Toll Gate junior Gianna Cirella was a spontaneous force. She had a fearless spirit, a full heart and a contagious smile.
She had the type of charisma and character that any parent would wish for their child, any coach would want in a player and any teammate would love.
“Nine times out of ten you would find Gianna with a smile on her face,” her best friend and teammate, Elise Saccoccia, said. “She was always one of the funniest and the happiest people in the room. Even during sad or stressful times, she would always be there to provide some comic relief.”
Cirella’s knack for making people laugh was uncommon. What was not uncommon was the reverence others held for her as a vibrant and caring teenager.
“She wore her heart on her sleeve,” Gianna’s mother, Tara Cirella, said. “She never wavered on showing her feelings, good or bad, happy or sad. She had the hugest heart and wore it so damn big right on her sleeve.”
The Rhode Island soccer community has united with strength after enduring not just one sudden tragedy, but two.
The loss of Titans’ goalie Gianna Cirella on November 1st came a little over a month after Chariho student-athlete Madeline Potts passed from an unexpected brain abnormality. Cirella’s sore throat progressed to pneumonia, then sepsis.
The stories of Potts and Cirella are heartbreakingly similar.
“I remember so vividly how my heart hurt the night I heard about Maddie; a family I did not know, but instantly felt heartbroken for,” Tara reflected.
Maddie Potts wore number eleven. Gianna Cirella wore number twelve. Their mothers, Stephanie Potts and Tara Cirella, are strengthened by the outpouring of love and support offered in memory of their daughters. Stephanie reached out to Tara toward the end of Gianna’s illness to offer support and to let her know that she was there.
“It’s a very scary thing that this kind of tragedy has struck the soccer community twice in two very short months,” Tara said.
Maddie and Gianna were unique in their own special ways and shared a commonality: they touched the hearts of countless others, both in and outside of sports. They both have wonderful families surrounding them still, including a very large one rooted in Rhode Island soccer.
“The support that people show us and the things they do,” Tara said, “They can’t fathom the pain we are in, but they don’t pretend to. They just step up, hug us and do the most unexpected things to show us they love us.”
“When it came time to be in there, she was big. She was so fearless and so proud.”
Toll Gate girls’ soccer coach Lonna Razza was at the hospital every day, sending hope to Gianna and bringing news back to the team.
“She did not stumble in her love and support,” Tara said. “Through her, the team did the same.”
Being on the soccer team wasn’t the totality of Gianna’s life, but she put her heart and soul into everything she did. She was the embodiment of a student-athlete. She worked hard, she played hard and she was intent at becoming a better goalie and a better person.
“She fought tooth and nail to stay there, to persevere and claim that net,” Tara confided. “When it came time to be in there, she was big. She was so fearless and so proud.”
For Gianna, it wasn’t just about being on the field. It was about being part of the team.
“It was about having that family to laugh with, play with, hurt with, grow with.” Tara said.
For Gianna’s teammates, the past few weeks have been difficult to say the least. Gianna was the one that would bring about smiles when they were down. Her spirit would lift them even in times of pain.
“Her wit, her sarcasm, her carefree attitude, her silliness and the way that she showed love to ‘her people’, she was proud that she loved big and didn’t hide her emotions,” Tara explained. “Those things will be remembered by the ones that care, the ones that stood without flinching.”
Gianna was as colorful and deep as the sunsets she and Saccoccia would often watch together while eating pizza and sharing stories, sitting on the dock of their neighborhood pond during the summer and early fall.
“I am only now realizing how much I cherished those times,” Saccoccia said.
“Gianna should be remembered as someone loyal, funny, caring and dedicated.”
Saccoccia did not hesitate to show her support after her best friend fell ill. The GoFundMe page she created was originally intended to assist with medical bills and necessary equipment required for Gianna’s recovery. The proceeds will now go to a scholarship fund being created in Gianna’s name.
“Everything everyone has done has been nothing short of amazing and respectful and helpful and supportive,” Tara said.
Gianna Cirella was constantly striving to become better – whether her improvements were made on the field, in the classroom or in life. She was passionate about helping others and dreamed of becoming a physical therapist.
She was more than a teammate. She was a sister. A daughter. A classmate. A friend.
“Gianna should be remembered as someone loyal, funny, caring and dedicated,” Saccoccia said. “She was creative and hard-working, and someone that everyone should have had the chance to meet.”
“I can’t ask someone to remember her a certain way,” Tara said. “I can only ask that all they have and all they know, they put it in the safest place in their heart and never let it go.”
As families gather this holiday season to reflect on the meaning of gratitude and offer thanks, the Cirella’s can take comfort knowing that their daughter was a gift to many – a lasting spark of inspiration – a ray of light that will not fade with the setting sun. People will continue to remember the bright, happy and inspiring girl that carried smiles and spontaneity in every step she took – on the sideline, between the pipes and down the street.
“For me, it’s really important that I keep thanking the community,” Tara Cirella said. “To say that I am proud of the community, the school, the coaches, the kids and their siblings, the sports community as a whole; it is truly an understatement.”
Words, no matter how poetic, rarely can do justice in times like these. Only two words come to mind.