Last year, a disappointed Reilleigh Liguori took second place in the statewide SkillsUSA Small Engine Service competition.

“I like to be the best at something, and placing second at the time just wasn’t good enough for me,” said Reilleigh, a 17-year-old Mattituck High School senior. “So of course, I had to go back.”

Every year, thousands of high school students across the country enter local, state and national SkillsUSA competitions that put their industry-level occupational skills to the test, from the computer-heavy fields of animation and audio production to services such as barbering and cosmetology to trades like masonry and welding. In addition to hands-on skills assessments, students also showcase their academic prowess and career readiness through other tasks, including written examinations and mock job interviews.

In April, an invigorated and well-prepared Reilleigh took first place in this year’s SkillsUSA Small Engine Service competition, which is offered only at the state level and took place on the state fairgrounds in Syracuse. Among other tasks, students in her competition ran various diagnostic tests on engines and identified various components and tools professionals in their field encounter.

“It took weeks and weeks of studying,” she said. “Obviously, it paid off.”

Reilleigh grew up in Yaphank until her family moved to Cutchogue when she was in fifth grade. Three years later, she took the introductory technology course required of all Mattituck students. By the time she crosses the graduation stage, she will have completed six different technology electives, including Welding I and Small Engine Repair in her sophomore year, which she said lit the spark for her dedication to mechanical, hands-on STEM studies. During her free periods, her tech instructor from grades 8 through 12, Steve Lavinio, has let her into the shop to weld pieces of scrap metal together just so she could get in more practice.

“That’s what it is, time and practice,” Mr. Lavinio said. “I’m very proud … I was watching her using the cutting torch last week and I said, ‘You’re better than I am, cause you go slower, and I’m going too quick with it.’ She’s grown quite a bit. She’s not afraid to tackle any of this stuff.”

This year, Reilleigh took Mr. Lavinio’s Advanced Welding, a brand-new course Mattituck High School offered after renovating its STEM wing last summer in response to a growing interest in mechanical career-based education. An MHS instructor for 23 years, Mr. Lavinio said he believes the graduating senior is his first student to pursue a career in welding.

Throughout her junior and senior years, Reilleigh also studied marine/motorsports technology at Eastern Suffolk BOCES’ Gary D. Bixhorn Technical Center in Bellport. She said the course took what she learned sophomore year in Small Engine Repair to the next level. She and her BOCES classmates can bring in their own vehicles and equipment in need of repairs, or work on projects “customers” drop off at their shop.

“For the first year I was there, I brought in my own bike,” she said. “I needed a project, and that’s exactly what I got. The piston and the cylinder was totally seized. It wasn’t moving, no matter how many times you kicked it or tried to turn it over … I ended up just doing a top-end rebuild, it ran, and I resold it.”

When she isn’t studying or practicing welding at home with her very own stick welder, Reilleigh works for Advanced Diving & Welding Inc. in Quogue. Her experience there has ranged from small odd jobs, such as repairing handrails, to boat salvage projects. As word of her SkillsUSA victory spread, friends and neighbors have hired her to repair anything from dirt bikes to power washers.

With a long road ahead of her, Reilleigh continues to deliberate her next steps. She had decided early on that traditional college wasn’t for her, a decision she said her parents support. Her current boss at Advanced Diving & Welding Inc., she said, has been trying to convince her to get certified through a trade school. For the time being, she’ll continue juggling her regular gig along with odd jobs around the neighborhood. She said working with her hands and finishing a project, from doing simple oil changes to fabricating a whole new exhaust system, brings her feelings of relaxation, self-reliance and satisfaction.

“When I’m working on any engine, I’ll get frustrated,” she explained. “But there’s so much relaxation. I know those two words bump each other, but something that can make you so relaxed and so focused and bring you peace can also bring you so much frustration. I do it for the end result, because it’s such a nice feeling when you get the engine to run perfectly with no flaws … Seeing [customers] so happy after [a repair] makes me so happy.”

Eventually, Reilleigh said she plans to move off Long Island. While she’s not sure where she’d like to live, she said that wherever she settles must have “a fairly decent motorsport scene.”

“I’d like to go in the direction of fabrication, and incorporate it with cars,” she said. “So I’d like to be fabricating performance parts, like roll cages, bumper bars, manifolds, everything like that. 

“I’d love to work on more expensive performance cars; that just comes with time and experience,” she continued. “So what I’m doing now is just working on anything I can get. I’d like to be in a spot where they call me for custom fabrication jobs. I want to work on those expensive cars for all those big people in the motorsports world.”

Word of Reilleigh’s SkillsUSA victory reached Allan Dinizio, the second-generation owner of Dinizio Service Center Inc. in Mattituck. He said she “won’t have a problem finding a job” after she graduates. He added that mechanically inclined young professionals like Reilleigh are “a timeless commodity”  but can’t afford to live on the North Fork in the post-pandemic real estate market, which could spell trouble once he and some of his fellow shop owners begin to retire.

“We need them to stay here, but they can’t afford to stay here,” Mr. Dinizio said. “We need talent here, we need girls like her and boys to work on cars … The biggest problem is finding employees to work for you. Everybody has the same problem throughout the whole United States.”

No matter where Reilleigh lands, her mentor of five years feels confident she will forge a successful career.

“She fully took advantage of everything I had to offer,” Mr. Lavinio said. “She started out here and look at her, a state champ. That’s amazing. She’ll do really well wherever she goes. I know she will.”

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