The Riverhead High School football team seems to have a newfound interest in jewelry, and that’s not just because Raheem Brown complimented a reporter on his gold necklace after the team’s first preseason practice on Monday morning.
No, it goes beyond that. What the Blue Waves are particularly interested in are rings — as in championship rings.
Some of the Riverhead players, Brown among them, are fortunate enough to have two rings, commemorating the team’s Suffolk County Division II championships the past two years.
Both rings have Riverhead blue in them. One of them has a bell on it, and the other has a football with the letter “R” on it.
“They’re different, but they’re both beautiful,” said Brown, who keeps the treasured possessions in a box at home as part of his personal sports shrine. Sometimes, he said, he wears the rings around his neck instead of on his fingers.
The rings have more than a decorative purpose. They also serve as powerful motivation, especially for those players who don’t have one, but would like to.
The Blue Waves will tell you there was no shortcut to back-to-back county titles and a 19-5 record over the last two years. It was the product of hard work and discipline, they say.
So, while players huffed and puffed during a get-up drill on a dusty practice field Monday, coach Leif Shay’s voice could be heard above the din, reminding them, “There’s a price of pain, gentlemen, to put a ring on your finger for a championship.”
The carrot at the end of the stick glitters.
This is Shay’s 17th year overseeing the start of Riverhead’s preseason practice, and he never seems to tire of the excitement of a new season. “I’m a football nut,” he said.
As Shay made his way around the field, he wore a white T-shirt that bore the following words: ‘RIVERHEAD FOOTBALL IT’S A WAY OF LIFE.”
During the Shay era, that way of life has involved year-round training, and it has made a difference. Asked why his teams have been so successful, he said, “I think that most of it is we outwork our opponents in the off-season.”
Brown said that as soon as one season ends, the Blue Waves are back to work again, preparing for the next one.
“We’re like a southern team,” he said. “We’ll work out all day. We’ll be outside in the snow and we’ll still work out. It’s more about heart and will. It’s the will to win that Shay likes to say.”
Shay said he likes his players’ work ethic. “They understand the day-to-day commitment that it takes to achieve success,” he said. “A lot of kids, they want to be Long Island champions, but these guys understand the daily requirement to be a champion, and that’s an important lesson besides just what you do on game day.
“Nobody sees what they do in the off-season when they’re out here flipping tires, when they’re out here doing speed drills. … People don’t see that. They see the pretty uniforms on Saturday and they think they know what’s going on, but it’s really about the effort that goes into it prior to that.”
By the way, those tires off to the side of the practice field vary in size, but some of them are said to weigh close 600 pounds. What do the Blue Waves do with them? They throw them, flip them, push them, jump through them.
“It’s amazing what you can do with a tire and a sledgehammer,” Shay said. “We were able to do some old-school hard work. It kind of matches what we are as a town. We’re a blue-collar town, you know. We work for everything we get. We don’t expect anything handed to us.”
Nothing will be handed to the Blue Waves this season, that’s for sure. As the No. 1 seed in Division II, they have the proverbial target on their backs, and that’s just the way Shay likes it.
“Some of that is based on what we’ve done the last two years, not so much what we have coming back,” said Shay, who lost about two dozen seniors from last year’s team, including a number of skill-position players. “Honestly, we’ve had a target on our back for a long time now. We’ve always been the team that people worry about. That’s what we want. We want to be the best program on Long Island. … We’re not going to settle for anything less, and that is our goal every year.”
This year, though, brings a clean slate to write on.
“Success is past,” Shay said. “It’s all about what you do this year, and our guys understand that. We have a lot to prove just because it’s a new year.”
The Blue Waves will face some stiff competition with the likes of East Islip, Smithtown East, Newfield, Half Hollow Hills West and Bellport.
An 84-yard punt return for a touchdown by Ryan Hubbard with six seconds left in last year’s county final gave the Blue Waves a thrilling 20-14 triumph over East Islip and their seventh county title. The Blue Waves went on to lose, 20-6, to Carey in the Long Island Class II final.
Championships drive an appetite for more championships. Brown loves his championship rings, but he wants to add to his collection. He said, “The next one Shay told me about when we win the LIC [Long Island championship], he said he has this one picked out and it’s 10 times bigger than both of them combined, so I’m waiting for that one.”