BLUE WAVES 9, BULLDOGS 8
Sure, it could have been a lot easier and a lot less dramatic. But what would be the fun in that?
The cardiac Riverhead Blue Waves ended the regular season Thursday with a 9-8 victory at home against Lindenhurst, locking up their first 10-win season in program history. They followed an all-too-familar script to do it.
Fall behind, rally in the second half, desperately hang on in the final seconds behind a resilient defense.
“Would have I loved it easier? Hell yeah,” said Riverhead coach Victor Guadagnino. “But when you have that much inside your chest, that much heart, that’s a credit to every kid on the team.”
Riverhead’s final four wins have all been by one goal.
The Blue Waves finished 9-5 in Division I, which wasn’t enough to propel them into the Class A playoffs for the first time. The Blue Waves came into the day 13th in power rankings, one spot away from the final playoff seed.
Guadagnino said he thought Half Hollow Hills West needed to beat Walt Whitman for the power points to work out in Riverhead’s favor. Whitman, however, won 6-2. Hills West (9-5) finished 12th with 109.47 power points. Riverhead was 13th with 108.77. Whitman finished 11th.
Playoffs or not, the Blue Waves undoubtedly completed the finest season in school history.
They put the finishing touches on it with a thrilling victory against the Bulldogs as they came back from three down after a sloppy first half.
“We’re a comeback team,” said junior Ryan Bitzer. “We have a lot of guts.”
Riverhead outscored Lindenhurst 4-0 in the third quarter and regained the lead for good when sophomore Ryan Hubbard scored a man-up goal off an assist from midfielder Dan Czelatka, who scored the first two goals of the quarter.
“We go on will and desire alone, ” Guadagnino said in a semi-sarcastic tone. “We try to avoid all intelligence and skill and just play on sheer will. We fight like a tribe that will not go away.”
Lindenhurst (4-12, 4-10 Division I) scored its lone goal of the second half on a man-up after the Blue Waves got whistled for a slashing penalty. A Riverhead turnover sent the Bulldogs in transition and Nick Franco scored off a feed from Ryan Hewitt with 5:44 left in the fourth quarter to make it a one-goal game.
It set up a frantic final five minutes, where Riverhead goalkeeper Alex Panagakos came up with three big saves.
“Unreal,” Guadagnino said. “He did it at Pat-Med the other day. He did it against Middle Country. He’s a clutch kid. They all are when it comes down it. We get goals when we need it. We get ground balls.”
Lindenhurst attackman Dan Alazraki, who led all scorers with three goals, had a point-blank shot in front of the cage that Panagakos snagged to preserve the lead with about 1:35 left. The Blue Waves gained possession and called timeout 12 seconds later.
“Alex has been saving us at the end of games with some crazy saves,” Bitzer said.
The Blue Waves had to go the length of the field for the clear and successfully got the ball across on a deep pass by Panagakos to Hubbard. But they only kept possession for 10 seconds before Hubbard stepped out of the box, giving the ball back to Lindenhurst.
“We were trying to set up exactly what we got, Hubbard at X [behind the cage] and then we said specifically make sure we don’t step out of the box and of course the first thing he did was run out of the box,” Guadagnino said. “We had to make it up with a ridiculously hard ride and 30 seconds of defense in the corner of the field.”
Alazraki had another shot saved in the final minute, leading to a ground ball by Riverhead defenseman Jack Moran. He lost the ball, leading to a scramble in the corner. By the time the Bulldogs regained possession, they ran out of time to get another shot on goal.
Hubbard has led the team in goals this season and he finished with two Thursday. Paul Harron added two goals and an assist.
The Blue Waves finished the season eight wins better than a year ago.
“I just really wanted to improve,” Guadagnino said. “The 22 [seed] was really agitating me. My goal was to get as high in the teens as possible. Then when we got two games over .500, I was like, holy cow, maybe we have a shot.”
Bitzer, a third-year varsity player, said he a lot of expectations coming into the season for the team.
“We had a lot of guys returning, a lot of young guys,” he said. “We just had to learn the system under our new coaches. We really just played hard for them.”