ROBERT O’ROURK FILE PHOTO | Riverhead senior Jaron Greenidge will be a key player on both sides of the field for the Blue Waves.
When the Riverhead Blue Waves take the field Thursday afternoon in their season opener, the starting running back may get a few curious glances from the crowd.
No. 7? Who’s No. 7?
That would be Ryun Moore, a sophomore who played on the JV last year as the varsity team rolled to its third county championship since 2003. Few might have expected a sophomore to be next in line to start opening day, but that’s the situation facing the Waves.
As Jeremiah Cheatom — last year’s featured back — deals with a hamstring injury, the Blue Waves will turn to a promising young runner to carry a hefty load.
As an opportunity presented itself early in training camp, Moore seized it. Shay said he’s seen Moore getting more comfortable as training camp has progressed.
With the dynamic passing duo of quarterback Ryan Bitzer and wide receiver Quinn Funn gone, the Blue Waves still feel confident their passing attack can give opposing teams trouble. Senior quarterback Cody Smith, who spent the last two years backing up Bitzer, now gets the opportunity to start under center.
“He’s going to get better and better every week,” Shay said.
The Blue Waves return three talented receivers: seniors Dan Czelatka, Darren Jefferson and Ryan Hubbard.
Shay has high expectations for Czelatka, who saw some action on both sides of the field last year.
“I think he’s as good as anyone we’ve had at that position,” Shay said.
Senior Mike Von Bommel slides to tight end this year and will be a pivotal player blocking and running passing routes. Von Bommel was a star defensively last year and led the team in tackles. He’ll play middle linebacker again this year and look to anchor the defense.
Senior Jaron Greenidge is another key returning player from last year who will play a fullback/tight end position.
Shay said Von Bommel and Greenidge should solidify a lot of the blocking up front and help assist the offensive line, which is still a work in progress.
“We have some new guys up there,” Shay said. “They’re getting better every day, but they’re making mistakes, which I would expect they would.”
The Blue Waves will feature senior Mike Drexel and junior Ethan Greenidge at the tackle positions. Senior Michael Curtis will start at center. Shay said Curtis was “a nice surprise at camp.”
Senior Ryan Harkin will start at guard. The other guard position is still up for grabs between three players, Shay said.
On the other side, senior Jonathan Lee, Ethan Greenidge and Drexel will play defensive tackle.
Sophomore Tyrese Kerr — the only other 10th-grader on the roster in addition to Moore — will play defensive end along with Harkin.
While Von Bommel anchors the linebacker core, the Blue Waves’ depth at the position was weakened from injuries and academic issues. Junior Raheem Brown will start at middle linebacker opposite Von Bommel.
Moore and senior Taiheem McKay will both start at outside linebacker.
On special teams Czelatka will handle the punting duties. Moore will return kicks — giving him triple duty as a sophomore. The Blue Waves begin the year without a bona fide kicker.
As defending champs and the No. 3 seed in Division II, the Blue Waves will face a challenging schedule, starting with Thursday’s opener, a rematch of last year’s county final.
It’ll be an uphill climb back to the top — no team has repeated as champion in Division II since Bellport won in ’05 and ’06 —but the Blue Waves are ready for the challenge.
“They believe they’re going to be the best team ever, so I like that attitude,” Shay said.
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.
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.”
ROBERT O’ROURK PHOTO | The NFL draft began Thursday night with the first round. Miguel Maysonet of Riverhead will be waiting to see if his name gets called, most likely Saturday during rounds four-seven.
In one month, Miguel Maysonet will return to LaValle Stadium, the field he made home with dizzying runs and acrobatic hurdles, surrounded by hundreds of classmates as his time at Stony Brook University draws to a close.
The cameras won’t be pointed squarely in his direction. There will be no scouts clocking his 40-yard dash, no ESPN analysts breaking down the event.
The day will be as much about everyone else as it is about its most famous current student, the man from Riverhead who put Stony Brook football on the map.
By the time Maysonet’s name rings out over the field on May 24, he will in all likelihood be a member of a National Football League team, an accomplishment never before achieved by a Stony Brook player.
Earning a chance to play football at its highest level will undoubtedly be the culmination of years of hard work and dedication. But it’s with the same fervor Maysonet speaks about accomplishing another goal, one that won’t draw the same headlines, but will bring just as much satisfaction to the 23-year-old star running back.
“I know for a fact that the NFL doesn’t last forever,” Maysonet said in the week leading up to the draft. “When I get that degree from Stony Brook, that’s definitely going to last forever.”
As the three-day NFL draft unfolds this weekend at Radio City Music Hall, Maysonet is expected to land anywhere between the fifth and seventh rounds.
As his notoriety continues to grow, Maysonet takes it all in stride, still the same humble kid who wowed football fans with his spectacular runs as a Riverhead Blue Wave from 2005-08.
“At the end of the day, I’m not getting hung up on whether I’m drafted or anything like that,” Maysonet said. “If I get drafted, cool. If I don’t, cool. I didn’t want to focus everything on me being drafted.”
DANIEL DE MATO FILE PHOTO | Maysonet cheered on his former school in November when the Blue Waves won the county championship at Stony Brook.
To say Miguel Maysonet came from nothing would be somewhat unfair. Sure, he lacked many of the basic comforts most of us take for granted, like a shower. He grew up in a small apartment in Riverhead above a now boarded-up auto repair shop where he would fill a bucket with water to shower. “I make sure it’s not burning hot so I don’t get burned,” Maysonet told Newsday in 2008.
The humble beginnings have become as much a part of Maysonet’s identity as his touchdown runs.
For all that the Puerto Rican-born Maysonet lacked, he possessed an unwavering desire to succeed.
“I think that fuels the fire, knowing that you can’t look back and you always have to move forward,” said Andrew Smith, who was teammates with Maysonet at Riverhead and for one season at Hofstra University. “I’ve always seen that in him. He knows where he came from and he’s trying to better his life.”
It was the values instilled in him by his mother, Yolanda Santana, — a gift more valuable than any monetary item — that allowed Maysonet to stay on the path toward stardom. Temptation existed all around him to stray as a youngster. But Maysonet understood there were consequences for negative actions and he did his best to avoid them. And it wasn’t so much football that motivated him to do the right thing as it was his desire to place no unnecessary burden upon his mom, who raised him by herself.
“Growing up, seeing the hard work that my mom was doing working two jobs to make ends meet, I didn’t want to be that child that she also had to worry about,” Maysonet said. “I didn’t want to be the kid out getting in trouble.”
Riverhead football coach Leif Shay said it can be difficult for any kid to stay on the right path, let alone someone in Maysonet’s shoes.
“He’s never wandered far away from what his goals were,” Shay said. “You have to respect a kid that knows what he wants out of life.”
ROBERT O’ROURK FILE PHOTO | Maysonet soars across the goal line to score a Stony Brook touchdown.
Anyone who watched Maysonet perform — and his games were very much a performance — can recount at least one play that left them with their jaw hanging.
For Shay, it was a game against North Babylon when Maysonet hurdled over the top of a defender.
“It was just an outstanding, athletic play where I was like, ‘Wow, this kid is really special, and might have the ability to go to the next level,’ ” Shay said.
Hurdling defenders became a staple of Maysonet’s running attack. His most famous hurdle came this past season against Syracuse on one of his team’s biggest stages. The 5-foot-9, 209-pound Maysonet took a handoff, cut up to the right and jumped over a diving defender. He bounced off another defender and charged up the right sideline for a 72-yard touchdown.
For Smith, who plays defensive tackle for SUNY/Albany, his Maysonet moment came during a home game at Riverhead. On the play, the offensive line was overwhelmed by a blitz, leaving a sea of defenders swarming toward Maysonet.
“He made moves to the right, to the left,” Smith said. “He literally broke eight defenders and scored. I’m like, ‘Wow.’ It was amazing.”
Maysonet’s introduction to football came at a later age than most. When he was in eighth grade on the junior varsity team, Maysonet was playing offensive guard. After several kids became academically ineligible, the coaches moved Maysonet to tailback out of necessity.
“He took the ball and ran for a touchdown,” Shay said in an interview after Maysonet won the Hansen Award as the top player in the county in 2008.
As a Blue Wave, Maysonet ran for 5,971 yards, placing him second all-time in Suffolk County behind Jason Gwaltney of North Babylon. He scored 75 touchdowns, 33 of which came during the Blue Waves’ undefeated season in 2008 that culminated with a Long Island championship and Rutgers Trophy as the best team in Suffolk.
At Stony Brook, Maysonet capped off his career last fall with a sensational year in leading the Seawolves to their best season in program history. He finished the season with 1,964 yards and 21 touchdowns to earn Big South Conference Offensive Player of the Year honors.
He was one of three finalists for the Walter Payton Award as the top player in the Football Championship Subdivision and received multiple all-America honors.
RIVERHEAD SCHOOL DISTRICT FILE PHOTO | In February 2009, Maysonet and teammate Andrew Smith signed to play football at Hofstra University.
If not for a cruel twist of fate, Maysonet may never have ended up on the radar of nearly every NFL team (28 teams attended his Pro Day workout at Stony Brook last month).
As Maysonet’s high school career began to take off, he still had no idea of the possibilities that existed. He didn’t know how he could earn a scholarship or how college coaches would be traveling to see him, pulling him out of classes on a daily basis.
He ultimately settled on Hofstra and in February 2009, he and Smith joined together for a signing ceremony in the high school library, inking their futures together to play for the Pride.
Smith and Maysonet were friends since fourth grade. As seniors, Maysonet led the offense, Smith the defense.
“Everything he did looked natural,” Smith said. “His movement — he made it look easy. I was always impressed with how he would go through practices just because he would practice really, really hard.”
Their career together at Hofstra ended after one season when the school’s football program was unexpectedly dropped, leaving Maysonet and Smith without a home.
For Maysonet, the choice was simple. He would head to Stony Brook so he could stay close to home.
“I tell people all the time, the whole Hofstra dropping of the program hurt,” Maysonet said. “People loved Hofstra football so much. But I was able to land on my feet. My style, it worked out better for me at Stony Brook than it would have at Hofstra.”
Placed in an offensive system that favored the running game, Maysonet blossomed playing alongside another Long Island star, Brock Jackolski of William Floyd. The two quickly became a perfect complement of runners, Jackolski the speedster, Maysonet the grinder.
“Having Brock there was awesome,” Maysonet said. “Off the field he was able to let me know what I was going to get into my first year there. Like Brock, I didn’t get red-shirted. They just threw me into the fire.”
JOHN NEELY FILE PHOTO | Maysonet hurdles over a helpless defender while playing for the Blue Waves.
Around Riverhead these days, Maysonet remains very much a celebrity figure. Not a day has gone by in recent weeks when someone didn’t ask about the upcoming draft. Random people approach him regularly, just hoping for a quick chat and to say they’re behind him.
Maysonet’s always willing to oblige, flashing his patented smile and talking football with whomever is asking.
When his schedule allows it he attends Riverhead football games, sometimes surprising the players with a locker-room visit to offer a few words of advice.
When the Blue Waves advanced to the county championship game last fall, Maysonet got to watch his former team play at Stony Brook.
“To Miguel’s credit he always comes back and talks to the younger kids,” Shay said. “He tries to motivate them. I think that helps that he’s stuck with his hometown roots.”
It’s a humbling experience, Maysonet said, when people approach him to congratulate him on his success.
“I definitely appreciate them going out of their way just to say good job,” he said. “A lot of people are like ‘Riverhead is behind you all the way’. That’s definitely an awesome feeling to have people in my town standing behind me.”
After attending the NFL combine in February and then showcasing his athletic ability at his Pro Day in March, it’s come down to a waiting game for Maysonet.
On Saturday, when the final four rounds of the draft begin, Maysonet will be home in Riverhead, surrounded by some friends and family while he waits for his cellphone to ring.
And if it doesn’t, Maysonet will take it in stride.
Even if he goes undrafted, he should still receive an invitation to training camp from at least one team for a chance to prove himself.
“I’m pretty relaxed about the situation,” he said. “No anxiety, no nerves.”
The NFL may very well be in his future. But if it isn’t, that won’t be the end of Maysonet’s dreams.
He hopes to go back to school and continue his education toward becoming a teacher and coach.
“You never know with this whole NFL thing where my life may take me when it’s all said and done,” Maysonet said.
Another chapter remains to be written. One that begins this weekend.
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.”
DANIEL DE MATO PHOTO | Riverhead’s Andrew Kinard recovered a North Babylon Fumble and returned it to the 1-yard line before being knocked out of bounds during the Suffolk County Division II Championship.
SUFFOLK COUNTY DIVISION II FINAL | BLUE WAVES 52, BULLDOGS 20
Perhaps nothing can prepare a player who has never played in such a game for what it feels like to step onto the field for a Suffolk County football final. The prospect of playing what might be the biggest game of a player’s life can be a daunting one, even for an accomplished player like Riverhead quarterback Ryan Bitzer.
The full significance of the occasion might have struck Bitzer before his team walked onto the field for warmups before Sunday night’s Suffolk Division II final against North Babylon at Stony Brook University’s Kenneth P. LaValle Stadium. “It was kind of unreal, just walking through that tunnel, seeing everybody, seeing the field,” Bitzer said. “It was crazy. I tried to control my emotions.”
It wasn’t long after that when Riverhead took control of the game and never loosened its grip.
For the second time in five years, Riverhead is on top of the Suffolk County football world. Facing a North Babylon team known for its running prowess, Riverhead’s high-octane offense produced a season-high point total by going to the air.
Bitzer, a senior, equaled his career-best with four touchdown passes as No. 1 seed Riverhead captured its sixth county championship and first since 2008 with a resounding 52-20 victory. Quinn Funn caught three of those passes as part of his four-touchdown game.
“Words can’t explain how I feel right now about this game,” Funn said. “We just do what we had to do and did what was planned, you know what I’m saying? It was a great game. Everybody played great, everybody played their role. That’s what happens, a great outcome.”
Jaron Greenidge, who was involved in six tackles and had half a sack for Riverhead, said, “This is a dream come true.”
The dream continues for Riverhead (9-2). On Saturday, the Blue Waves will play Garden City (10-1), winner of four straight Nassau County crowns, for the Long Island Class II crown at Stony Brook University. Riverhead won its only Long Island title in 2008.
“I’m really excited for these kids,” Riverhead coach Leif Shay said. “These guys really truly earned a spot here.”
No small thanks to Bitzer and Funn. Bitzer went 13 of 19 passing for 292 yards. Funn made a fine diving grab in the end zone for a 21-yard catch and later added scoring receptions of 29 and 6 yards. Bitzer also found Jeffrey Pittman open on the right sideline before Pittman shook off a defender and used his superior speed for a 60-yard scoring connection. It was his first touchdown since Week 1.
DANIEL DE MATO PHOTO | Riverhead’s Jeremiah Cheatom breaking through North Babylon’s defense for a first down in the third quarter.
“They’re big players who came up big in a big game,” said Shay.
Bitzer, who has 21 touchdown passes this season, was unfortunate not to have added another one to his collection. He hit Funn with a pass that looked like a sure touchdown, but North Babylon’s Dean Cicciari caught up to the high-stepping Funn, who slowed down before being brought down at the 1-yard line for a 75-yard completion. “I deserved that,” Funn said. “It won’t happen again, though.”
Bitzer ran the ball in for a touchdown two plays later for a 28-6 lead with 3 minutes 12 seconds left in the second quarter.
Funn finished with seven catches for 156 yards. Pittman had five receptions for 127 yards.
“I kind of surprised myself,” said Funn, who has 16 touchdown receptions this year. “I didn’t know I was going to have that kind of a breakout game.”
Riverhead’s offense generated 412 yards to North Babylon’s 214. The Bulldogs didn’t help their cause, either, by turning the ball over five times, four times on fumbles. Andrew Kinard was the cause of two of them, with an interception and a fumble recovery.
Four North Babylon turnovers led to Riverhead touchdowns, none so dramatically, though, as the first one. North Babylon’s Connor Slane lost control of the ball on a first-quarter run. The ball popped loose and right into the arms of Funn, who ran it back 6 yards for a touchdown.
“Everything seemed to be going our way tonight,” said Bitzer.
No. 5 North Babylon (7-4) scored on the game’s first drive with a 21-yard run by Melijah Purvis. It was the first of two touchdown runs for Purvis, who has 17 this season.
Riverhead registered 28 straight points before North Babylon gained some momentum going into halftime. On the final play of the first half, North Babylon’s Jake Conner caught a punt by Anthony Chiaramonte and ran to his left. Then Conner stopped and threw a crossfield lateral to Slane, who took the ball in for the touchdown. Matt Grassa ran in the two-point conversion.
But Riverhead, aided by Devrim Kucuk’s 29-yard field goal and a 1-yard touchdown run by Cody Smith, pulled away.
“We came out and did what we had to do, right from the get-go,” Bitzer said. “They couldn’t really stop us offensively. That’s kind of our mentality. We don’t ever want to be stopped.”
Riverhead lost the services of one of its linebackers, Matt Hejmej, who left the game with 5:19 to go in the second quarter. It was later reported that he tore a labrum in his right shoulder.
During the game’s dying moments, Riverhead’s Nick Ross and Eric Hulse dumped the icy contents of water bucket over Shay’s head. It could not have felt good for the coach on this cold evening, but he didn’t complain afterward about the surprise ice-water shower. He said, “You got to take good with the bad.”
So far this season for Riverhead, though, life has been mostly good.
ROBERT O’ROURK PHOTO | Riverhead quarterback Ryan Bitzer ran for a touchdown and threw for one more in Saturday’s semifinal win over West Babylon.
It’s been four years since a Riverhead football team could call itself a champion.
That might be about to change.
The Blue Waves, 30-14 winners at home Saturday over West Babylon, are headed back to Stony Brook. They’ll face North Babylon at noon next Sunday, Nov. 25, in the Suffolk County Division II Championship Game.
“Words can’t explain it,” said Riverhead wide receiver Quinn Funn, who caught a pivotal 74-yard touchdown pass from Ryan Bitzer on his team’s first possession of the second half. “Since ninth grade, I’ve been thinking about playing at Stony Brook my senior year. We did it. Now we need to keep winning.”
Blue Waves head coach Leif Shay called Funn’s touchdown a “watershed play.”
Before then the Waves (8-2) had held much of the momentum in the game, but they still went into halftime with just a 14-7 lead. Then the Eagles (5-5) came out of the locker room stopping two straight running plays. On third-and-14, Bitzer finally let it fly.
“Quinn is one of the toughest receivers on Long Island,”the quarterback said. “It wasn’t the best ball I’ve ever thrown, but I knew he’d come down with.”
He was right.
“It was a little wobbly,” said Funn, who played the game with a head cold but still caught four passes for 104 yards and the score. “I said, ‘I’m gonna go get it.’”
ROBERT O’ROURK PHOTOS | Riverhead wide receiver Quinn Funn hauls in a 74-yard touchdown catch off a pass from quarterback Ryan Bitzer. The score gave the Waves a 21-7 lead over West Babylon with 10:47 left in the third quarter.
The touchdown was Funn’s 12th of the year.
It was also the 17th passing touchdown off the right arm of Bitzer, a three-year varsity starter at quarterback, who was 12-of-17 passing for 202 yards and one touchdown Saturday. The Riverhead signal-caller was the first player to score in Saturday’s game, giving Riverhead a 7-0 lead with a 4-yard run in the first quarter.
Junior running back Jeremiah Cheatom, who rushed for 135 yards on 33 carries and scored twice Saturday afternoon, gave the Waves a 14-0 advantage in the second quarter. It was the eighth consecutive touchdown Riverhead had scored against West Babylon this season, after beating the Eagles 42-0 to open up the season at home Sept.8
This time, though, West Babylon answered back. Quarterback Clifton Melhado, a senior who finished the season with 12 rushing touchdowns, scored on a 5-yard run midway through the second quarter to cut the deficit in half.
If Funn’s touchdown shifted the game’s momentum completely in Riverhead’s favor, it was a safety by linebacker Matt Hejmej that put the contest out of reach.
Facing a second and long from its own 2-yard line, West Babylon stuck with its spread offense and Hejmej was ready for the option.
“I saw it coming the whole way,” he said. “I knew he was going to pitch it.” The safety gave Riverhead a 23-7 lead and brought Stony Brook within sight.
“It’s definitely a great feeling to be going to Stony Brook,” Bitzer said. “That was our goal coming in. To get to Stony Brook and beyond.”
Jefferey Pittman recorded an interception for Riverhead and teammate Eric Hulse recovered a fumble.
Tailback Chris Lubin scored West Babylon’s second touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
ROBERT O’ROURK PHOTO | Riverhead running back Jeremiah Cheatom scored two touchdowns Saturday to bring his season total to 15.
Coach Lief Shay said his team’s losses to West Islip and East Islip toward the middle of the season have made the players stronger as the season progressed. As it turns out, they will not have to face either of those teams in the playoffs. West Islip became the first Long Island No. 1 seed to ever lose to a No. 8 seed when it fell to West Babylon, 20-19, last week. East Islip also lost at home, falling to North Babylon (7-3) Saturday.
The Blue Waves beat North Babylon 42-28 on Sept. 22.
It’s the third time Riverhead has made it to Stony Brook’s Kenneth P. LaValle Stadium since Coach Shay took over the program. The Waves won a county title there in 2003 and county and Long Island championships in 2008.
“”We’re undefeated there,” said a smiling Coach Shay, who served as an offensive line coach for Stony Brook University in 1994. “It’s like going home in a way for me.”
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.
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.
GARRET MEADE PHOTO | Riverhead cornerback Jeff Pittman tries to break up the pass play in front of East Islip receiver Hugens Tranquille.
REDMEN 24, BLUE WAVES 14
The stat line alone hardly jumps off the page: 99 rushing yards on 31 carries for an average of 3.2 yards per carry.
East Islip senior halfback Andre Deegan, at 5-foot-7 and 165 pounds, may not be among the flashiest of runners on Long Island. A methodical grinder, Deegan never broke a run for double-digit yards against Riverhead Saturday afternoon at East Islip High School.
Slowly but surely, Deegan helped wear down the Blue Waves’ defense, softening the pass coverage to allow East Islip to strike through the air.
And when it was over, Deegan had a pair of touchdowns, both on 1-yard runs, to propel the Redmen past Riverhead 24-14 in a game the Blue Waves never led.
“They controlled the clock,” said Riverhead coach Leif Shay. “They controlled the game and we weren’t able to answer.”
East Islip remains unbeaten at 5-0 as does West Islip, which knocked off Copiague Saturday. The loss, dropping Riverhead to 3-2, all but eliminates the Blue Waves’ chances of finishing the regular season atop Division II.
With another tough game looming next weekend against Newfield, the focus now for Riverhead is trying to secure a playoff spot and possibly a top-four seed for a home game in the first round.
East Islip and West Islip do not play each other, so both could run the table and finish the regular season undefeated.
GARRET MEADE PHOTO | Riverhead linebackers Ryan Harkin (57) and Nick Ross try to bring down the East Islip runner.
The Redmen controlled the line of scrimmage against Riverhead, allowing quarterback Casey Nolan plenty of time to sit in the pocket and find receivers. He got off to a rough start by misfiring on his first four passes. But he connected on nine of his next 15, including a 49-yard touchdown pass to Mike Lee that gave East Islip the first score of the game in the second quarter.
For Riverhead, the running game never got on track as the Redmen were able to bottle up halfback Jeremiah Cheatom. He had three big runs for 20+ plus yards, including a 24-yard touchdown run that made it 21-14 early in the fourth quarter. The three big runs accounted for the majority of Cheatom’s 112 rushing yards.
“I thought we were going to be able to move the ball a little bit better,” Shay said. “I don’t know that Jeremiah read the zone very well at times.”
Shay said the Redmen didn’t do anything defensively that they hadn’t seen on film.
“They were physical up front,” he said. “They did a nice job of bend but not break.”
After Cheatom’s touchdown cut East Islip’s lead to seven, the Riverhead defense forced East Islip to punt on its next possession after picking up one first down.
The Blue Waves got the ball back at their own 20 with 9:02 left, needing to drive the length of the field, something they hadn’t done all game. Both of Riverhead’s touchdowns came on a short field.
The Blue Waves picked up a pair of first downs to get near midfield, but Paul Dondero halted any momentum by picking off a pass from quarterback Ryan Bitzer, one of four interceptions on the day (the first came on a long pass at the end of the first half that wasn’t returned).
“The linebackers were really bailing out to take away some of the routes,” Shay said. “He needs to be a little more patient.”
Junior Jaron Greenidge led the Blue Waves with six catches for 64 yards. He caught a 12-yard touchdown pass from Bitzer on the Blue Waves’ first drive of the third quarter to make it a 14-7 game.
Bitzer’s top target this season, Quinn Funn, was never able to break free for big plays. He did finish with four catches for 61 yards.
“Obviously they were keying on him,” Shay said. “They were bracketing coverage on him.”
Shay said they need to be more patient and look for more receivers in the passing game.
Senior Jeff Pittman had the most game action since his Week 2 ankle injury. But he wasn’t a big factor on offense with three catches for 32 yards.
Cheatom was the only back to carry the ball for Riverhead. Bitzer scrambled three times to account for the only other rushing yards.
East Islip made it a two-possession game with a 22-yard field goal with under five minutes to play in the fourth. Riverhead turned it over again on its next possession when Steve Walsh picked off Bitzer.
“We’ve got to get smarter as a football team and stop making mental errors,” Shay said. “Execute drives and be patient. The key to beating us right now is to just be patient and smart and we’ll make a mistake.”