BOB LIEPA PHOTO | Riverhead Coach Steve Failla and his Blue Waves posed during a photo session before a recent practice.
The sun couldn’t be seen. It was about 40 degrees outside and the wind was gusting by the putting green at Cherry Creek Golf Links, the home course for the Riverhead High School girls golf team. It was definitely a hot chocolate day.
Hot chocolate is not only the drink of choice for the Blue Waves, but it is what keeps them going during those bitter, raw days of early spring.
Coach Steve Failla uses hot chocolate as a motivating tool for his players during those cold practices. The heated beverage warms their spirits and does its small part in helping to build a program that is barely out of its infancy.
Progress is coming slowly but surely for Riverhead, which is in its fourth varsity season. Rich Gebhardt started the team three years ago. Failla took over the reigns this year, following Gebhardt’s retirement.
BOB LIEPA PHOTO | Riverhead freshman Jackie Hulse did not seem pleased with a putt.
The first thing the Blue Waves learned about varsity golf is that wins don’t come easily. Riverhead was winless in its first two seasons and went 2-34 in its first three years.
Aysha Ozyilmaz, a junior who is the only remaining member of Riverhead’s first varsity team, said Riverhead is in a better situation than it was four years ago when half of the players had never played golf before. “It was hard at first because I really didn’t know what I was doing, but it was exciting, though, to learn a completely new sport,” she said.
Failla said the playing experience on this year’s team varies, but most of the Blue Waves have been golfing for two to three years.
“We learn from each other,” Ozyilmaz said. “We progress every year. It was hard the first couple of years, but now we’re really getting it together.”
And these Blue Waves are young. Ozyilmaz is the only upperclassman among them. Her teammates consist of four sophomores (Corey Gianuzzi, Catherine Brophy, Rebecca Merker and Carina Oliva) and four freshmen (Kaylee Wells, Jackie Hulse, Erin Kealey and Karyn Torre).
The odds are stacked against them. They have their hands full, competing against more established teams from Mount Sinai, Ward Melville, Sachem East, Sachem North and Longwood.
“We knew it was going to be a challenge,” Failla said. “You have to have patience, and you know what? They show up every day and they want to get better and they work at it.”
Although a win has eluded them this season, they have already made improvements. They lost their first three Suffolk County League III matches. Despite falling to the defending league champion Mount Sinai Mustangs, 8-1 and 7-2, Riverhead’s starters took 27 strokes off their game in the rematch. Hulse went from an 83 to a 57 in 24 hours. Last Wednesday Riverhead lost, 7-2, to the Sachem East Flaming Arrows.
BOB LIEPA PHOTO | Ashya Ozyilmaz, a junior, is Riverhead's only upperclassman as well as the only remaining player from the school's original varsity team.
Failla, however, sees encouraging signs for the future. Riverhead doesn’t have a middle school or junior varsity team to develop players, but that may change down the line.
“We have quite a few girls in the middle school who are interested in playing, so the numbers are going to grow,” said Failla, who plans to run an intramural league when the season ends. “If we keep them playing together, the sky’s the limit. I believe that.”
It’s a fun-loving group, whether it be joking around during a team photo session or trying to talk Failla into letting them drive a golf cart (“We all dream about that,” said Kealey.)
“I love this team,” Hulse said. “I love everybody on it. There’s never a bad time. Everywhere we go, we just bring the fun with us.”
It may take a while before wins start piling up on a regular basis, and getting to drive a golf cart may not be in the near future, but there is something the Blue Waves can always count on to warm their thoughts.
Said Hulse, “There’s always hot chocolate.”