12/28/13 7:00am
12/28/2013 7:00 AM
GARRET MEADE FILE PHOTO | Riverhead senior Markim Austin rises for one-handed dunk Tuesday that put the Blue Waves ahead by seven in the fourth quarter against Smithtown West.

GARRET MEADE FILE PHOTO | Riverhead senior Markim Austin rises for one-handed dunk that put the Blue Waves ahead by seven in the fourth quarter against Smithtown West.

The Riverhead boys basketball team entered the 2012-13 season with lofty expectations as an experienced core of players returned. And the Blue Waves didn’t disappoint, posting a 12-2 record in League III and clinching the program’s first league title since 1997.

It was a thrilling season throughout, highlighted by a 72-71 victory over Smithtown West early in February that guaranteed the Blue Waves at least a share of the league title.

Riverhead got 20 points from Markim Austin in the win in front of a near-capacity crowd at Riverhead High School. The Blue Waves’ season ended on a bitter note with a loss to Longwood in the first round of the playoffs, but the season nevertheless was one to remember.

Editor’s note: We’re counting down the top 10 sports stories of 2013. Check back every day until Jan. 1 to follow along.

12/27/13 8:08pm
12/27/2013 8:08 PM

FLAMING ARROWS 69, BLUE WAVES 63

Riverhead battled back from an early 14-point deficit to grab a 4-point advantage in the fourth quarter, but could not hold on en route to a 69-63 home loss to Sachem North in a non-league boys basketball game on Friday night.

Senior Deon Shorter came off the bench to lead the Blue Waves (1-4) with 17 points, followed by sophomore Charles Manning’s 14 points. Manning scored 13 of his points in the third quarter.

The Blue Waves grabbed a 53-49 lead 1 minute 50 seconds into the final period, but Sachem North (2-4) went on a 20-17 spurt to pull away.

Sachem North had four players in double figures. Senior guard James Bassford, who sank all five of his 3-point attempts in the first half, canned four foul shots over the final 43.3 seconds to keep the hosts at arm’s length. Bassford led the visitors with 22 points. Nakhari Nelson and Blake Thompson contributed 14 points apiece and Anthony Service added 11.

Riverhead next hosts Sachem East in a non-league game on Monday.

12/12/13 2:08am
12/12/2013 2:08 AM
DANIEL DE MATO PHOTO | Kurt Ryder, who scored 17 points for Bishop McGann-Mercy against Smithtown Christian, takes off for a layup.

DANIEL DE MATO PHOTO | Kurt Ryder, who scored 17 points for Bishop McGann-Mercy against Smithtown Christian, takes off for a layup.

MONARCHS 51, KNIGHTS 47 (OT)

An advertisement for good basketball, it was not. Sloppy play. Breakdowns on defense. Fouls galore. One missed shot after another. Horrendous foul shooting (in the case of one of the teams).

It all added up to one of the worst-played — and oddest — high school boys basketball games at the varsity level that the Bishop McGann-Mercy Diocesan High School gym had seen.

This was a non-league game that neither Smithtown Christian or McGann-Mercy could feel good about. The only saving grace for the Monarchs was that they won, 51-47, in overtime on Wednesday night.

At times it seemed as if neither team wanted to win, giving the other side another chance to take the game. In the 4-minute overtime, though, it was the Monarchs who prevailed for their first win from three games this season. Kurt Ryder’s layup at the start of overtime put the Monarchs ahead to stay, although the finish couldn’t have been easy on the nerves of McGann-Mercy’s exasperated coach, Mike Clauberg.

A runner by Kevin Santacroce and a free throw by Nykel Reese gave the League VII Monarchs a 49-45 lead with 1:02 to go in overtime.

Corey Collins followed up a missed 3-point attempt for Smithtown Christian, making it a 2-point game.

Later, a steal by Collins set up a missed 3-point shot by Kyle Straker. The Monarchs rebounded and were fouled. Greg Gehring and Santacroce each sank a free throw in the final 6.8 seconds to help seal the ugly win and hand Smithtown Christian, a League VIII team, its second loss in three games.

Smithtown Christian coach Dan Skaritka bemoaned before the game that he couldn’t wait for the day to end. When he called it the worst day in his life, he might have been doing so tongue in cheek. What didn’t make the day any better for him was the fact that he was missing three regular starters. The Knights could have used them.

It was a strange game, considering the Monarchs won despite shooting a poor 23.8 percent (15 of 63) from the field and 1 of 13 from beyond the 3-point line.

But Smithtown Christian had its issues, too. The Knights shot miserably at the foul line: 6 for 20.

Perhaps even more than that, though, they were hurt tremendously by foul trouble. Twenty-nine of the game’s 51 fouls were whistled against Smithtown Christian. The Knights were losing a battle of attrition. Four of their players — Zack DiBlanda, Cody Collins, Ron Linsalato and Connor McCabe — fouled out.

And how’s this for a strange fact? The Monarchs made only 1 of 15 field-goal attempts in the second quarter, yet still took a 15-14 lead into halftime.

For all of the uninspired play, the game was close,

It looked as if Smithtown Christian would leave Riverhead with a win when it took its biggest lead of the night at 42-35 on a free throw by Linsalato with 2:31 left in the fourth quarter.

Somehow, some way, McGann-Mercy whittled away at that lead as the Knights left the door open just enough for the Monarchs to squeeze back in. Two free throws by Reese and two baskets by Ryder, including a layup off his own steal with 26.2 seconds to go in the quarter, pulled the Monarchs to within a basket of the visitors. Both teams then missed a pair of free throws before Santacroce grabbed an offensive rebound and banked in a right-handed hook shot, tying the score at 43-43 with 8.2 seconds to go in regulation time.

The Monarchs survived the final hectic seconds of the fourth quarter as they watched Smithtown Christian miss a close-range shot. Ryder collected the rebound and chucked a mid-court shot that fell short before the buzzer sounded.

Ryder ended up with 17 points. Reese collected 19 rebounds (8 offensive) to go with 11 points, 3 blocks, 2 assists and 1 steal. Santacroce had 10 points and 9 rebounds.

Cody Collins led Smithtown Christian with 13 points and 12 rebounds. Straker added 11 points and Linsalato had 9.

For a while there, considering the way the Monarchs were playing, a win seemed highly unlikely for them. Then again, ’tis the season of miracles.

bliepa@timesreview.com

11/27/13 8:00pm
11/27/2013 8:00 PM

ROBERT O’ROURK FILE PHOTO | Riverhead senior Brandon Tolliver is fully recovered after undergoing knee surgery in the offseason.

The start of basketball season can always be a little tricky in Riverhead. This year is no different.

As the football team marches into the Long Island championship Friday to face Nassau champion Carey, the basketball team stands by waiting for the cavalry to return.

Practices started last week in Riverhead and the Blue Waves, during an extended try-out period, have been practicing with seven varsity players.

“We’re a little thin,” said Riverhead coach John Rossetti.

The Blue Waves went through this last year as well and it hardly slowed them down. Riverhead won the League III championship, its first since 1997, in a thrilling season that ended with a playoff loss to Longwood.

“We still have some good pieces on the team, so we’re going to be OK,” Rossetti said. “It’s just a matter of taking those pieces and merging them with the other kids from football once they come back and making it a cohesive unit.”

Rossetti admitted the team is probably about five days behind most teams. And that might lead to a slow start to the season.

“The good thing about these kids, they play with each other all the time,” Rossetti said. “They’re familiar with each other that way. It’s a matter of them getting on the same page in terms of defensive schemes and offensive schemes.”

The Blue Waves lost two of their “big three” from last year to graduation. But they do return senior Brandon Tolliver, who had a superb season last year and was a key part of the league championship team.

Tolliver is coming off the most challenging offseason of his young career. In March, while practicing with his AAU team, Tolliver tore his anterior cruciate ligament.

After the practice, Tolliver approached Rossetti and told him his leg hurt. Rossetti told him to ice it, but Tolliver’s instincts told him it was worse.

He underwent an MRI, which revealed he needed surgery.

The silver lining was the injury happened just after basketball season ended, giving Tolliver eight months to rehab for the start of this season.

“I give his parents a lot of credit,” Rossetti said. “They did their research. They got a good doctor. They gave him his workout plan, they brought him to his physical therapist. And he’s going to be a success story.”

The way Tolliver has been playing during the preseason, no one would ever know he underwent surgery, Rossetti said.

“He looks just like his old self,” he said. “He came back in better shape than he’s ever been. He added some muscle mass to his frame. His jump shot is dramatically improved.”

Rossetti said Tolliver will transition this year from a post player to more of a wing. His improved jumper will make him more of a threat from the perimeter.

The Blue Waves get right into their scrimmages Saturday with a game at Mattituck. They’ll also scrimmage East Islip before opening the non-league season on the road at Bellport Dec. 9.

joew@timesreview.com

02/15/13 9:13pm
02/15/2013 9:13 PM

ROBERT O’ROURK PHOTO | Riverhead senior Markim Austin drives to the basket against two Longwood defenders Thursday in the Class AA first round playoff game.

CLASS AA FIRST ROUND  |  LIONS 61, BLUE WAVES 51

The loss itself stung.

The missed opportunity hurt even worse.

A pile of jerseys lay on the floor inside the locker room Friday night for the final time this season as coach John Rossetti reflected on the Blue Waves’ 61-51 first-round playoff loss to Longwood in front of a capacity crowd at Riverhead High School.

“I feel like I let the community down today,” Rossetti said.

A few minutes later, when Rossetti learned No. 4 Central Islip had been upset by No. 20 Huntington, he slammed his right hand onto the bench, the frustration boiling over. If the Blue Waves had pulled out a win against the Lions, another home game would have awaited Tuesday against the lowest-ranked team in the Class AA bracket.

Instead, it’ll be the Lions (12-6) advancing with an unexpected home game in the quarterfinals.

For the Blue Waves, the quick exit out of the playoffs marked the end of a remarkable season that saw them win their first league championship since 1997.

“I told [the players] after the game, it’s going to sting for a little bit,” Rossetti said. “But when these kids look back on their careers when they’re 10 years out of high school, no one can take away from them that they’re league champs. That’s going to last with them forever.”

Even as a No. 5 seed, the Blue Waves (15-4) faced an arduous task in the first round against a battle-tested Longwood team that went 8-5 in arguably the most competitive league in the county. Brentwood and William Floyd also advanced into the quarterfinals.

ROBERT O’ROURK PHOTO | Deon Shorter chipped in six points off the bench for Riverhead Friday.

And the Lions know a thing or two about winning in the postseason. Friday’s win marked the eighth straight year they’ve advanced into the quarterfinals. In that time they’ve played in two county finals (’09, ’10). The Lions knocked off the Blue Waves in the first round in 2011 as well before advancing to the semifinals.

“A lot of pride,” said Longwood coach Pierce Hayes, whose team had opened the playoffs at home in each of the past seven seasons. “Coming out of League I, which was awesome this year, I mean everybody was good.”

The Lions jumped out on Riverhead with a 10-0 run to open the game and the Blue Waves could never close the gap all the way.

All season the Blue Waves have played their best in the third quarter, and they needed another big one Friday. In what was a wildly entertaining quarter, the Blue Waves trimmed the deficit down to three going into the fourth at 45-42 when junior Brandon Tolliver sank a pair of free throws with :36.9 left.

“Usually that third quarter surge we carry over into the fourth,” Rossetti said. “But I think we hit a wall.”

Longwood opened up the fourth on a 9-2 run, capped by a 3-pointer from Latrell Washington, who had a huge day with 21 points. He drilled another corner three to seal the victory with 2:03 left that extended the Lions’ lead to 15, the largest of the night.

“They’re a very good team,” Hayes said. “We kind of wore them down a bit. But they never quit.”

The Lions looked to push the pace against Riverhead, and Washington ignited the offense.

“That was our game plan,” Hayes said. “Our guards are our strength. We like to get the ball down the court and get it off quick.”

Longwood shot 6-for-17 (35 percent) from beyond the arc. Washington, who hit seven in a 32-point game to end the regular season, connected on four treys. Emmanuel Ferreira hit the other two as part of his 21-point game. Riverhead shot 1-for-10 from three.

The Lions have averaged 5.2 threes per game.

“We take a lot of threes, but we don’t always make them like today,” Hayes said. “Today we were on. The kids were focused.”

The Blue Waves got a team-high 14 points from senior Markim Austin and 11 from senior Ryan Bitzer. Tolliver added eight and Jeremiah Cheatom had seven. The loss snapped a six-game win streak for Riverhead.

The teams combined for 40 points in the third quarter. The Blue Waves were able to get out in transition some and beat Longwood’s press to get a few easy hoops. In one flurry, Washington converted a three-point play before Austin answered on the other end with a three-point play of his own five seconds later to get the Blue Waves back within four.

“You got to give them credit,” Rossetti said. “They hit open shots. In games like this it’s the team that hits the open shots that’s going to win.”

Longwood handed Riverhead its worst loss of the regular season Dec. 8, 60-41. But the Lions knew that game wasn’t a fair representation of what the Blue Waves look like now. Three of Riverhead’s starters were only a week off of football season for that game.

Hayes said maintaing the lead during each of Riverhead’s runs Friday came down to toughness.

“That’s always been our quest this year — to be a tough team,” he said. “We haven’t always lived up to that expectation, but tonight we did.”

joew@timesreview.com

02/14/13 7:00pm
02/14/2013 7:00 PM
ROBERT O'ROURK PHOTO  |  McGann-Mercy junior Nykel Reese scored a team-high 16 points Friday night.

ROBERT O’ROURK PHOTO | McGann-Mercy junior Nykel Reese drives to the basket against Mattituck.

The 2012-13 high school boys basketball season began with cautioned optimism around Bishop McGann-Mercy. The Monarchs knew they had a deep team led by two strong all-around players in Nykel Reese and Asaiah Wilson. And they also knew playing in League VII put them at a decided disadvantage.

“Mercy looks like the [Class] C team to beat,” Newsday wrote in its season preview in December.

The Monarchs may very well be the team to beat. But they won’t get a chance to prove it in the playoffs.

The Monarchs finished 5-9 in League VII, leaving them two games short of the minimum .500 league record to qualify for the postseason. But given their more difficult schedule — which forced them to play 12 games against Class B schools — the Monarchs petitioned Section XI, the governing body for Suffolk County athletics, to allow them into the postseason.

The petition was denied.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that we could win a county championship this year,” said McGann-Mercy coach Mike Clauberg.

The Monarchs are the largest of the six Suffolk County schools that fall into Class C. Classification numbers are determined by the state and can vary year to year. The eight smallest schools in the county form League VIII. Four of those schools are Class C and four are Class D.

The Monarchs and Port Jefferson were the only Class C schools in League VII. The Monarchs won both games against the Royals this season.

But the Monarchs were just 3-9 against Class B teams, leaving them with a league record of 5-9.

The Stony Brook School, which went 14-3 in the lower league, received the No. 1 seed for the Class C playoffs. Pierson (11-7) was the No. 2 and Greenport (10-7) the No. 3.

On Tuesday night, Pierson defeated Greenport, 63-41, to advance to the county final.

Stony Brook played only one Class B team and lost by 26 to League VII champion Babylon.

Clauberg said Section XI denied the petition because McGann-Mercy didn’t play enough games against Class C schools. Clauberg said he tried to schedule a few more non-league games against Class C teams but they didn’t pan out.

Instead, the Monarchs played Shelter Island and Smithtown Christian, two Class D schools. They won both games. Their other non-league games included a loss to Lindenhurst (Class AA) and a win over Sayville (Class A).

Coaches for Greenport and Pierson agreed that McGann-Mercy should have been allowed in the tournament.

“My heart goes out to the Mercy kids because that’s really who gets affected,” said Pierson coach Dan White. “I don’t know what the issue would be, money or whatever, but those kids should have gotten a chance.”

Stony Brook received a bye into the county final, so McGann-Mercy could have conceivably played a semifinal Tuesday night against the Bears.

“If they had been a No. 4, they probably could beat a No. 1 team,” said Greenport coach Al Edwards. “You never know what’s going on one particular night. I think there was probably some injustice done there.”

The maddening part for McGann-Mercy lies in the fact that there was a precedent to allow a Class C team from League VII into the tournament. It happened just last year with Port Jefferson. The Royals went 5-9 in league play last season and were granted the No. 3 seed in the playoffs as the final team to make it into the postseason.

Last season McGann-Mercy was a Class B school.

“Teams should have to win more than one game to win a championship,” Clauberg said. “Port Jeff deserves to be in, too.”

Clauberg said they received no explanation from Section XI as to why Port Jefferson was allowed in last year while McGann-Mercy was denied this year. The Royals also tried to get in this year and were denied as well, Clauberg said.

“No one understands it,” he said. “[Section XI] said we don’t use past precedent.”

At least two parents wrote letters to the Section XI executive director, Ed Cinelli, seeking an explanation. Those inquiries went unanswered as of Wednesday afternoon.

“We were shocked,” Clauberg said after finding out his team’s season was over. “How hard is it to let us play Stony Brook?”

joew@timesreview.com

With Bob Liepa

02/11/13 7:00pm
02/11/2013 7:00 PM

The major snowstorm that wrecked havoc with high school sports schedules in Suffolk County has delayed the completion of the boys and girls basketball regular seasons. All that snow, however, didn’t prevent Section XI from going about the business of preparing for the playoffs for those sports. Section XI, the governing body for interscholastic sports in Suffolk, released the boys and girls basketball playoff brackets on Monday.

As expected, Riverhead’s boys team earned a rare home playoff game. The Blue Waves (15-3), received the No. 5 seed in the Suffolk Class AA Tournament and will host No. 12 Longwood (11-6) of League I in a first-round contest on Friday. Riverhead, which last week captured the League III championship, will carry a six-game win streak into the postseason. In the only meeting between the two teams during the regular-season, however, Longwood beat Riverhead, 60-41, in a non-league game on Dec. 8.

The Greenport boys (10-7), who have one regular-season game remaining, will play a familiar opponent in a Suffolk Class C outbracket game Tuesday: Pierson (11-7). The winner of that game will advance to a county final against the top-seeded League VIII champion, Stony Brook (14-3), on Wednesday. Greenport and Pierson split the two regular-season games they played against each other.

Bishop McGann-Mercy (8-10) and Shoreham-Wading River (9-9) failed to qualify for the playoffs.

In girls basketball, No. 7 Riverhead (11-7) will host No. 10 Half Hollow Hills East (11-6) in a Suffolk Class AA first-round matchup on Thursday. While the Blue Waves have dropped their last two games, Hills East had won three of its last four.

Shoreham-Wading River (14-4) not only won its first league championship in 11 years last Thursday when it defeated Elwood/John Glenn in a double-overtime thriller, but it also secured the No. 2 seed in the Suffolk Class A Tournament. The Wildcats will play in a semifinal at home next Tuesday against the winner of Friday’s outbracket game between No. 3 Elwood/John Glenn (16-2) and No. 6 Sayville (11-7).

If No. 3 Mattituck (11-7) is to win a Suffolk Class B title, it will have to get past No. 2 Center Moriches (11-4), something the Tuckers weren’t able to do during the regular season. The two League VII teams will play in a Suffolk Class B outbracket game on Friday night in Center Moriches. The Red Devils defeated Mattituck by 8 and 20 points during the regular season. The reward for the winner of Friday night’s game will be a place in next Tuesday night’s county Class B final against Southampton (14-3), the League VII champion.

No. 3 Southold (9-6) will face No. 2 Port Jefferson (10-7) in a Suffolk Class C semifinal on Wednesday. Those teams beat each other once earlier this season.

02/07/13 9:47pm
02/07/2013 9:47 PM

ROBERT O’ROURK PHOTO | Riverhead senior Markim Austin cuts off a piece of the net after Thursday’s win over North Babylon as the Blue Waves finished in sole possession of the League III title.

BLUE WAVES 72, BULLDOGS 61

The buzz that filled Riverhead’s gym during Tuesday’s thrilling victory had faded by the time the Blue Waves returned to the court Thursday night. Still, business remained.

With a chance to the end the regular season as the undisputed League III champs, the Blue Waves punctuated their league title with a wire-to-wire victory over North Babylon, 72-61. The victory assured the Blue Waves (12-2) of finishing one game ahead Smithtown West, the team they knocked off in Tuesday’s showdown. The Bulls won Thursday against East Islip to finish 11-3 in league.

While the win over Smithtown guaranteed the Blue Waves a share of the league title, they held off on fully embracing the accomplishment. When the buzzer sounded on Thursday’s win, out came the ladder to signal the start of the net-cutting ceremony.

ROBERT O’ROURK PHOTO | Riverhead senior Ryan Bitzer connected on four 3-pointers.

One by one players took their turn climbing toward the rim and cutting a piece of the net.

“Obviously over the course of the season we’ve proven that we’re a pretty good ball club,” said Riverhead coach John Rossetti. “And on our home turf we want to let people know we’re a tough out.”

The Blue Waves (15-3 overall) proved that with a relatively easy win against a team that defeated them in mid-January. The Blue Waves led by as many as 19 and the game was never much in jeopardy in the second half.

The trio of senior Markim Austin, Ryan Bitzer and junior Brandon Tolliver combined for 57 of Riverhead’s points. Austin led the team with 21 while Bitzer chipped in 19 and Tolliver 17.

With the regular season now behind them, the Blue Waves will wait until Monday afternoon to find out their playoff fate. As a league champion, the Blue Waves should be guaranteed a home playoff game as a top-eight seed in Class AA. A top-four seed would open the door for two home playoff games before the tournament switches to a neutral site.

Riverhead will open the playoffs Feb. 15.

The Blue Waves got off to a quick start against the Bulldogs (11-7, 9-5 League III) and stretched the lead to double figures with a 12-3 run in the second quarter.

“You want to get on a good team early,” Rossetti said. “And hopefully you carry that momentum and it propelled us throughout the game.”

The game got off to a somewhat slow start as the two typically fast-paced, run-and-gun teams opened in zone defenses. It seemed to take both teams some time to adjust.

Rossetti said slowing the game down was part of their strategy.

“I think that threw them for a loop,” Rossetti said of the zone defense. “We realized they’re a little quicker than us. So what we decided to do was slow the game down.”

The pace eventually quickened and both teams were able to get out in transition.

The Blue Waves eclipsed 70 points for the fifth time in their last six games.

When the Blue Waves played in North Babylon Jan. 15 they scored only 44 points. In that game, the Bulldogs’ 3-2 zone defense clamped down on Riverhead’s outside shooters. But the Blue Waves were ready this time around.

Bitzer got going early with a couple 3-pointers in the first quarter. He finished with four on the night, including one early in the fourth quarter that put the Blue Waves ahead 53-34.

“We put a couple of wrinkles in and I think those wrinkles were effective,” Rossetti said.

Nelshawn McPherson was a beast down low for North Babylon and he led all scorers with 23 points. The Blue Waves struggled to match up against him in the paint and McPherson converted on second-chance opportunities.

“He’s a solid kid down low,” Rossetti said.

Cortland Speight added 18 points for North Babylon.

Riverhead honored its four seniors before the game. Ryan Schroeher joined Quinn Funn, Bitzer and Austin in the starting lineup. The Blue Waves will take the weekend off before returning to the gym Monday to prepare for the postseason.

“Preparation is key and you get some kids who played heavy minutes a couple days off to get their legs back,” Rossetti said.

joew@timesreview.com