In their three losses last season, including in the first round of the playoffs against Newfield, the Riverhead Blue Waves surrendered an average of 42 points per game. Even with a versatile offense capable of putting up big numbers, it was far too many points for the team to overcome.
To try to take the next step this season, in which Riverhead enters as the No. 1 seed in Division II, the team got back to the basics on defense.
“We simplified,” said Riverhead coach Leif Shay. “We felt we had good athletes out there and we didn’t need to run complex coverages. We want to be simple and let our athletes cover the ground they can cover.”
The Blue Waves’ defense got overwhelmed last season against a stronger, bigger Newfield team in the running game. The Wolverines ran in seven touchdowns against the Blue Waves in their playoff win.
The Blue Waves return a more experienced group on the defensive line this year, the first step toward clogging up those running lanes.
Senior Joseph Napoli, one of three captains, will start at defensive end.
“He was a star for us last year,” Shay said.
Seniors Kyle McCabe and Kyle Harris will plug up the middle of the defensive line along with a newcomer, junior Jonathan Lee.
Shay said Lee can squat as much as 600 pounds.
The Blue Waves came into training camp with a strong core of linebackers all competing for time. Senior Nick Ross and junior Mike Von Bommel lead the group. Senior Vinny Brodeur will also see some time at linebacker along with junior Ryan Harkin, who’s been slowed by an ankle injury.
In the secondary the Blue Waves will rely on three guys who will play on both sides of the ball. Seniors Quinn Funn and Jeff Pittman will play cornerback and junior Jaron Greenidge will start at free safety.
“The key for us is our defense,” Shay said after the team’s first scrimmage last week. “We have to be locked down and can’t allow those big plays.”
While the defense struggled at times last year, all too often it got put in a difficult position because of turnovers. If the Blue Waves are to take that next step this season, limiting turnovers will be a huge key.
It’s something third-year quarterback Ryan Bitzer is well aware of as he begins his senior season under center for Riverhead.
“Last year we had a bunch of turnovers against the top three teams,” Bitzer said. “Especially me. I have to protect the ball better. That’s what experience comes with. I got to learn to sometimes protect the ball, run it or throw it away. Turnovers is a big thing for us. We got to keep those down.”
Bitzer will lead an offense that has the potential to be equally as explosive through the air as on the ground. While the Blue Waves lost their leading rusher from last season in Charles Bartlett, they do return a pair of strong backs. Junior Jeremiah Cheatom got a lot of action last season and will start as the featured back. Shay described Cheatom as “a grinder,” the kind of player who can pick up tough yards and can also break a big run.
Sophomore R.J. Foster, who saw some time on varsity at the end of last season, will also have a prominent role in the running game. A speedy, shifty runner, Foster will also return kicks.
“He’s very elusive,” Bitzer said. “He sees the field very well, too. He’s definitely improved from last year. He’s learning he’s got to hit the holes right. I’m looking forward to seeing what he does in the future.”
Shay said he expected the offense to be even more balanced than it was last year, aided by a more experienced offensive line.
Senior Stephen Powers returns at center along with Harris at right tackle. McCabe will play left guard and senior Eric Hulse at right guard. Ross is the only newcomer to the offensive line and will play at left tackle in addition to his defensive duties.
“They got a full season of experience under their belt,” Shay said. “They’re bigger, faster, stronger.”
Bitzer said the linemen spent the entire offseason working in the weight room.
“They were lifting weights, doing what they have to do to get better, working with each other, talking to each other after practice,” he said. “Just really communicating.”
In the passing game Bitzer will have several targets, led by returning receivers Pittman and Funn. Both players had big seasons last year and can present matchup problems for opposing defenses. Pittman has great speed, which he showed off in track and field as one of the top sprinters in the county.
Senior receiver Brian Funfgeld and tight end Andrew Kinard are both threats in the passing game as well.
“Not everybody has two great corners,” Shay said. “If you have one good corner, you can only take away one guy. That gives us an advantage from the outside-in. You’re going to have to defend the entire field.”
The Blue Waves play a fast-tempo offense, which they hope keeps the opposing defense on its heels. It also leads to plenty of big-play potential.
“We push teams to the limit with our tempo,” Bitzer said. “They get worn out pretty quickly, which enables us to throw some big points on the board.”
In special teams the Blue Waves have senior Devrim Kuckuk as a kicker. A soccer player, Kuckuk will be a two-sport athlete in the fall.
“He’s got a real strong leg,” Shay said. “We haven’t had that in a long time.”
Shay said Kuckuk didn’t realize that the rules allowed him to play both sports.
The Blue Waves open the season Saturday at home against West Babylon. The Blue Waves were 5-0 last year going into their game at West Babylon when the Eagles put an emphatic end to the winning streak with a 41-6 win. Michael Richardson, the do-it-all quarterback/receiver who torched the Blue Waves last year, has graduated. West Babylon does return quarterback Clifton Melhado, who started the season last year before an injury opened the door for Richardson.
“They beat us up pretty well,” Bitzer said. “So we’re looking for a little revenge. It’ll be a good game. West Bab is always a good team.”