GARRET MEADE PHOTO | With team captain Joe Gattuso raised on the shoulders of teammates, the Blue Waves posed for photographs after completing a 5-0 dual-meet season on Tuesday. Riverhead is a league champion for the first time in 15 years.
BLUE WAVES 15, COLTS 47
The Riverhead High School boys cross-country team had not won a league championship in 15 years. Judging by the happy looks on the faces of the Blue Waves, it was well worth the wait.
Having secured its first league title since 1998 with a vital victory over East Islip a week earlier, Riverhead was the favorite, on paper at least, to beat Half Hollow Hills West on Tuesday and put the finishing touches on a perfect dual-meet season. Then again, as Riverhead senior Travis Wooten said, “You never know until the finish.”
Spectators had a good idea of what direction the race was headed when a blue Riverhead uniform made the final turn out of the woods at Indian Island County Park in Riverhead before hitting the final straightaway to the finish line.
And then came another blue uniform. And then another. And another. And another.
The first five finishers — and six of the top seven — were Riverheaders. By bolting to a 15-47 victory, the Blue Waves completed their dual-meet season with a sparkling 5-0 record in Suffolk County League IV. It was the first time this season that Riverhead swept the top five places in a race.
“I couldn’t have asked for something better,” Wooten said. “This is amazing.”
Two seniors running in the final dual meet of their high school careers, Wooten and captain Joe Gattuso, led the way for Riverhead. Wooten was the first to complete the 3.1-mile course in 17 minutes 53 seconds. The next four runners crossed the finish line within 18 seconds of Wooten. Gattuso (17:58) was followed by junior Nick Cunha (18:02), sophomore Connor Behr (18:06) and sophomore Luke Coulter (18:11). Riverhead freshman Eric Cunha, Nick’s brother, was seventh in 18:58.
Half Hollow Hills West finished the league season with a 1-4 record.
“Fifteen years. Oh my God,” said Gattuso, who wasn’t even old enough to go to school 15 years ago. “That’s a long time, 15 years.”
Perhaps the long wait made the achievement even more special.
“It hasn’t happened in a while … and it’s just a great feeling,” said Nick Cunha.
Hills West was added to the list of defeated Riverhead opponents that includes Hauppauge (21-34), West Babylon (19-44), Deer Park (19-54) and East Islip (21-36). The triumph over East Islip, though, at Sunken Meadow State Park was the critical one. Both teams entered that contest with 3-0 records. Recalling that race, Wooten said, “We added up the numbers, and the odds weren’t in our favor.”
That victory clinched at least a share of the title for Riverhead and set the path for the 5-0 season.
“I asked them to do extraordinary things [against] East Islip,” Riverhead coach Patrick Burke told reporters. “We had athletes run 40, 50 seconds faster [against] East Islip. Those are remarkable times. In this race, [it was] more of do what you do, stay in your comfort zone, and if there was a Hills West guy in front of you, pass him.”
Burke said the key to his team’s success has been depth, which in the cross-country world is gold. “I can’t say we have this outstanding team that runs sub-17s at Sunken Meadow, but we have a very good quality team for our division, our league,” he said. “I didn’t want to be overly confident, but I felt good and I felt if we were going to do it, this was the year, and everything was in place.”
After the race, the Blue Waves posed for photos, with Gattuso raised on a couple of shoulders. They had good cause to be happy. All the off-season training and weekend practices had paid off.
“As corny as it sounds, we have heart, you know?” Wooten said. “We haven’t had it for a long time. None of the guys here have ever experienced a league championship before.” He added: “We got it for Coach Burke. It means a lot to him. It means a lot to the team. It means a lot to the school.”
So, the Blue Waves will get a banner to hang in their gym. More immediately, mention during the school’s morning announcements was expected.
Nick Cunha said, “I think we’re going to get our names announced on the loudspeaker.”
Fifteen years later, it’s a deserving honor.