05/16/13 7:41pm
05/16/2013 7:41 PM
ROBERT O'ROURK PHOTO | Riverhead's airborne Keith Jefferson firing a point-blank shot that is saved by Smithtown East's Brian Balkam.

ROBERT O’ROURK PHOTO | Riverhead’s airborne Keith Jefferson firing a point-blank shot that is saved by Smithtown East’s Brian Balkam.

SUFFOLK COUNTY CLASS A TOURNAMENT, FIRST ROUND | BULLS 12, BLUE WAVES 5

The Riverhead boys lacrosse team waited 11 years for this day, so when it finally arrived, the Blue Waves made sure that they were ready. But then again, so was Smithtown East.

On an historic day for Riverhead’s program, the Blue Waves turned in an effort worthy of the occasion, but the final result was predictable, nonetheless. The historical record will show that the first playoff game in Riverhead’s 11-year varsity history was a 12-5 defeat, but it was to a talented Smithtown East team, and there’s no shame in that.

Junior attackman Joe Saggese struck for three goals and five assists to lead fourth-seeded Smithtown East to the first-round win in the Suffolk County Class A Tournament on Thursday. Brian Willetts contributed three goals and one assist for Smithtown East (13-3), which will play No. 5 West Islip or No. 12 Lindenhurst in a county quarterfinal at home on Tuesday. Dan Rooney added two goals. Brian Balkam made 13 saves in goal for the Bulls.

And while the 13th-seeded Blue Waves (10-7) surely would have preferred another outcome, they could take pride in knowing that they were the first players in team history to reach the playoffs.

“Being the first team ever in Riverhead lacrosse history to be in the playoffs, just the atmosphere, it’s completely different,” said Riverhead senior attackman Ryan Bitzer, whose next game will be for Stony Brook University. “It brings it up to another level, just the intensity. I’m real proud of our team. We battled, we fought. We never gave up.”

Indeed, Riverhead did a lot of good things and did not play badly, but speed and stick skill was on Smithtown East’s side. The field turf at Nicholas Schroeder Field in St. James is built for the Bulls. It’s a fast field, and Smithtown East is a fast team. The Bulls have the ability to cleanly scoop up ground balls on the first attempt, and then they are off and running.

“It was one of our weaknesses last year, picking up ground balls,” Smithtown East coach Jason Lambert said. “I think we’ve really improved on that. Our transition game is really good. When we get going, going from defense to offense, and start picking up ground balls, we can be effective.”

ROBERT O'ROURK PHOTO | Ryan Hubbard scored on this shot for Riverhead 1 minute 47 seconds into the fourth quarter, cutting Smithtown East's lead to 9-4.

ROBERT O’ROURK PHOTO | Ryan Hubbard scored on this shot for Riverhead 1 minute 47 seconds into the fourth quarter, cutting Smithtown East’s lead to 9-4.

Riverhead is the only Class A playoff team that doesn’t play its home games on field turf, according to Riverhead coach Vic Guadagnino. “It’s tough,” he said. “I’m not complaining. … It’s a faster game on this stuff, and you can see that they’re on it all the time.”

Riverhead’s first playoff game started at precisely 4:32 p.m. with the first of 14 face-offs won by Smithtown East (as compared to seven for Riverhead). The Bulls worked the ball around in Riverhead’s end for about two minutes. Then, on Riverhead’s first possession, it scored when Dan Czelatka put in the first of his two goals 2 minutes 25 seconds into the game.

It was an encouraging start for the Blue Waves.

Perhaps Smithtown East was dealing with some playoff butterflies in the early going. A pair of goals by Saggese gave the Bulls a 2-1 lead by the end of the first quarter. Those strikes proved to be the first of nine straight goals by Smithtown East.

Even so, Riverhead didn’t fold, responding with a three-goal surge by Czelatka, Bitzer and Ryan Hubbard to cut Smithtown East’s lead to 9-4 at 1:47 of the fourth quarter.

But Rooney’s two goals and a goal by Willetts (game-high 10 shots) closed out the scoring along with Roger Foster’s goal for Riverhead.

Smithtown East’s offense can be lethal, as it showed with a 43-29 shots advantage and the pressure it put on the Riverhead defense. The Bulls scored on four of seven man-up situations. Riverhead goalie Alex Panagakos was kept busy with 12 saves.

Panagakos, one of Riverhead’s nine seniors, said the team came out flat in its two previous games. That wasn’t the case on Thursday, though.

“This is a playoff game,” he said. “Our coaches prepared us for it, and they’re right, it’s a whole another level.”

Smithtown’s only county title came in 2003 when it was one school. Since then, it split into Smithtown East and Smithtown West, and neither has won a county crown. West Islip has won the last nine Suffolk Class A titles.

Lambert compares this year’s team to the 2007 Smithtown East squad that reached the county semifinals. “This is one of our better East teams we’ve had here,” he said. “This is definitely the best team I’ve had offensively.”

Considering who they were facing, the Blue Waves did not do badly.

“I thought that even though we lost, we stepped up big,” said Riverhead senior midfielder Paul Harron, who will play for Dowling College next year. “Oh, they were good. I give them respect. They look like they’re going to go far this year.”

Bitzer said that even after Riverhead fell behind, “We still played hard. We never quit. We played all the way until the end.”

Guadagnino said he remembers every game he has coached, so he undoubtedly will not forget this one, Riverhead’s first playoff game “and not the last.”

bliepa@timesreview.com

02/05/13 9:57pm
02/05/2013 9:57 PM
GARRET MEADE PHOTO  |  Riverhead senior Markim Austin rises for one-handed dunk Tuesday that put the Blue Waves ahead by seven in the fourth quarter against Smithtown West.

GARRET MEADE PHOTO | Riverhead senior Markim Austin rises for one-handed dunk Tuesday that put the Blue Waves ahead by seven in the fourth quarter against Smithtown West.

BLUE WAVES 72, BULLS 71

Amid the euphoria of a jubilant Riverhead locker room Tuesday night, coach John Rossetti delivered a simple message to his players.

The job isn’t done yet.

They’ll hang a banner inside the Riverhead High School gym — the Blue Waves made sure of that with a frantic 72-71 victory over Smithtown West — but one more game remains to make it stand alone.

Riverhead clinched at least a share of the League III title with Tuesday’s come-from-behind victory, the first championship since 1997 and first ever as a Class AA school. The Blue Waves, who swept the season series against the Bulls, can clinch the outright league title with a win Thursday at home against North Babylon in the final game of the regular season.

“We’re league champs regardless, but we want to finish this strong,” Rossetti said.

The playoffs may not start for another week, but this game had every bit a playoff atmosphere as both teams came in knowing the league title was on the line. The Blue Waves and Bulls entered with identical 10-2 league records. The winner controlled its own destiny for the league title and both teams played like everything was on the line in a fast-paced, up-and-down game that ultimately came down to the final play of the game.

Related: Click here for more photos

The Blue Waves (14-3, 11-2) overcame giving up a season-high in points and twice fouling a 3-point shooter in the final 40.5 seconds of the game.

“Heart and desire,” said Riverhead senior Ryan Bitzer, who hit a pair clutch 3-pointers in the fourth quarter. “We wanted it so bad. Sixteen years since the last league championship and we really wanted it.”

GARRET MEADE PHOTO  |  Riverhead senior Ryan Bitzer scored 14 points Tuesday.

GARRET MEADE PHOTO | Riverhead senior Ryan Bitzer scored 14 points Tuesday.

A fired-up crowd created an electric atmosphere and senior Markim Austin sent the fans into a frenzy when he threw down a one-handed slam on a fastbreak to give the Blue Waves their largest lead of the game at 68-61 midway through the fourth quarter. “I’ve been trying to get a dunk all season, now I finally got it,” Austin said. The dunk came on the heels of a Bitzer 3-pointer and capped a 19-point turnaround from early in the third quarter.

But the Bulls refused to go quietly.

A couple ill-advised fouls allowed the Bulls (13-4, 10-3) to chip away at Riverhead’s lead and a fastbreak layup off a steal from Michael Bairdi pulled the Bulls to within a point with 2:36 left. The Blue Waves answered right back with a fastbreak layin from Quinn Funn, who was fouled on the play but missed the free throw.

[Video: See the final 11 seconds of the game below]

It ultimately set the stage for a bizarre final 40 seconds with Riverhead clinging to a three-point lead.

Smithtown West guard Ryan Hickey — a superb outside shooter who scored 23 points — was fouled on a 3-pointer and had a chance to tie the game. But he missed all three shots. Austin was fouled on the ensuing Riverhead possession and hit both free throws of a one-and-one.

Back came Hickey, hitting a 3-pointer plus a foul again. This time he made the free throw to trim Riverhead’s lead back to one.

Bitzer said the Blue Waves had fouls to give, so they were trying to be aggressive on defense.

“I thought I fouled him before he shot it,” Bitzer said. “But I guess not. We’re just happy to get the win.”

The Bulls still had life after Bitzer missed the front end of a one-and-one with :24.1 left. William Behrens corralled an offensive rebound for Smithtown with :15.6 left and was fouled going up for a shot. He had two free throws with a chance to give the Bulls a lead but missed them both. The Bulls controlled the rebound and called timeout.

The Blue Waves knew where the ball was going.

“We knew Hickey was going to take the shot so we had to double up and pick him up,” Bitzer said.

The Bulls inbounded into the backcourt to Hickey, who got a running start across halfcourt. He curled right of a high screen from Eric Joseph where he faced a double team as Jeremiah Cheatom swarmed him alongside Bitzer. He managed to elude Cheatom before Austin swooped in front to a draw a charge.

Austin heard the whistle blow and “just looked at the ref hoping it was a charge,” he said.

The Blue Waves got the ball with :2.7 left and Bitzer threw a long outlet pass to junior Brandon Tolliver, who caught the ball and held it as the clock ran out.

“It felt like six minutes,” Rossetti said of the final 40 seconds. “That’s high school basketball at its best.”

The Blue Waves had four players in double figures, led by 20 from Austin. Bitzer had 14 while Cheatom and Tolliver added 13.

Riverhead trailed by 10 at halftime and needed another big third quarter to get back into it. That wasn’t a problem as the Blue Waves outscored Smithtown by eight in the quarter.

It was the 11th straight game Riverhead outscored its opponent in the third quarter. Only two teams have outscored the Blue Waves in the third quarter and those games were both in early December.

“That’s been one our team goals all season,” Rossetti said. “We call it a lockdown third.”

In the past 11 games the Blue Waves are +7.6 in the third quarter, by far their most efficient quarter.

“That’s just our mojo, I guess,” Bitzer said.

joew@timesreview.com

The final 11 seconds, with Riverhead ahead 72-71:

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.

11/26/12 3:29am
11/26/2012 3:29 AM

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.

bliepa@timesreview.com

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.

09/22/12 6:25pm
09/22/2012 6:25 PM

GARRET MEADE PHOTO | Jeremiah Cheatom, trying to find a way past North Babylon’s Eric Marzocca, scored three touchdowns for Riverhead.

BLUE WAVES 42, BULLDOGS 28

Teams visiting the dog pound, the unofficial name for the home field of the North Babylon High School football team, have known for years what to expect from the Bulldogs: ground and pound.

North Babylon runs the ball, and runs it well. Passing is something of a rarity for the Bulldogs. It’s the sort of approach one might expect from a former C.W. Post lineman like Terry Manning, who is in his 22nd year as North Babylon’s head coach.

“That’s what we do,” said Manning.

And what Riverhead does offensively is nothing like it. The Blue Waves utilize a spread out, uptempo attack that isn’t afraid to use the aerial route for first downs and touchdowns.

The two contrasting offensive styles couldn’t be much more different, and that made Saturday’s game all the more intriguing. But what made it even more interesting still was the Bulldogs’ refusal to retreat to their doghouse, lay down and call it a day after falling behind by 27 points in the third quarter. North Babylon pulled to within six points of visiting Riverhead before the Blue Waves closed out a 42-28 win with a late touchdown run by Jeremiah Cheatom, his second of the half.

Asked if he grew concerned when he saw North Babylon chomping away at his team’s lead, Riverhead coach Leif Shay said, “My hair has been gray since the beginning of the season.”

Cheatom had three touchdowns on the day, two of them coming on runs. He rushed for 146 yards from 23 carries. On the Suffolk County Division II game’s first play from scrimmage, Cheatom was on the receiving end of a 64-yard touchdown pass from Ryan Bitzer.

Riverhead (2-1) removed some of its starters, including Bitzer, from the game after Cheatom’s six-yard touchdown run and Devrim Kuckuk’s extra point gave the Blue Waves what looked like a commanding 34-7 lead with 7 minutes 38 seconds left in the third quarter.

GARRET MEADE PHOTO | Riverhead’s Quinn Funn using one hand to pull in a pass, despite the efforts of North Babylon’s Jake Conner, for a 62-yard touchdown reception.

“The first quarter and a half, we pretty much were nonexistent,” Manning said. “We just were sleeping out there.”

It looked like the game was virtually over, but it wasn’t.

Jordan Myers of North Babylon (2-1) ran for two second-half touchdowns, the second of which was set up by Danny Gambardella’s successful onside kick, which Daquan Faulk recovered for the Bulldogs.

North Babylon, known for rarely passing, made things interesting with a touchdown pass, of all things. Jake Conner evaded defenders before finding Eric Marzocca for a seven-yard pass to the end zone with 3:44 to go in the game. Gambardella’s kick cut Riverhead’s lead to 34-28.

But the Blue Waves responded to the challenge. On the next play from scrimmage, Cheatom shook off tacklers up the middle and bolted for a 52-yard gain, giving Riverhead first and goal at the North Babylon 4-yard line. The next play saw Cheatom follow Matt Hejmej’s block into the end zone. Bitzer completed a pass to Jaron Greenidge for the two-point conversion and a more comfortable 14-point lead with 2:52 remaining.

“We just needed to put the nail in the coffin,” said Quinn Funn, who played wide receiver and cornerback for Riverhead.

The result was pretty much sealed when Greenidge intercepted a pass on North Babylon’s first offensive play after that. Riverhead picked up a first down and then ran out the clock.

Bitzer had a super game. He went 16 of 21, passing for 283 yards, 242 of them coming in the first half. In addition to his 64-yard touchdown pass to Cheatom, he also had a 62-yard scoring connection with Funn, who made a nifty one-handed catch before taking off toward the end zone. In addition, Bitzer ran for two touchdowns himself.

Bitzer may have thought his day was done when he was pulled from the game with a 27-point lead. But then he was reinserted when things started getting dicey for the top-seeded Blue Waves, who generated 432 yards of offense.

“It’s a hard place to win at,” Bitzer said. “It’s definitely a hard place to come in and [win]. A ground-and-pound team like them, you definitely have to keep fighting all four quarters.”

Riverhead’s defense received seven tackles apiece from Nickolas Ross and Hejmej. Ross might have had the biggest hit of the day, and probably the loudest, when he delivered a crunching blow on Myers in the third quarter.

Melijah Purvis ran the ball 17 times for North Babylon, picking up 100 yards. Connor Slane had nine tackles and a sack for the Bulldogs.

In this age of open offense, even North Babylon is adjusting. The Bulldogs threw the ball 10 times and ran it 41 times.

“Leif does a great job over there,” Manning said. “We’ve had some great battles with them over the years. For us this year, we’re still a team that’s trying to find ourselves a little bit. There’s a lot of new kids who haven’t played before, so it was a challenge for us to come out and play a quality team like this.”

What did it mean for Riverhead to finish the game strong?

“I think it just shows we have a lot of resolve,” Shay told reporters. “We’re not going to quit. We’re going to keep fighting.”

bliepa@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

09/07/12 8:00am
09/07/2012 8:00 AM

ROBERT O’ROURK PHOTO | Riverhead junior Jeremiah Cheatom will take over as the starting halfback for the top-seeded Blue Waves this season.

In their three losses last season, including in the first round of the playoffs against Newfield, the Riverhead Blue Waves surrendered an average of 42 points per game. Even with a versatile offense capable of putting up big numbers, it was far too many points for the team to overcome.

To try to take the next step this season, in which Riverhead enters as the No. 1 seed in Division II, the team got back to the basics on defense.

“We simplified,” said Riverhead coach Leif Shay. “We felt we had good athletes out there and we didn’t need to run complex coverages. We want to be simple and let our athletes cover the ground they can cover.”

The Blue Waves’ defense got overwhelmed last season against a stronger, bigger Newfield team in the running game. The Wolverines ran in seven touchdowns against the Blue Waves in their playoff win.

The Blue Waves return a more experienced group on the defensive line this year, the first step toward clogging up those running lanes.

Senior Joseph Napoli, one of three captains, will start at defensive end.

“He was a star for us last year,” Shay said.

Seniors Kyle McCabe and Kyle Harris will plug up the middle of the defensive line along with a newcomer, junior Jonathan Lee.

Shay said Lee can squat as much as 600 pounds.

The Blue Waves came into training camp with a strong core of linebackers all competing for time. Senior Nick Ross and junior Mike Von Bommel lead the group. Senior Vinny Brodeur will also see some time at linebacker along with junior Ryan Harkin, who’s been slowed by an ankle injury.

In the secondary the Blue Waves will rely on three guys who will play on both sides of the ball. Seniors Quinn Funn and Jeff Pittman will play cornerback and junior Jaron Greenidge will start at free safety.

“The key for us is our defense,” Shay said after the team’s first scrimmage last week. “We have to be locked down and can’t allow those big plays.”

ROBERT O’ROURK PHOTO | An improved defense will be key for the Blue Waves to advance farther into the playoffs this season.

While the defense struggled at times last year, all too often it got put in a difficult position because of turnovers. If the Blue Waves are to take that next step this season, limiting turnovers will be a huge key.

It’s something third-year quarterback Ryan Bitzer is well aware of as he begins his senior season under center for Riverhead.

“Last year we had a bunch of turnovers against the top three teams,” Bitzer said. “Especially me. I have to protect the ball better. That’s what experience comes with. I got to learn to sometimes protect the ball, run it or throw it away. Turnovers is a big thing for us. We got to keep those down.”

Bitzer will lead an offense that has the potential to be equally as explosive through the air as on the ground. While the Blue Waves lost their leading rusher from last season in Charles Bartlett, they do return a pair of strong backs. Junior Jeremiah Cheatom got a lot of action last season and will start as the featured back. Shay described Cheatom as “a grinder,” the kind of player who can pick up tough yards and can also break a big run.

Sophomore R.J. Foster, who saw some time on varsity at the end of last season, will also have a prominent role in the running game. A speedy, shifty runner, Foster will also return kicks.

“He’s very elusive,” Bitzer said. “He sees the field very well, too. He’s definitely improved from last year. He’s learning he’s got to hit the holes right. I’m looking forward to seeing what he does in the future.”

Shay said he expected the offense to be even more balanced than it was last year, aided by a more experienced offensive line.

Senior Stephen Powers returns at center along with Harris at right tackle. McCabe will play left guard and senior Eric Hulse at right guard. Ross is the only newcomer to the offensive line and will play at left tackle in addition to his defensive duties.

“They got a full season of experience under their belt,” Shay said. “They’re bigger, faster, stronger.”

Bitzer said the linemen spent the entire offseason working in the weight room.

“They were lifting weights, doing what they have to do to get better, working with each other, talking to each other after practice,” he said. “Just really communicating.”

In the passing game Bitzer will have several targets, led by returning receivers Pittman and Funn. Both players had big seasons last year and can present matchup problems for opposing defenses. Pittman has great speed, which he showed off in track and field as one of the top sprinters in the county.

Senior receiver Brian Funfgeld and tight end Andrew Kinard are both threats in the passing game as well.

“Not everybody has two great corners,” Shay said. “If you have one good corner, you can only take away one guy. That gives us an advantage from the outside-in. You’re going to have to defend the entire field.”

The Blue Waves play a fast-tempo offense, which they hope keeps the opposing defense on its heels. It also leads to plenty of big-play potential.

“We push teams to the limit with our tempo,” Bitzer said. “They get worn out pretty quickly, which enables us to throw some big points on the board.”

In special teams the Blue Waves have senior Devrim Kuckuk as a kicker. A soccer player, Kuckuk will be a two-sport athlete in the fall.

“He’s got a real strong leg,” Shay said. “We haven’t had that in a long time.”

Shay said Kuckuk didn’t realize that the rules allowed him to play both sports.

The Blue Waves open the season Saturday at home against West Babylon. The Blue Waves were 5-0 last year going into their game at West Babylon when the Eagles put an emphatic end to the winning streak with a 41-6 win. Michael Richardson, the do-it-all quarterback/receiver who torched the Blue Waves last year, has graduated. West Babylon does return quarterback Clifton Melhado, who started the season last year before an injury opened the door for Richardson.

“They beat us up pretty well,” Bitzer said. “So we’re looking for a little revenge. It’ll be a good game. West Bab is always a good team.”

joew@timesreview.com