08/19/13 7:59pm
08/19/2013 7:59 PM
GARRET MEADE PHOTO | Mike Van Bommel was followed by Ryan Harkin during an agility drill on Monday morning.

GARRET MEADE PHOTO | Mike Van Bommel was followed by Ryan Harkin during an agility drill on Monday morning.

On an unseasonably pleasant Monday morning, with a refreshing breeze blowing under a blue sky shaded by gray/white clouds, the Riverhead Blue Waves were back to work on the practice field. As with all other high school football teams in New York State, the clock on the new season began for Riverhead.

The race to put together a team for the 2013 season that the Blue Waves hope will successfully defend their Suffolk County Division II championship has begun. Some personnel changes have been made since the last time Riverhead was on the playing field for a loss to Garden City in the Long Island Class II championship game last November. Ryan Bitzer is gone. Quinn Funn is gone.

Some lesser known names will be moving into the spotlight this coming season, but that doesn’t mean they can’t play.

“There are new names, but remember, the program is conditioned to bring those kids through the middle school,” coach Leif Shay said. “You may not know that name, but we’ve known that name for five years.”

Jeremiah Cheatom, an all-county senior running back and outside linebacker who was named to Newsday’s All-Long Island Second Team, voiced confidence in his up-and-coming teammates. “We always had guys in the shadows who are excellent, too,” he said. “These are good players. Everybody on our team, they know what our guys can do. Just guys out of town, they don’t know. We’re going to have to show them.”

GARRET MEADE PHOTO | Riverhead senior Andrew Kinard said the Blue Waves have the ability to return to the Long Island championship game.

GARRET MEADE PHOTO | Riverhead senior Andrew Kinard said the Blue Waves have the ability to return to the Long Island championship game.

Unlike last year, Riverhead doesn’t have to contend with the hype that comes with being the top seed in the division. This year they aren’t ranked No. 1, but No. 3 isn’t far away from that. They face the challenge of playing a schedule that coach Leif Shay believes is about as tough as it gets. That schedule includes road games against No. 1 East Islip and No. 2 Bay Shore.

No doubt about it, it will not be easy, but then again, Riverhead has a number of things working in its favor. For one thing, Cheatom, a splendid runner, isn’t a bad player to form an offense around. Also, the Blue Waves are blessed with athleticism and look good at the skill positions, with plenty of starting spots up for grabs.

“Right now everything is wide open,” Shay said. “This is probably one of the deeper teams I’ve had.”

Where Riverhead took a big hit, though, was on the offensive line. Building the line, Shay said, is going to be something for the team to focus on.

The team does have impact players: middle linebacker/tight end Mike Van Bommel; defensive end Troy Trent, a junior transfer from Longwood; wide receiver/cornerback Danny Czelatka; free safety Jaron Greenidge; left tackle/defensive tackle Ethan Greenidge (6-foot-4, 290 pounds); outside linebacker/running back Ryun Moore.

And a new quarterback: senior Cody Smith. Smith, who backed up Bitzer last year, brings a contrasting playing style to the one his predecessor had.

“He’s going to bring a very different type of quarterback to this team,” Shay said. “He’s not going to have those finesse throws that maybe Ryan had, but he’ll make those gritty plays. When it’s fourth-and-one he’ll stick his neck in there and make a tough play for you. The toughness that he brings to the position is kind of fun. He’s more a Brett Favre-type of quarterback than a Tom Brady-type of quarterback.”

Smith holds the advantage in the competition for the starting job, but Shay said Kenny Simco, a junior, has been looking sharp, too. Simco was the starting quarterback for the junior varsity team last year.

Andrew Kinard, a senior who played defensive end and outside linebacker last year, said the outlook is good. “We have a physical, mental team, and if we play together, play strong, play hard, play smart, we’ll get there; we’ll get back to LIC,” he said referring to the Long Island championship game. “We have better skill players, a lot more speed, and I feel our run game is going to be better than it was last year.”

That 29-16 loss to Garden City was a tough way to end a 9-3 season, but it may yet bring a benefit to the Blue Waves.

Cheatom said the experience of winning the county championship game against North Babylon was one of the best experiences of his life. The loss to Garden City was something else. “It was devastating,” he said. “The thing that ran through my head was, ‘What could I have done to fix those mistakes?’ But you can’t take it back. Things happen for a reason. That must have happened for a reason because it’s given me more fire and motivation for this year.”

bliepa@timesreview.com

12/05/12 7:00pm
12/05/2012 7:00 PM

DANIEL DE MATO FILE PHOTO | Riverhead quarterback Ryan Bitzer was named the Division II Most Valuable Player for 2012.

Riverhead quarterback Ryan Bitzer won the Division II Most Valuable Player trophy at Monday night’s all-county dinner to wrap up the 2012 season. Bitzer, who led the Blue Waves into the Long Island championship, was one of four Riverhead players to earn all-county honors.

Wide receiver Quinn Funn, running back/defensive back Jeremiah Cheatom and linebacker Nick Ross also received all-county honors.

Bitzer threw for 1,946 yards this season with 21 passing touchdowns. He completed 60 percent of his passes while also rushing for nine touchdowns. In the county championship win over North Babylon he threw three touchdowns and rushed for one.

Most of Bitzer’s passes this season went to Funn. He hauled in 51 passes this season for 989 yards. He scored 16 touchdowns, including a defensive score on a fumble recovery in the county final as part of a four-touchdown performance.

Cheatom carried the load on the ground for Riverhead with 1,898 rushing yards. He did it on 265 carries for an average of 7.16 yards per carry.

Ross tallied 71 tackles on defense for the Blue Waves.

12/01/12 8:57pm
12/01/2012 8:57 PM

ROBERT O’ROURK PHOTO | Riverhead’s Jeremiah Cheatom ran for 200 yards in the first half and 31 in the second half.

LONG ISLAND CLASS II FINAL | TROJANS 29, BLUE WAVES 16

A mere glance reveals that Garden City’s football team does not have much in the way of size. Scanning across the field at the Trojans, one will not find a single bulky lineman among the bunch.Yet, while the Trojans are undersized in stature, no one can question the size of their heart.

After posting come-from-behind wins over Carey and Wantagh in the Nassau County semifinal and final, respectively, Garden City pulled off another comeback on Saturday, this time for a Long Island Class II championship at Riverhead’s expense.

Brett Stewart passed for two touchdowns and then ran for two more as Garden City turned the game around in the second half for a 29-16 triumph at Stony Brook University’s Kenneth P. LaValle Stadium. It was the fifth Long Island title for Garden City, which has played in 14 such finals.

Stewart, who recalled the pain of losing to Newfield in last year’s Long Island final, went from his worst football experience to his best in one year’s time. Clutching the championship trophy, he said, “I’ve never been happier than this moment here.”

It was a different feeling for Riverhead, which had lost to Garden City in a 2003 Long Island final. The Blue Waves, behind the impressive running of Jeremiah Cheatom in the first half, looked on the way to what would have been their second Long Island crown. Then, after a first half that ended with Riverhead ahead, 16-7, the game turned dramatically in Garden City’s favor. The Trojans (11-1) made adjustments, put eight players in the box and clamped down on Cheatom. Cheatom, who ran 24 times for 200 yards in the first half, managed only 31 rushing yards from nine carries in the second half. Meanwhile, Riverhead’s normally explosive passing game was limited to 104 yards.

“The way we played in the first half, the game was in our favor,” said Riverhead junior Michael Van Bommel, who was involved in nine tackles, including a sack. “We had it in our hands. The way they came out and played really shocked me.”

Garden City has been full of surprises this year. Even its revered coach of 28 years, Tom Flatley, said he would have been happy with a 5-3 record this year. Flatley said this year’s Garden City team surprised him more than any team he has coached in his 48-year coaching career.

“These kids were happy to play,” Flatley said. “Football is not a chore to them.”

Garden City has an offensive line with two sophomores who never played offensive tackle before, a 170-pound center who was a fullback one week before the season started, one guard who weighs 165 pounds and another guard who had never played on the offensive line before.

What the Trojans do have, however, are athletes.

“We get the ball in space to our playmakers and they score touchdowns,” said Stewart.

Stewart went 13 of 23 for 199 yards and two touchdowns, a 28-yarder and a 24-yarder, both to Ed Blatz (seven catches, 141 yards). But Stewart used his legs to put Garden City in front. The junior quarterback, who ran up 136 rushing yards on 27 attempts, scored the go-ahead touchdown on a naked bootleg around the left side from three yards out. Justin Guterding’s pass to Kyle Skramko for the two-point conversion made it 22-16 with 22.3 seconds left in the third quarter.

It was a quarter Riverhead (9-3) would prefer to forget, but then again, the fourth quarter wasn’t especially kind to the Blue Waves, either. On the second play of the fourth quarter, James Sullivan recovered a fumble, giving Garden City possession for a drive that ended with another three-yard touchdown run by Stewart.

That pretty much sealed things before Garden City’s postgame celebration.

“It’s the best feeling in the world,” said Scott D’Antonio, who was in on a game-high 11 tackles for Garden City. “The stakes were so high here, and we got the job done.”

The first half was all about Cheatom, with the fleet-footed junior touching the ball on 25 of Riverhead’s 36 plays in the half. Cheatom set up the game’s first score, a six-yard touchdown pass from Ryan Bitzer to Jaron Greenidge with 4.5 seconds to go in the first quarter. Cheatom scored himself on a one-yard burst in the second quarter.

“I just kept the intensity up,” said Cheatom, who registered his fourth 200-plus-yard game of the season. “I wanted this thing so bad.”

Devrim Kucuk’s career-best 36-yard field goal made it 16-7 Riverhead with 1:16 left in the first half. That was before the momentum swung against the Blue Waves, who uncharacteristically struggled on offense. They went 2 of 11 on third-down plays.

Facing reporters after the game, Riverhead coach Leif Shay said: “I think we had a great season. We’re Suffolk County champions. We’re one of three teams that have been able to do that in Riverhead’s history, so we got to be proud of that accomplishment. We fell short of the Long Island championship, but we had a championship.”

Cheatom, speaking about the season, said: “It’s a great experience, but you know, everybody always wants to be a champion, so you never want to stop here. You always want to keep going.”

In the end, the day belonged to Garden City, It was a day the Trojans will talk about for years to come.

“This is huge,” Stewart said. “This is the happiest day of my life. I’m happy that we proved the people who doubted us wrong. We’re Long Island champions.”

bliepa@timesreview.com

ROBERT O’ROURK PHOTO | Jaron Greenidge of Riverhead nearly intercepted a Garden City pass, but the ball popped loose when he hit the ground.

10/19/12 11:31pm
10/19/2012 11:31 PM

BILL LANDON PHOTO | Riverhead halfback Jeremiah Cheatom ran for two touchdowns in Friday night’s victory at Smithtown West.

Grit, determination and resilience propelled Riverhead into the victory column Friday night as the Blue Waves earned a 23-16 victory over the Smithtown West Bulls.

With Smithtown West beating previously unbeaten East Islip last week, Riverhead (5-2) arrived in town hoping to acquire precious power ranking points to secure home field for the first round of the Division II playoffs.

Riverhead’s non-existent passing game, costly penalties, and untimely defensive letdowns let the Bulls (3-4) hang around, but the physical, yet crafty running of junior Jeremiah Cheatom put the game away.

Cheatom finished the game with a career-high 262 yards on 18 carries while scoring two touchdowns, including the decisive score in the fourth quarter.

“In my state of mind, I wasn’t going down,” Cheatom said.

Cheatom tantalized the Bulls defense, but refused to take all the credit.

“My offensive line does an excellent job and I am so proud of them,” he said. “I give all the credit to them. All I have to do is run hard.”

Cheatom said his running came down to “finding the right cutbacks and taking full advantage.”

Midway through the third quarter, the Blue Waves saw their 14-point halftime lead shrink to just one following two unanswered Smithtown touchdowns. On the extra point attempt to tie the game, Riverhead senior Jeffrey Pittman came off the edge untouched to block the kick, preserving Riverhead’s lead at one. It was the second straight game Pittman blocked a kick. He swatted down a ball on a short field goal attempt against Newfield last week.

Following Smithtown’s touchdown, the first play on offense for the Blue Waves was halted by a false start, one of nine penalties on the night for the Blue Waves.

The next play Cheatom ran a zone to the right. Putting his head down into a huddle of defenders, a second or two passed and he somehow emerged out of the crowd and sprinted off into the distance. Evading defenders and hugging the sideline he gained 37 yards. He would later score his second touchdown on a 33-yard run to make the score 23-16 (the extra point was missed) and give the Blue Waves a little breathing room.

“I cut it in, read my blocks, and bounced it outside,” Cheatom said.

Following an empty offensive possession for both teams, the game was up to the defense. The Blue Waves had already intercepted a pass (Pittman), sacked the quarterback twice (Nick Ross, Matt Hejmej) and forced three fumbles throughout the game.

With three minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Bulls started a drive at their 15 yard-line following an effective punt by Anthony Chiaramonte. Smithtown West committed a holding penalty trying to hold back the Blue Waves’ pass rush and that placed the Bulls on the 4-yard line. Faced with a third-and-20, Smithtown West successfully ran a screen play gaining 29 yards. But the magic ended there as the drive stalled a few plays later with an interception by cornerback Quinn Funn.

Linebackers Mike Van Bommel and Hejmej led the defense with eight tackles each.

Cheatom put the Blue Waves ahead in the first quarter with a 47-yard touchdown run. Riverhead added 10 more points in the second quarter. Quarterback Ryan Bitzer threw an 8-yard touchdown pass to Funn and kicker Devrim Kucuk connected on a 38-yard field goal that put the Blue Waves ahead 17-3 before halftime. It was his second field goal in as many games.

The Blue Waves close out the regular season next Saturday at home against Walt Whitman.

10/13/12 6:48pm
10/13/2012 6:48 PM

ROBERT O’ROURK PHOTO | Riverhead quarterback Ryan Bitzer runs up the left side for a 33-yard touchdown to put the Blue Waves ahead 7-0.

BLUE WAVES 17, WOLVERINES 7

The memory was etched into the minds of every Riverhead player. It wasn’t just that Newfield beat the Blue Waves twice on their home field last year, including the playoffs, it was the way the Wolverines tried to embarrass them.

In the two games Newfield outscored Riverhead 86-19, a shellacking that fueled the Blue Waves throughout the offseason.

“That was fresh in our mind,” said Riverhead coach Leif Shay. “We wanted to show them how we can win with class.”

“We came out and had to show them who Riverhead is,” added linebacker Nick Ross.

Mission accomplished.

In a defensive battle, the Blue Waves rode their hard-hitting defense to a 17-7 win on homecoming at Coach Mike McKillop Memorial Field before a packed house on a cool, sunny afternoon. The pivotal Division II matchup gave the Blue Waves (4-2) a much needed boost in the standings with Newfield entering the game with an identical 3-2 record and one spot behind them in the power rankings.

“We needed this game,” Shay said. “If we have any postseason aspirations, we really needed this game. And I think our kids sensed that, too.”

The Blue Waves expected a physical game from the Wolverines and they were up to the task on both ends of the ball. While the Wolverines did tally 322 yards of offense, Riverhead’s defense held strong when it needed to at the most critical times.

ROBERT O’ROURK PHOTO | Riverhead linebacker Nick Ross brings down Newfield halfback Terrell Perryman.

The Wolverines got the ball late in the fourth quarter trailing by a touchdown. After picking up one first down to advance to their own 43-yard line, the Blue Waves’ defense came through with a huge stop to force Newfield to turn the ball over on downs.

On fourth-and-3 from midfield, defensive end Joseph Napoli and linebacker Matt Hejmej converged on running back Terrell Perryman as he took a toss to the left.

Riverhead halfback Jeremiah Cheatom (196 yards on 21 carries) marched the Blue Waves down inside the 10, setting up Devrim Kuchuk’s 23-yard field goal to ice the game with 1:02 left.

It was the field goal of the season for Kuchuk, who had an earlier attempt blocked.

“I figured I had to give him another shot,” Shay said. “I’m happy for him that he did it on homecoming.”

In six games now the Blue Waves are giving up 12.8 points per game, a stark contrast to last season when opposing teams racked up 31.7 per game.

“We’re more controlled,” Ross said. “We do what we’re taught to do. We don’t do extra to make ourself look better. We play as a team and as a group.”

Newfield presents a unique challenge for a defense with the number of players the team can throw out there. Nine different players carried the ball against Riverhead and the Wolverines rotated two quarterbacks, both of whom could throw or run at times.

Perryman was the main carrier out of the backfield and rushed for 83 yards on 20 carries.

“The key defensively was our outside linebackers to stop their run,” Cheatom said. “We did a great job.”

Shay said the defense came down to preparing for three basic plays: toss, blast and trap.

“We tell them, everything else is just bells and whistles,” he said. “It doesn’t matter all these shifts. It’s toss, blast and trap.”

Linebacker Mike Von Bommel had a big game and delivered the hit of the game when he leveled a Newfield receiver on a third-and-long to force an incomplete pass late in the third quarter.

The Wolverines were forced to punt, setting up a Riverhead touchdown.

The Blue Waves took over on the Newfield 46. Cheatom got the carry on first down and found space in the middle by cutting back twice to elude defenders. He rushed the ball all the way into the end zone and with the extra point, the Blue Waves had a 14-0 lead in the final seconds of the third quarter.

“I made a mistake earlier in the game fumbling the ball, but I put it in the past and did an excellent job the next drive,” Cheatom said.

Riverhead got off to a slow start, tallying only seven yards of offense in the first quarter. But the offense got rolling in the second quarter, although it didn’t lead to any points. The Blue Waves got deep into Newfield territory twice in the quarter without converting.

To start the second half Riverhead received the ball and finally broke through with a 33-yard touchdown run from quarterback Ryan Bitzer. On fourth-and-3, Bitzer faked a handoff and ran a bootleg up the left sideline for the score to put Riverhead ahead 7-0.

The only score for Newfield came on a 13-play, 80-yard drive in the fourth quarter. Joe Feliciano scored on a three-yard run for the Newfield touchdown.

With all the hoopla surrounding homecoming, the week leading up to the game is often coaches’ nightmare.

“I hope people had a great time, but I’m glad it’s over,” Shay said.

joew@timesreview.com

ROBERT O’ROURK PHOTO | Riverhead halfback Jeremiah Cheatom races 46 yards for a touchdown to make it 14-0.

09/29/12 8:00pm
09/29/2012 8:00 PM

BILL LANDON PHOTO | Riverhead halfback Jeremiah Cheatom rushed for 212 yards and two touchdowns Saturday against Half Hollow Hills West.

BLUE WAVES 42, COLTS 9

In his first year as a varsity player, Riverhead junior Daniel Czelatka came into the season expecting to play mostly on special teams. Maybe in a blowout, he’d get a chance to play offense or defense.

That quickly changed in Week 2 after wide receiver/cornerback Jeff Pittman went down with an ankle injury, catapulting Czelatka into the lineup on both ends of the field. Against North Babylon last week and Half Hollow Hills West Saturday afternoon at Coach Mike McKillop Memorial Field, Czelatka earned his first varsity starts.

“One guy went down and I stepped in and did what I had to do,” Czelatka said.

The Blue Waves discovered Czelatka can do more than play special teams. He helped lead a stellar defensive effort against the Colts in a 42-9 win that improves Riverhead’s Division II record to 3-1 at the midway point of the regular season.

BILL LANDON PHOTO | Riverhead junior Daniel Czelatka returned an interception for a touchdown.

Czelatka delivered the exclamation point with a 30-yard interception return for a touchdown, the first defensive score for Riverhead this season. He picked off Hills West quarterback Cody Clarsen — filling in for the injured Jake Klose — along the right sideline and had nothing but daylight in front of him.

“[The receiver] ran a hitch the first play and for some reason I was expecting another hitch,” Czelatka said. “So I read it right and picked it.”

Riverhead coach Leif Shay described Czelatka as the model for second-string players.

“He’s a guy who’s been working hard in practice,” Shay said. “We gave him a shot and he’s certainly taken advantage of his opportunities.”

Czelatka had one catch on offense in the third quarter when he hauled in a 31-yard reception along the left sideline from quarterback Ryan Bitzer. It helped set up a 6-yard touchdown run from junior Jeremiah Cheatom for his second touchdown of the afternoon, capping a stellar effort.

Cheatom ran for 212 yards on 18 carries and had an 80-yard touchdown run called back by an illegal block in the back penalty.

“He’s always exciting to watch run, Czelatka said. “He always breaks those arm tackles.”

The offensive line did an outstanding job creating holes for Cheatom as he busted 11 runs for 10 or more yards.

The 0-4 Colts, who lost a controversial last-second game at Riverhead last year, had no answer for the Blue Waves’ rushing attack. And they weren’t much better against the pass.

Bitzer was 7-for-10 passing for 80 yards. He threw two touchdowns to receiver Quinn Funn, who’s become the main threat in the passing game with Pittman sidelined. Funn caught four passes, the final three all for touchdowns.

His second score came early in the second quarter on a trick play. Backup quarterback Cody Smith came into the game and took a handoff from Bitzer. He rolled right with the ball, before pulling up and throwing deep to a wide open Funn.

Before the extra point was even completed, Smith was already wearing the head-set on the sideline, ready to resume his play-signaling duties.

“In any other year if he didn’t have a great player in front of him, Cody would be our starting quarterback,” Shay said. “We don’t lose a lot by putting Cody in.”

The Blue Waves led 21-6 at halftime. Unlike last week when the Blue Waves allowed North Babylon to climb back into the game, they opened the second half with a flurry.

Bitzer hit Funn on a play-action pass for a 13-yard touchdown with 9:34 left to make it a 28-6 game. The defense forced a turnover on downs the next possession for Hills West and Riverhead got the ball back at the Colts’ 41. Four plays later Cheatom ran up the gut for a 6-yard score to make it 35-6.

The Blue Waves needed less than five minutes for their two third-quarter scores to put the game away.

“We talked about it as a coaching staff that we would keep the pedal to the medal and we weren’t going to do wholesale substitutions,” Shay said. “We tried to get everybody into the game, but we wanted to make sure we put the game away, too.”

Coming into the day Shay said they were worried about linebacker Randy Davis for Hills West, but he did not play because of an injury. Klose, the quarterback, went down with an injury in the second quarter, forcing the Colts to go with Clarson, who was a mixed threat of running and passing.

Halfback Jobe Basiru got banged up on the final play of the game as well, at which point the referees called the game (the fourth quarter was played without the time running on the scoreboard).

The lone bright spot for the Colts was kicker Willie Holmquist. The senior kicked three field goals, from 43, 21 and 48 yards.

Pittman did get some action for Riverhead, but only on a handful of plays. The Blue Waves expect him to be back near full strength next week.

Riverhead travels to East Islip next Saturday.

joew@timesreview.com

09/08/12 5:53pm
09/08/2012 5:53 PM

ROBERT O’ROURK PHOTO | Riverhead senior Jeff Pittman races into the end zone for a touchdown Saturday against West Babylon.

BLUE WAVES 42, EAGLES 0

Being the No. 1 seed in Suffolk County Division II is one thing; living up to that high seeding is something else.

Receiving the top seed in the preseason coaches poll is a nice honor, but Riverhead coach Leif Shay knows full well that it evaporates the instant the first football is kicked off in the new season. Teams prove themselves on the field, just like the Blue Waves did on Saturday.

Riverhead opened its 2012 season in impressive fashion, shutting out No. 7 seed West Babylon, 42-0, at Coach Mike McKillop Memorial Field. Jeremiah Cheatom, a junior running back, broke free for touchdown runs of 62 and 61 yards, and senior quarterback Ryan Bitzer was directly involved in three touchdowns himself. Bitzer connected on scoring tosses of 46 yards to Jeff Pittman and 24 yards to Quinn Funn in addition to running for one touchdown himself on a naked bootleg from three yards out.

While the Riverhead offense generated 504 yards and didn’t turn the ball over once, the Blue Waves showed themselves to be good tacklers, too. The defensive unit forced five turnovers by West Babylon, and the Eagles never moved the ball closer than within 30 yards of the Riverhead goal line. Four West Babylon passes were intercepted, including two by the ball-hawking Jeff Pittman. Matthew Hejmej recovered a fumble and picked off a pass. Michael Von Bommel led Riverhead with seven tackles.

In short, all facets of the game were working for the Blue Waves.

“It was pretty much picture perfect, even to the punt team,” Bitzer said, referring to punter Nickolas Ross, who delivered a pair of 44-yard punts and pinned West Babylon on its own 9-yard line on another effort. “We just went out there and did our thing.”

And there was a little magic in the air on this windy afternoon. Riverhead’s first offensive play of the game was called by someone who had won a raffle to benefit Christopher Timpone, an Aquebogue Elementary School student with cancer. That play call proved to be the right one. Bitzer lofted a pass for Pittman, who was wide open, executing a stop-and-go pattern down the left side for the game’s first points 2 minutes 9 seconds into the first quarter.

“It worked,” said Shay.

Three turnovers set up three Riverhead touchdowns in the first half, which ended with the score 28-0 and the result safe in hand for the home team.

West Babylon was not at full strength. The team had been hit by injuries, and more of them followed on Saturday.

“They have a lot of injuries,” Shay said. “If you look at their sideline, it looks like a triage unit.”

Perhaps the injuries were too exasperating for West Babylon coach Al Ritacco to talk about in any sort of detail. “We just got hurt,” he said. “I just about lost my entire backfield.” Then, without any explanation, Ritacco walked away from the reporter he was speaking to, ending an interview that lasted less than 30 seconds.

By the time Riverhead’s offense took to the field 5:23 into the third quarter, Bitzer was standing on the sideline with a headset on and victory secure. His backup, junior Cody Smith, threw a 32-yard touchdown pass to Ryan Hubbard for Riverhead’s final touchdown with 5:20 to go in the game.

“We kept pushing, we kept driving,” Pittman said. “We just kept doing what we had to do today.”

Riverhead had made a bold statement to anyone paying attention that it is a team to be taken seriously.

“We’re number one, we had to make a statement,” said Cheatom, who ran the ball 11 times for 159 yards. “Everybody believed in themselves.”

Bitzer, who completed 7 of 12 passes for 147 yards, expected a high-caliber performance from his team and got one. “We just wanted to come out today and prove ourselves, prove ourselves to the community, letting them know that we’re here for real, and everyone else in our division, too,” he said. “I think we did a good job with that today.”

As well as Cheatom played, Shay indicated that better days are ahead for Riverhead’s top running back. “Jeremiah doesn’t know how good he’s going to be yet,” the coach said. “He’s still learning. He’s still got to learn to read the zone properly. He has explosiveness [and] ability, but he has to learn how to just do it consistently. I wasn’t happy with a lot of two-yard runs, three-yard runs. I need four- or five-yard runs out of him. He’s got to work on that part of his game.”

One bright spot for West Babylon was the running ability of quarterback Clifton Melhado, who gained 129 yards on 25 carries.

But the light shined on Riverhead most of all. The Blue Waves showed that there is some substance behind their preseason ranking.

“It’s not a fluke at all, but it’s only the first week,” Pittman said. “We still have another seven games, the playoffs. You have to actually show what your team is made of.”

This is the third top-seeded team Shay has coached during his 15 years in charge of Riverhead. He knows that things can go south rather suddenly and he knows better than to make too much out of one game. For Week One, though, it wasn’t a bad step.

Said Cheatom, “This is the best start we could have hoped for.”

bliepa@timesreview.com

08/26/11 3:58pm
08/26/2011 3:58 PM

BOB LIEPA PHOTO | Jeremiah Cheatom scored 22 rushing touchdowns for Riverhead's junior varsity team last year and then ran for two more in his varsity debut.

Twenty-two rushing touchdowns in a season is quite a feat, but it wasn’t all those touchdowns that Jeremiah Cheatom rang up in seven games for the Riverhead High School junior varsity football team last season that marked the highlight of his freshman year. No, it was the two touchdowns that Cheatom ran for in his varsity debut that he liked best.

Three days before the Blue Waves’ final game of a 2-6 season, Cheatom received word that he was being pulled up to the varsity team to be given a look.

“I was excited, but also nervous,” he recalled, “but I was ready.”

There was no doubting that.

The Blue Waves took a peak into their future and liked what they saw. Cheatom, the touchdown maker, proved to be a handful that day, spoiling things for the Smithtown East Bulls, whose new field turf was christened with a 40-13 loss to the Blue Waves. The young running back bolted for a pair of second-quarter touchdowns and finished the day with 64 yards from 11 carries.

BOB LIEPA PHOTO | Reggie Moore, a senior H-back, is one of several ball-carrying options for Riverhead.

Cheatom may have opened some eyes — at least those of outsiders — that day, but his teammates knew what he could do.

“I knew about Jeremiah Cheatom,” Charles Bartlett, a senior running back and middle linebacker for the Blue Waves, said. “I knew him for a long time. I knew he was good, and I knew that was going to happen. He’s going to be a good running back. I told him just to go play his game, and he did that.”

Riverhead’s junior quarterback, Ryan Bitzer, said: “I heard all the coaches talking about him. I saw some of his games on the JV, and he was tearing it up there, too.”

With no playoffs to look forward to for the first time in five years, the Blue Waves could at least take comfort in knowing that they had another capable ball carrier in their corral. Now it looks as if the Blue Waves will hit the ground running with their running game in 2011.

On the same day that Cheatom began his varsity career, Bartlett banged out 125 yards and a touchdown on 12 rushing attempts. He finished the season as the team’s leading rusher with 773 yards from 138 carries (5.6 yards per carry) as well as four touchdowns.

Bitzer has other weapons at his disposal. In addition to Bartlett and Cheatom, junior Jeff Pittman is another viable starter at tailback. Bitzer can also place the ball in the hands of Reggie Moore, a senior H-back who has already made a name for himself as a scoring threat.

BOB LIEPA PHOTO | Riverhead quarterback Ryan Bitzer is anticipating a more consistent running game this year.

All of them offer speed and elusive moves, enough to give opposing defenses cause to shudder.

“We have a lot of speed back there,” Coach Leif Shay said. “Last year’s running game was sporadic. We had days when we ran the ball well, and we had days when we struggled a bit. This year’s running game is still a work in progress. We have some big guys up front, but they haven’t worked together. We certainly have the running back depth and speed this year.”

Bitzer said: “Last season we had a lot of speed, but we weren’t really consistent, so I think it will be a lot different this year. I think we’ll be faster, stronger, and more consistent, and I think the line will be a little better, too.”

What’s more, Shay said the offense has more balance.

Shay said Cheatom, who runs a 4.7-second 40-yard dash, reminded him of Chris Harris, a former standout running back for Riverhead. In at least one aspect, Bitzer sees a similarity with Miguel Maysonet, the former Hansen Award winner for Riverhead who now plays for Stony Brook University. “He’s fast, he’s strong, and he sees the field good like when Miguel did when he was here,” said Bitzer.

Through offseason workouts in the weight room, Cheatom is stronger, but he said he is also smarter than he was a year ago. His path has been helped by Bartlett, who has given him the benefit of his knowledge.

But part of what Cheatom does on the football field is instinctual.

“He has a great forward lean,” Shay said. “He gets you that extra five yards. He’s got great vision. He sees cutback lanes where other kids can’t, so he definitely has the potential to see and do a lot of things.”

Cheatom said: “When I’m in the backfield, it’s sort of like slow motion. I can see the play before it’s going to happen.”

Playing the role of prophet, Cheatom said: “We’re a solid running team. We’re going to get a lot of yards this year.”

bliepa@timesreview.com