Last week, Bill Groth approached the podium toward the end of Riverhead High School’s varsity sports awards ceremony to deliver his final remarks. As usual, he planned to say that no matter where Riverhead teams travel, there are as many Blue Waves supporters filling the bleachers as there are for the home team.
But before he could begin, longtime Riverhead coaches Sal Loverde and Bill Hedges stepped in to usher him aside. Mr. Loverde grabbed the microphone.
On a night when attention is deservedly centered on the students, the coaches took a moment to flip the script and talk about the Blue Waves’ director of athletics, health and physical education. Mr. Loverde described Mr. Groth’s quiet leadership, the support he’s provided to the coaching staff and his commitment to the district. The varsity coaches then joined Mr. Groth on stage to honor him.
“It’s a moment I’ll never forget,” Mr. Groth said.
After 26 years at the helm of Riverhead’s athletic department and 31 years in education, Mr. Groth recently announced his plan to retire, marking last week’s awards ceremony as his last. He said he will remain in his role until January, the start of his 27th year, to help ease his successor’s transition.
Seated in his office Friday surrounded by memorabilia documenting the history of Riverhead athletics — one of Suffolk County’s oldest programs — Mr. Groth reflected on his career, the accomplishments of past Blue Wave athletes and the evolution of high school sports.
During his tenure, he’s witnessed some of Riverhead’s greatest teams — the 1995 Long Island champion boys basketball team, the 2008 undefeated Rutgers Trophy football team and the 2012 Long Island champion girls basketball team, to name a few — as well as the birth of new programs, like boys and girls lacrosse and crew.
“Riverhead is a school when you have them on the schedule, it’s a day of reckoning,” Mr. Groth said. “You’re going to find well-prepared athletes.”
Mr. Groth, 56, grew up in Syosset at a time when playing sports meant meeting up with friends in the neighborhood and baseball was just stickball.
“There was no pay-to-play, youth sports, training facilities,” he said. “The training facility was the closest school you could walk to with your friends.”
Times have obviously changed. When Mr. Groth was hired by the Riverhead school district, the athletic director position was considered part-time and he was required to teach three or four classes.
“It was one of the few districts on the island that didn’t have a full-time athletic position,” said Mr. Loverde, a track and field coach who has been with the district for more than 30 years. “Over the course of a short period of time he established himself and a need for the recognition of the department through having a full-time administrator.”
Earlier this year, Mr. Groth was named the Suffolk Zone Director of the Year for physical education and health. The coaches refer to him as “Billy Blue Wave,” Mr. Loverde said.
In recent years, Riverhead’s facilities have undergone, and continue to undergo, a massive face-lift. The high school gymnasium was renovated in 2013, Coach Mike McKillop Field was renovated for the start of the last football season, a new track was installed and a turf field is in the works, among other projects.
“We’ve been sharing visions of a variety of types to give this community and these student-athletes and coaches the type of facilities they deserve,” Mr. Groth said. “I would always state that the greatest ambassador for a school district is your athletic program. They are the one program that virtually every school district at some point will either see Riverhead represented at their field, or they’re going to come to our school district to be on our field, and what’s their first impression?”
More improvements are still to come, Mr. Groth said. A second gymnasium and an indoor practice facility would be on his wish-list for future administrators. Rain forces teams to practice indoors, creating a headache trying to accommodate everyone, he said.
While an athletic director is most visible on the sidelines at games, it’s the behind-the-scenes work that makes it all possible. They manage coaches, scheduling, transportation and the inevitable concerns from parents.
“Bill was very astute in managing that,” Mr. Loverde said.
Looking ahead, Mr. Groth, who now lives in Westhampton after formerly living in Riverhead, said he may still wind up working in some capacity, though nothing is solidified. He’s eager to spend more time with his 9-year-old son, Reid, and 7-year-old twins, Bryce and Hailey.
“I can’t be any more blessed to now spend more quality time with them,” he said.
Photo Caption: Riverhead athletic director Bill Groth holds up a frame of vintage photos in his office. Riverhead’s most famous athlete, NFL quarterback Ed Danowski (middle, #22), played for the New York Giants from 1934 to 1941. (Credit: Joe Werkmeister)