For all of the passing that Ryan Bitzer did, it was his awareness and his legs that ultimately won the day, proving the doubters wrong and giving the Riverhead Blue Waves a major dose of confidence as the high school football season got under way.
The situation the Riverhead quarterback and his teammates faced was desperate. All the good work they had done in the first 46 minutes on Saturday was at stake, as well as the outcome of their season-opening game against the East Islip Redmen at Sal Ciampi Field at Boomer Esiason Stadium in Islip Terrace.
With East Islip leading, 35-32, Bitzer engineered a drive that started at Riverhead’s 35-yard line and reached the East Islip 4, thanks in part to a critical 25-yard pass to Mike Hinchy and back-to-back Redmen penalties. On an earlier play, Bitzer and his coaches noticed a gap in the East Islip defense, and Bitzer was instructed to exploit it if he saw it again. The play call on first-and-goal from the 4 was for a handoff to Charles Bartlett, but Bartlett never got the ball. As Bitzer stepped to the line of scrimmage, he saw an opening, decided to keep the ball himself, and powered forward for a quarterback sneak that took him over the goalline with 1 minute 38 seconds left in the game. A bad snap foiled the extra-point attempt, leaving Riverhead’s lead at 38-35.
“That was actually really scary that last drive,” Hinchy said. “We just had to execute every play flawlessly.”
East Islip quarterback Pete Hanabergh then completed 3 of 4 passes before spiking the ball to stop the clock with 57.0 seconds to go, and the ball on the Riverhead 20. On the next play, though, Jeff Pittman picked off a Hanabergh pass at the 1. The sixth-seeded Blue Waves ran two plays and then celebrated. They had toppled East Islip, the top-seeded team in Suffolk County Division II, and they did it largely through their passing.
“I give our kids credit,” Riverhead Coach Leif Shay said. “I told them I was proud of them, not because we won the game. I was proud of them really just because they refused to quit, and that’s the spirit of Riverhead football.”
With Bitzer’s strong right arm and a cadre of sure-handed receivers, the Blue Waves put on an exceptional passing display. Bitzer’s passing was sharp, precise, surgical. And there was plenty of it.
Bitzer’s numbers spoke for themselves. They were staggering: a career-high 395 passing yards, 27 completions from 38 attempts, four touchdown passes and no interceptions.
“He’s a good fantasy player,” Shay joked with reporters afterward. “I hope somebody picked him up.”
Bitzer called it the best game of his career “by far.” Five receivers were on the other end of those passes, including Hinchy (11 receptions, 161 yards) and Reggie Moore (nine receptions, 137 yards), who had two touchdown catches each.
“There were unbelievable,” Bitzer said. “They were catching everything I threw at them.”
But it really was Bitzer’s day, an impressive one to say the least for the junior and second-year starter. He made it almost look easy at times, as if he was playing catch with his receivers.
“Certainly, it puts him up there with some of the better quarterbacks in the conference,” Shay said. “We always knew he was good. … He’s so calm under pressure, and his poise is his greatest attribute. He doesn’t let things rattle him at all.”
That quality sure came in handy on Saturday.
East Islip, which trailed by 32-14 after Bitzer found Moore for a 30-yard scoring connection (and Pittman’s extra point) 4:28 into the third quarter, excited the home crowd with a near comeback. Hanabergh, who didn’t have a bad game himself, going 16 of 34 for 287 yards, found Kyle Moller, who shook a defender and raced 46 yards for a go-ahead touchdown with 2:36 to go in the game. It was Hanabergh’s second touchdown pass of the game (his first was a 30-yarder to Joe Modica earlier in the quarter). Tyler Rigo ran in a two-point conversion, making it 35-32 East Islip.
Overshadowed by Bitzer’s play were exceptional performances by Hanabergh and Rigo, who ran for three touchdowns and 106 yards. Moller was Hanabergh’s favorite receiver, making five grabs for 122 yards.
It was an offensive explosion, with both teams combining for 42 first downs and 956 yards in total offense.
The game’s first points came courtesy of Bartlett, who found his way around the left side from 10 yards out for a 6-0 Riverhead lead on the game’s opening series.
But six of those first 10 plays by Riverhead were passes. With East Islip holding a size advantage on the line, Riverhead felt compelled to take the aerial route.
“We knew we could throw the ball, but I didn’t really expect this,” said Hinchy, whose two touchdowns helped Riverhead to a 19-7 lead in the first quarter.
Shay said he would have to review the game film before giving Bitzer a grade on his performance, but regardless, it sounded like he is going to keep his young quarterback’s feet on the ground.
“Certainly, there’s no such thing as a perfect game,” Shay said. “We expect big things out of Ryan, but we’re not going to let him think he’s the greatest thing since sliced bread, either. He’s going to continue to work hard and develop.”
That could be a chilling thought for the rest of the division.