Who said you can’t go home again? The Riverhead Blue Waves are going to try their darnedest to do just that.
And home, in this case, would mean the playoffs. In recent years, the playoffs have become an expectation more than anything else for the Blue Waves. They had reached the postseason four years in a row before missing out on the party last year.
Hence, the team’s theme for the new season: “On Our Way Back Home.”
It certainly looks as if the Blue Waves have the tools to do it. They may be eager to leave their 2010 season — and the 2-6 record that came with it — in the past. Sure, they were 2-6, but the record is a little misleading. Four of Riverhead’s losses came by a total of 14 points. They ended up in 10th place in Suffolk County Division II despite outscoring opponents by 163-144.
“We couldn’t make that critical play when we had to,” said Leif Shay, who takes a 70-43 (.619) career record into his 14th season as the team’s coach. “It was frustrating. It was something that we’re not used to. It leaves a little bit of a bitter taste.”
Fortunately for the sixth-seeded Blue Waves, they have players like Charles Bartlett, Ryan Bitzer and Reggie Moore to help sweeten things in 2011.
Moore, a senior H-back and linebacker, was an all-league player last season. He led the team in tackles (73) and sacks (5 1/2).
Bartlett, a senior running back/linebacker, was the team’s rushing leader, gobbling up 773 yards from 138 runs (5.6 yards per carry) and bolting for four touchdowns.
“I was trying to get to a thousand [rushing yards], but this year I’m hoping to have a lot more,” Bartlett said. “It’s definitely going to be difficult for a defense to stop us with our running game.”
Bitzer got valuable experience starting at quarterback as a sophomore last year. He completed 64 of 138 passes for 974 yards and nine touchdowns against six interceptions.
Four of Bitzer’s touchdown passes went to Mike Hinchy (10 receptions, 133 yards), who enters his senior season.
Riverhead has two other senior starters back in wide receiver/free safety Kurt Carter and lineman Shawn Yarborough. Meanwhile, senior left tackle Anthony Stimpfel is expected to play a big role on the offensive line.
The defensive unit will have all new starters.
Good things are expected from Jeremiah Cheatom, a sophomore running back/outside linebacker who ran for 22 touchdowns for the junior varsity team last year and then scored two more in his varsity debut on the final day of the regular season.
Among the bunch of newcomers who could find themselves on the field are center Stephen Powers, right tackle Kyle Harris, right guard Kyle McCabe, left guard Nick Ross, tight end Vinny Brodeur, cornerback Jeff Pittman, cornerback Quinn Funn, outside linebacker Eric Gevinski, outside linebacker Jaron Greenidge, defensive end David Napoli and defensive end Josh Blom.
“We have a lot of young guys who are hungry,” Shay said. “I like their intensity.”
Sure, the Blue Waves have a lot of youth, but they also have good speed at the skill positions.
“Very good talent,” Moore said. “We have a lot of speed on this team, and we’re going to see what we can do with it this year.”
Moore sounded anxious for his third varsity season to kick off.
“Very exciting,” he said. “I’ve been waiting for this. This is my last year. This is my sport. This is my time to shine.”
Tackling woes continually haunted the Bishop McGann-Mercy Monarchs (2-6) last season, and they were reflected in the statistics. Damning statistics.
The Monarchs gave up more than 51 points in a game on three occasions and 46 or more points five times. Their opponents rang up an average of 38.9 points per game against the Monarchs. Tightening up that defense is one of the top priorities for the team’s new head coach, Jeff Doroski.
“Our biggest problem is the physical nature of this game and what it means to be a physical football team,” said Doroski, who took over from Joe Read, who resigned in January after four years in which the Monarchs went 10-23 and reached the playoffs in 2008 for the first time in 16 years.
Talking about the tackling issue, Doroski said: “It’s tough and it’s not a fixable thing overnight. We hope it’s sooner than later. It’s a process. I think it will get better. It can’t get worse.”
As Doroski, a former player and assistant coach for the Monarchs, tackles his new job, he has brought changes with him. The Monarchs have adopted a new zonal blocking scheme and can be expected to play more of a field-position game than they did under Read.
“We want to try to control the tempo of our game with our game,” said Doroski, whose team is seeded 12th among Division IV’s 14 teams.
With the start of the new Doroski era, comes excitement.
“Everyone’s been working in the off-season, which hasn’t always been the case in years past,” said Pat Stepnoski, a senior running back and outside linebacker who has never been to the football playoffs and wants to change that. “Everyone’s excited, ready to go. Everyone wants to do well this year.”
Stepnoski, who was an all-county selection last year, is a big part of the team’s plans along with Keith Schroeher, a senior quarterback and outside linebacker who was named to the all-division second team.
The Monarchs will rely on their other returning starters as well: offensive tackle/defensive end Anthony Heppner, offensive tackle/defensive tackle Ray Ellis, wide receiver/defensive back Junior Paul, defensive end/H-back Bernie Schrage and guard/middle linebacker Jack Strnad. Also returning to the team are linemen James Edmonds and Mike Donnell. Among the new additions are center/defensive tackle Chris Butler, wide receiver/defensive back Mario Burriesci and guard/middle linebacker Pat Morelli.
“They come to work,” Doroski said. “We don’t have a lot of rah-rah guys who are jumping up and down and yelling and screaming. We have a lot of guys who come out every day and do their job.”
With nine two-way starters, depth and injuries are an issue to be concerned about.
Game 1 on Friday night at Center Moriches High School will carry special significance for Doroski in a number of ways. Not only will he be making his debut as a varsity head football coach, but he will be facing two familiar faces across the field from him. The Red Devils’ coach, Steve Failla, is the godfather of Doroski’s son, Christian, and was the best man at Doroski’s wedding. And that isn’t the only connection. Failla and one of his assistant coaches, Craig Rupprecht, are both former McGann-Mercy coaches themselves who were teammates of Doroski’s when they all played for the Monarchs.
“We want to obviously improve on a 2 and 6 record,” Doroski said. “I think the way our schedule sets up, we’re capable of doing that. We also want to be able to come week in and week out and compete. We have the talent and the physical makeup to come out and be a competitive team. We have to decide to do that.”
The biggest news coming out of Shoreham-Wading River’s first scrimmage, a multi-team exhibition at Smithtown West last Thursday, was every player walked away from it healthy.
For a team as banged up as the Wildcats were last season, they know there’s little wiggle room for any starters to go down. Under their second-year coach, Matt Millheiser, the Wildcats are anxious to move on from an 0-8 season last year and in their first taste of live competition, the players came out hitting.
“It was the scrimmage we went to last year and last year we took it on the chin a little bit,” Millheiser said. “This year the kids were ready to go. We fared well. At times Smithtown West had a little size on us and they pushed us around a little bit, but I think our kids responded to that. They scored on us and our kids responded and we were able to march the ball downfield and score on them.”
Points were hard to come by for the Wildcats last season. They were shut out four times and scored a total of 30 points on the season, punching the ball in the end zone four times. In contrast, every team they played scored at least 32 points against the Wildcats.
The Wildcats will rely on their running attack to try to move the chains this season. Senior Dylan Bates, a tight end last year, will get the majority of handoffs in a new role this season at halfback. One of the most versatile athletes on the team, a player who can line up in multiple spots, Bates proved early in training camp that he could be the team’s top runner.
“We had him back there a couple times just running the ball and realized he was our best runner, our hardest runner,” Millheiser said. “He was going at game speed and he gave us the best opportunity to run the ball well.”
Senior Joe Longo returns at fullback. He also plays defensive end. And the Wildcats have another young runner who could see some action running the ball in Tyler Anderson, a sophomore who saw time on varsity last year.
The Wildcats feature two players still vying for playing time at quarterback. Junior Kevin Kelley saw some time at quarterback last year behind Brandon Warner, who graduated. He’s fighting for time along with another junior, Sean Logan.
Millheiser said both players have played well at times, but haven’t had the consistency to win the starting job outright.
“If we have to go with two of them in the season and go with the hot hand so to speak, we’ll do that,” Millheiser said. “And if somebody decides to take control and win the job outright I have no problem putting him in for all the snaps.”
When the Wildcats look to pass, they’ll have a big target in Chris Mahoney, a 6-foot-3 receiver. He caught a fade for a touchdown against Babylon in the Wildcats’ scrimmage.
“Having a kid like that out there is going to force teams to keep that safety out of the box and let us run the ball more effectively,” Millheiser said. “When they want to bring [the safety] up we’re going to have to put it up there and let Chris go make some plays.”
The Wildcats return some experience on the line with center Jason Ambrosini, a junior, and seniors Mike Savino and Dylan Gorman, who both play guard on the offensive line. Savino and Gorman also lead the defense at linebacker.
“Offensively we’re going to pull our guards, get them moving and we’re going to run behind them,” Millheiser said. “So those two guys are important on offense.”
Logan (free safety) and Mahoney (strong safety) will both anchor the secondary on defense. Millheiser said there are a few players battling for the cornerback spots.
On special teams, Zach MacAuley, a sophomore soccer player, returns to do the kicking duties.
“He’s grown a lot since last year,” Millheiser said. “He’s bigger, stronger and kicking the ball farther.”
The 10th seed in Division IV, after playing in Division III last year, the Wildcats will open the season against Southampton.
Joe Werkmeister contributed to this article.