Even with the pain of a tantalizingly narrow defeat, even with the dent that put into the Riverhead High School football team’s playoff chances, the Blue Waves had to acknowledge they had just participated in a great game.
Still, that didn’t lessen the sting they felt with their 20-19 setback to Huntington on Saturday. All that separated them from victory was a dropped two-point conversion pass.
“It’s going to be bad for us,” wide receiver/defensive end Darnell Chandler said. “It’s going to haunt us throughout the week.”
The Suffolk County Division II game was an instant classic. Huntington (5-2) thrilled its homecoming crowd, which was treated to unseasonably warm temperatures that reached 78 degrees at one point. It felt hotter on the field turf.
The action heated up as Huntington twice recovered from deficits and barely held on as Riverhead (3-4) mounted a desperate drive in the final minutes.
A Nat Amato extra point, following John Paci’s 76-yard touchdown pass to an open Alex Labella, proved to be the difference as Huntington took a 20-13 lead with 6 minutes, 22 seconds left to play.
Riverhead then delivered a scoring drive of its own, covering 78 yards in 11 plays. Penalties, a bugaboo for the Blue Waves, were once again a problem. A double dose of penalties — a false start and a personal foul — turned a fourth-and-inches play for Riverhead into a fourth-and-18. That didn’t deter Cristian Pace (15-for-27, 262 yards), who found Thomas Powers (four catches, 82 yards) down the left sideline for a 27-yard connection and new life at the Huntington 10-yard line. After a Huntington pass interference call advanced the ball to the 5, Pace threw a dart to Chandler (five catches, 87 yards), who twisted across the goal line with a defender draped on him with 1:09 to go. The Pace-to-Chandler connection accounted for all three Riverhead TDs.
Riverhead coach Leif Shay didn’t hesitate in going for two points and the win, but the pass was dropped in the end zone.
“I told them, win, lose or draw, I’m very proud of them,” Shay said. “We were a two-point conversion away. If we caught that ball, we’d be celebrating, but I’m still proud of our guys.”
Chandler’s onside kick bounced before Huntington’s Patrick Durand collected it, sealing the victory.
“That last drive, that really showed how much heart we have,” Chandler said. “We played our hearts out. It was a good game [from] everyone, the lines, the receivers, tight ends, everyone.”
Shay said: “I could not be more proud of our kids. … They grew up today.”
The loss puts a damper on Riverhead’s playoff chances. The Blue Waves had started the day in ninth place in the power-rated division. The top eight Division II teams will qualify for the postseason. In order to reach the playoffs, Riverhead will need to win its final regular-season game Oct. 28 when it hosts Smithtown West (4-3) — and hope for help.
“I always got faith in my team,” Pace said. “We haven’t been really playing to our potential before, but I think we’re clicking, so hopefully next game we can win and get in the playoffs.”
Riverhead was without two players, Isiah Brunskill and Lawrence Bishop, who were academically ineligible. Shay hopes to have them both against Smithtown West.
At times Saturday, Riverhead was its own worst enemy. The Blue Waves ran off a 12-play drive that reached the Huntington 1 — and came away empty-handed. The first-half drive saw three penalties, including a delay of game call on first-and-goal from the 1 and a false start penalty two plays later. The drive stalled at the 8 with an incomplete fourth-down pass.
“Penalties have been killing us all year,” Shay said. “It’s just having a young group of kids. They’re trying real hard, and sometimes they try a little too hard.”
For the game, Riverhead was whistled 10 times for 67 yards. Huntington had nine penalties, costing 70 yards.
Despite dominating in total yards in the first half, 179-45, Riverhead had only a 7-0 lead to show for it at halftime. That was the result of Pace hitting Chandler on a slant for a 40-yard score.
Huntington put Eric Sands to work in the second half. Twenty-one of the running back’s 25 carries came in the second half. Two of them went for TDs and he finished with 117 yards.
Pace fired a 4-yard TD pass to Chandler for a 13-7 lead late in the third quarter. A botched snap led to a failed pass on a conversion attempt.
After Sands spun his way in for his second TD 2:06 into the fourth quarter, Riverhead dodged not one, but two bullets on extra-point attempts. The first attempt by Amato smacked off the left upright, but he was given a second try thanks to a penalty for running into the center. Amato lined up for the second attempt, but a bad snap led to Powers tackling Luke Eidle far behind the line of scrimmage. The score remained 13-13.
“It was a tough game, a real good team,” Pace said. “I’m happy that we came out here and competed. We were right there.”
Photo caption: Riverhead’s Darnell Chandler races toward the end zone for one of his three touchdown receptions while Huntington’s Luke Eidle gives chase. (Credit: Robert O’Rourk)