At the end of every practice, the Riverhead Blue Waves huddle together, raise their arms and in unison express a simple motto: “One more time.”
It’s a mantra they’ve carried with them since the team’s first playoff victory against Patchogue-Medford. If that seems like an eternity ago, well, it pretty much has been. The Blue Waves won that first playoff game Feb. 20, beginning what will be a nearly month-long playoff run, highlighted by the team’s first-ever trip to the state semifinals Friday in Troy against Penfield.
As Riverhead coach Dave Spinella astutely noted, the Blue Waves need more wins to claim a state title than a college team does to win the NCAA Tournament.
“It was very strange,” Spinella said of his team’s unprecedented run. “You know how they always say take it one game at a time, don’t look too far ahead. We really did that. We didn’t worry about seed. We just played every game and it kept building and building.”
That poise and levelheadedness has never let the weight of a 23-game winning streak affect them. As the pressure ratchets up each game and more eyes fixate on their play, the Blue Waves smoothly take it all in stride.
One more time.
In the midst of their winning streak, there hasn’t been much time to reflect for the coaches and players. With the focus squarely on the next practice, the next game, the next possession, the next shot, the gravity of the accomplishment has yet to really sink in.
But no matter what happens in Troy this weekend, the Blue Waves will have claimed one of the hardest victories in Long Island high school sports: a trip to the basketball state final four as a Class AA school.
“It’s amazing that teams do it consecutively,” Spinella said. “It’s so hard.”
Go back over the last 10 years and look at some of the teams that won a Long Island title as a Class AA school. Nearly every team had one or two legitimate Division I talents.
There’s no sneaking off Long Island.
When Copiague won the L.I. title in 2002, the Eagles did it behind Kia Wright, who went on to become an All-Big East player at St. John’s. Wright finished her high school career as one of top scorers in Long Island history with more than 2,000 points.
In 2004 it was Kaylie Schiavetta of Northport leading the Tigers to the crown while averaging over 23 points per game, 7 assists and 4 rebounds. Schiavetta would go on to play at the University of Massachusetts and Southern Connecticut State.
The following two years Massapequa won back-to-back titles under the direction of point guard Suzi Fregosi, a two-time Nassau County Player of the Year who played at Iona.
North Babylon matched Massapequa by winning the next two behind Eugeneia McPherson, an electrifying guard who went on to play at St. John’s.
By the 2008-09 season, Suffolk County alone was flooded with talent. North Babylon still featured McPherson and Bria Hartley, the New York Gatorade Player of the Year who now stars for the University of Connecticut. Copiague featured the South Carolina-bound Ieasia Walker, and Sachem East was building its own powerhouse team behind the 5-foot-11 Kristen Doherty.
Copiague won the Long Island crown in 2009 and Sachem East followed in 2010. Doherty now plays for Boston College, where she’s one of the Eagles’ top players.
Perhaps the best example of just how difficult it is to win a Long Island title is to look at the career of Samantha Prahalis, who is now one of the top college players in the country at Ohio State. A McDonald’s All-American in 2008, Prahalis was more than a basketball player. One hoops commentator simply dubbed her “The Show.” She tallied 2,372 career points while delivering countless jaw-dropping passes and ankle-breaking crossover dribbles.
Even with all that talent, her Commack teams never won a Suffolk County title.
This year’s Riverhead squad may not have the same star power of teams in the past decade. But star power alone doesn’t win.
The Blue Waves have done it as a team. They’ve done it behind the calming presence of point guard Jalyn Brown. They’ve done it behind the relentless rebounding of Melodee Riley and the fearless slashing to the basket of Shanice Allen.
They’ve done it behind the clutch shooting of Marta Czaplak and the constant hustle of Kaila Nazario and Tonilin Ruisi.
The Blue Waves travel to Troy already champions. But by no means are they satisfied.
“We’re not here just to put on a show and be happy we’re here,” Spinella said. “We’re here to win.”
One more time.