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.