matter the ages, we’re all friends.”
“I was young when (my parents split up). I have three younger siblings so I remember staying close to them, and I had other close family who got me through it,” Abbot remembers. “I knew it was probably for the better and I had two parents supporting me and I would have them throughout my life.”
So, what is the key to having success as a blended family?
“I would say the key to success for a blended family is communication. We did not talk about anything, and when my parents first started dating we fought about everything and didn’t talk through any of our fights. But once we started talking through some of those fights everything started working out. It has put a lot more maturity on me because as one of the older siblings I have to lead by example for my younger siblings and show them that our step-siblings are good people and we have to accept them and love them. And we do, we all love each other so much,” Abbott said. “The best part is just having a bunch of people to lean on. I know I have three younger siblings of my own I can count on, but there’s also two other people I can count on. I can go talk to them whenever and they understand all my problems, and that just puts ease in my life.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sullyglorydays@gmail.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays

Step-sisters Sienna Calhoun of Holy Spirit, left, and Olivia Vanesko of Ocean City got to play against each other for the first time in their high school careers in the league championship game in May at Stockton. (South Jersey Glory Days photo/Sully)