Riverhead fielded one of the youngest high school girls cross-country teams at Friday’s Section XI Championships, with four freshmen among the team’s top seven runners.
But young teams have a way of surprising people, sometimes. This season, for example, Riverhead went 5-1 in Suffolk County League III, defeating Northport for the first time in the program’s history, according to coach Justin Cobis.
“It’s nice to have a little bit of a youth movement going on,” said Cobis.
Two of those freshmen, Megan Kielbasa and Christina Yakaboski, are All-County runners. Yakaboski played field hockey and travel soccer last year and never ran cross country before.
“She came out and it was a bit of a surprise, a pleasant surprise,” Cobis said of Yakaboski, who broke 21 minutes in her first five-kilometer race at Sunken Meadow State Park in September.
And then there were the additions of Emma Conroy and Kristina Deraveniere, two freshmen who ran for the middle school team last year.
Gaby Marcucci, a senior who captains the team along with juniors Aimee Drexel and Olivia Pizzuto, said: “I was really confused at first because I didn’t expect them to be so good. Christina came out of nowhere.”
Kielbasa had made her mark last year as one of Riverhead’s up-and-coming runners. Now she has company.
“I knew they were coming,” she said of her classmates. “I wasn’t aware of their capabilities, though. They’re good. They’re going to make our team a lot better in the future.”
Marcucci described the freshmen as strong-willed and witty. “A lot people would not want to run this much, especially so young,” she said. “A lot of people would quit, but they just kept with it … and they really love it. I’m really going to miss them, and I wish that I was younger.”
The goal now for the Riverhead freshmen is to keep working on lowering their times.
“For them the challenge is this: How do you translate your initial success into ongoing success because when you’re this good this young and you don’t put in the extra work, you’re going to plateau,” Cobis said. “That I really don’t see happening.”
A late entry, as coach
Matt Yakaboski was taken aback when he dropped his daughter, Christina, off at a Riverhead girls cross-country practice three days before the team’s first meet of the season. Riverhead coach Justin Cobis caught him by surprise, asking him, “Well, you want to coach?”
As it turned out, the Riverhead boys team’s coach, Will Razzano, had accepted a position as an assistant at Utica College, leaving a coaching void that needed to be filled.
“I was like, ‘First I better check with my boss at home, my wife, to make sure that it would fit in the schedules,’ ” said Yakaboski.
After consulting with his wife Kathryn, an agreement was reached. Yakaboski said: “I was like, ‘You know what? I can give it a shot, you know. Why not? Help the team out. I’m going to be going to almost everything anyway, so let’s get involved.’ ”
And with no prior cross-country experience as a runner or coach, Yakaboski guided the Blue Waves to a 5-1 record.
“I stepped into a great situation, first off, but the team is improving,” Yakaboski said. “Everybody’s been doing fantastic the whole season.”
Riverhead will lose two of its top seven runners, Eric Cunha and Christian Baron, to graduation, but the team’s No. 2 runner, sophomore Ryan Carrick, is expected back along with junior Anton Majewski, junior Cole Devereaux, sophomore Ryan Keane and junior Paul Poveromo.
“It’s kind of funny, but I love Yak,” Cunha said. “Yak has been a great coach all season. He really pushed us to keep going, and I respect him a lot as a coach. You know he did something right.”
Photo caption: One of Riverhead’s top four freshmen runners, Christina Yakaboski, made All-County despite having no cross-country experience prior to this year. (Credit: Robert O’Rourk)