JOE WERKMEISTER PHOTO | Riverhead junior Ever Bonila (left) goes up for the header Tuesday against North Babylon’s Travis Quigley.
BLUE WAVES 2, BULLDOGS 1
Eight days ago, the Riverhead boys soccer team traveled to Centereach with their season quickly slipping away. Nearly three weeks into the regular season, the Blue Waves were 0-5, and desperate for a spark.
In that game Sept. 30, the offense that had been lacking suddenly came to life in the form of a 4-0 victory. Three brothers — Brian and Kevin Elejalde and Sergio Ricon-Giraldo — all scored in the win. Two days later, the Blue Waves won 3-1 at West Islip.
While the wins against Centereach and West Islip were nice, those teams are a combined 1-18 on the year.
What awaited the Blue Waves next was the true test of just how far they’ve come — matches against Smithtown West and North Babylon, the top two teams in League III.
Riverhead answered the bell with two superb games. The Blue Waves battled Smithtown West to a 1-1 draw, snapping the Bulls’ nine-game win streak.
And on Tuesday afternoon in Riverhead, the Blue Waves picked up one of the biggest wins in recent years by toppling North Babylon, 2-1, in a tense match that came down to the very end.
“We always had [the confidence],” said Riverhead goalkeeper Ryan DiResta, who was outstanding in goal with 12 saves Tuesday. “We just didn’t realize it until a couple games ago.”
The Blue Waves scored two early goals against the Bulldogs and held off a late surge in the second half to run their unbeaten streak to four.
At 3-5-1 in League III, suddenly the playoffs aren’t out of the question for the surging Blue Waves.
“This win is very good for us,” said Riverhead coach Lamine Traore. “It boosts their confidence.”
North Babylon came into the game in second place with just two losses. The Bulldogs head home with their record dropped to 7-3-1 overall and 6-3 in league.
When the season began, Traore knew it would take time for the Blue Waves to get rolling. Without the year-round play that many programs enjoy, the Blue Waves were mostly starting from scratch in terms of players learning the system and developing chemistry on the field.
But now the Blue Waves are starting to see what they’re capable of. In the first half, excellent passing and teamwork, with players looking for each other and playing smart soccer, led to a pair of goals and few scoring chances for the Bulldogs.
It took nine minutes for the Blue Waves to strike when junior Denis Escalante converted in front. He had a chance to take a left-footed shot, but hesitated and brought it back to his right foot, kicking the ball inside the left post on a low shot.
In the 17th minute, sophomore Jayson Set lofted a deep shot along the left sideline that sailed inside the far post.
“We’re playing our style and they’re starting to know each other,” Traore said.
The Bulldogs upped the pressure in the second half and the Blue Waves got away somewhat from what worked well in the first half. With a two-goal lead, there’s always a natural tendency for players to stay back on their heels rather than keep attacking.
The Bulldogs broke through in the 60th minute when Gabriel Fernandes scored inside the 18 after a deep throw-in. North Babylon’s Zach Parker threw it in from the left sideline and the ball bounced amid a crowd of players inside the 18, scooting to Fernandes for an easy tap in.
“It just hit around people and somehow he got it right by the post,” DiResta said.
Parker presented a challenge for Riverhead with his throw-ins, which had the effect of a corner kick.
“It’s almost a bigger threat because they have more time to react because [the ball] floats in the air,” DiResta said. “It’s harder for me because if I come out I might not be able to get to it in time.”
The Bulldogs had several good chances from throw-ins. On a corner kick late in the game, DiResta made a leaping, two-handed save on a header to preserve the one-goal lead.
North Babylon appeared to score shortly afterward on a throw-in, but the play was ruled offsides.
Coming into the season half with a two-goal lead, Traore said he told his team to approach the half one quarter at a time.
“The first 15 let’s manage it and then start developing our own games,” he said. “But we got caught not playing our game.”
The Blue Waves still had a few chances to extend their lead. Set had the ball in transition one play and sent a feed across to sophomore Phillip Barabanov. He attacked the goalkeeper one-on-one, but hesitated a split second too long and couldn’t get off a shot.
For as well as the Blue Waves have played of late, DiResta said Tuesday’s win was just part of the bigger goal.
“It’s one of the better ones, but it’s just another on our way to playoffs,” he said.